British Media Reverts to Project Fear

Much of the media struggled this week to adjust to the new political landscape, with many of the scribes, editors and chiefs defaulting back to 2014-style reporting. BBC Scotland kicked-off on day one of indyref2 with Good Morning Scotland giving a platform to constitutional expert Alan Trench who explained to listeners that the process of organising a referendum would result in Scotland going the same way as Northern Ireland and descending into civil war.

Over on Peston on ITV. somebody called Kim Leadbetter – apparently the ‘Proud MP for Batley and Spen’ anglo-splained to viewers how for “the SNP to just go straight back to talking about independence is really not fair on the country …”. From Inverness viewers on the remarkable Question Time could watch Tories Fraser Nelson and Craig Hoy alongside Pam Duncan Glancy and Susie McCabe – all to an audience riddled with more plants than the Botanics. 

In print too, old habits die hard. In the pages of the Guardian the idea of a vote was portrayed as a ‘threat’ (‘Sturgeon is unlikely to get her 2023 referendum, but be warned: the threat is not going away‘). Martin Kettle did his best to understand the moment, explaining that “Nationalism thrives in the absence, exacerbated by Brexit, of a shared and capacious sense of what Britain is.” Of course the opposite is true. British nationalism has thrived and driven the Brexit debacle. Scottish nationalism is driven, in part by having a very precise sense of what Britain is.

Then relaxing in the warm balm of liberal centrism he goes on: “Britain needs a movement of more open and conciliatory minds that can steer it between the rocks of Anglocentric unionism and the building of fresh borders across these islands.” Musing on the predicament he explains that this is a problem that “Johnson is totally ill equipped to address, even if he wanted to.” That’s a statement that could be applied to pretty much anything but his solution is funnier still. He explains somberly that:

“The truth, therefore, is that this task, if it is to be tackled, must fall to a new leader. If that leader is Keir Starmer, he will face an enormous economic, social and international agenda and may do so as head of a minority government. It is a daunting prospect. But the greatest challenge that history has reserved for Starmer will be to find a way of recreating the British state. Starmer’s plan to rule out an alliance with the SNP and to oppose a second referendum imply that he gets it.”


If Kettle has an excuse for not knowing what he’s talking about, Chris Deerin has not. Over at The New Statesman (‘Nicola Sturgeon has taken her biggest gamble’) he argues that the Sturgeon plan will be a “disaster” and “smacks of desperation”; it is a “blunt-force wholly lacking in finesse.” For Deerin is confused why the First Minister is “pushing ahead in such an aggressive way”. Readers, this is also known as ‘seeking legal clarity’ and is not, in any possible sense, ‘aggressive’.

Whatever you think about Sturgeon, the SNP or independence it is, almost painfully polite, legalistic and cautious.

But for Deerin – strangely the New Statesman’s Scottish Editor – we are at the ‘Whacky Races’ and the Scottish Government’s roadmap is a “revolutionary act”. This is “grievance max”. Getting up to a froth now Deerin thunders that “Sturgeon has given herself no option but to persuade her countrymen and women that Westminster is unfairly denying them a basic democratic right.”

But that’s precisely what they are doing and its plain to see.

All of this is sad if very predictable. None of the media operatives, senior editors or producers seem capable or motivated to reflect on their output at all. They have just snapped-back to their default position. the problem for them is this is very different now. If, for reasons of ownership, personnel, or political outlook the media (north and south) had a hard-wired Unionist-bias, it did at least want to make the case for the Union, at least sometimes.

But now we have a very different approach that is drawing even the most open-minded Orphaned Centrist into its centrifugal force. The argument is no longer that we are “Better Together”, it is no longer proselyting for “pooling and sharing” or even offering the economic comfort of “broad shoulders”. None of that. It’s not even arguing “Now is not the time.” It’s basically cheerleading the position that there is no time or place for a poll, ever. They are basically celebrating the suppression of democracy in perpetuity. That’s quite a space for supposedly liberal or even left (ish) outlets like the Guardian and the Times and The New Statesman.

As my colleague in these pages Stuart Cosgrove recently noted: ““Such is the grip that Unionism has over Scotland’s public discourse that our best paid journalists are required to argue that a bleak impoverishing and neo-racist Unionism is preferable to change.” It’s sadly true but you have to wonder if there is any threshold to this behaviour? How comfortable are they going to be – and for how long – attending to their duties as defenders of this miserable state, and specifically the idea that democracy should be suppressed?

Despite claims from Kenny Farquharson at The Times that there is “Such a different mood in Yes camp compared to ’14. Angrier. Less curiosity. Less optimism. More tribalism. More anxiety. More finger pointing”, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. Much of the most toxic elements of the Scottish nationalist movement have disappeared and efforts like AIM’s ‘Yes Pledge’ specifically calls for “no to transphobia, homophobia and misogyny” and “zero-tolerance approach” to discrimination and prejudice.”

The pledge reads: “Working ­together with others who have ­subscribed to this pledge, our ­primary focus will be to engage those who are yet to be convinced of the ­positive case for Scottish independence based on those values and endeavour by ­example and illustration to enlist them to our cause.”

Another paragraph of the pledge adds: “Specifically we will, ­individually and collectively, conduct all-out campaign communication and organisational activities in a respectful and tolerant manner, agreeing to differ where necessary but always ­taking a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination and prejudice.”

This is about being self-critical, beginning to address the toxicity of come online discourse and taking responsibility for your own tone and conduct.

There is no equivalent in the unionist media or what passes for the No movement. No self-reflection, no pause for thought, no idea that maybe, just maybe things are different now and churning out the same content from the same handful of gatekeepers is all okay. It’s an invitation though for the editors of these papers and journals, and to the producers and editors of the broadcast media to think again about their output, their balance and their commissioning. Is this really the position they want to defend? As Deerin himself pointed out, the academic Ciaran Martin himself has noted that “if pro-independence parties gaining a majority of seats at Holyrood – as they did in last year’s devolved election – is not a legitimate trigger for a referendum then it is hard to see what the democratic route to one is. The absence of such a pathway, he argues, risks transforming the UK from a union of consent into one held together by force.”

These are intelligent men. They are all men. They are experienced journalists. They have basically descended to a point in which their output has only two purposes: to celebrate SNP failure or to cheer for the permanent repression of a vote in Scotland.




Comments (14)

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  1. Les says:

    Crystal clear now that a vote for any Unionist Party is a ‘No’ vote to independence.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    Simple fact is tgat we start this campaign with the sure and certain knowledge that opponents if indy start prom the negative platform of known liars.
    Bothing they zay can be trusted and that begins witheir project fear and whatever baubles they can think up to seduce the waverers to maintain the union that explouts and enslaves them.
    Riming is everything. Rather than spend the last 9 years improving the union, Westminster has fone out of its way ro weaken its hold on Scotland by lying to us, treating us badly, deriding us and insulting us by suggesting that we Scots alone as a people couldn’t run our own affairs.
    I’m nust sick fed up being insulted.

    1. Jim Taylor says:

      Apologies for the typos.

  3. Robert Allan says:

    An insightful article and I despair that the mainstream media in Scotland does not represent an Independence viewpoint in any shape manner or form ( The National excepted). The good news is that there are 600,000 young people, since the last referendum still to speak.

    Social media plays a bigger part in communication and influence. That channel is progressive and gives me hope, until then don’t buy a paper

  4. Dennis J Webster says:

    We need to call out the lies, promises and Vows more vehemently than 2014.

  5. Tom Ultuous says:

    The Torygraph followed up today with “How Nicola Sturgeon turned Scotland into a failed state”. You wonder how they can keep a straight face given the state of the UK. Yesterday one of the Tory rags had an anti-independence article on MSN that was based on the thoughts of “an Inverness resident” (I don’t even think they were named). I’m keeping score on the anti, neutral and pro independence articles on MSN.

    Independence related articles on MSN since referendum date announced
    Anti-Neutral-Pro = 28-3-2

    I suspect 2 out of 33 articles is the highest pro will ever be.

    Incidentally, the number of English posters on MSN that think we’re all on benefits up here is off the scale. If anyone ever hits you with that point them to this

  6. Jim Taylor says:

    Is the state pensio n considered a benefit?

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      It doesn’t state that’s the case on that site but I’m assuming yes.

    2. Wul says:

      It usually is.

      It allows Tory ministers to reel off vast numbers showing how much public money is spent (wasted) on “benefits”. What they never say is that their pensioner fan-base is the biggest recipient of this “welfare”. ( And that the amount unclaimed every year is greater than that lost to “benefit fraud” )

  7. john burrows says:

    The media landscape of the UK is responding in exactly the same way it has always responded to the force, and popular appeal, of self determination. It puts on the sack cloth and wrings its hand at the injustice and treachery of those who would abandon their mythical “liberal democracy.”

    When Ghandi was asked what he thought of Western Civilization, he suggested it was a good idea. Like him, I like the idea that the UK is a ” liberal democracy,” but sadly, it is anything but.

    Since the referendum vote in 2016, the UK has slid, quite quickly, into the hands of a reactionary and thoroughly corrupt regime of Public School half wits and their criminal hangers on.

    The fact that the primarily English electorate made this choice, clearly indicates to me that a significant portion of that electorate are just not interested in liberal democracy. Indeed, they seem to actively oppose it. Those who pay their mortgages to diss Scotland know this.

    As individuals, human beings all share resentment of authoritarian government. But we accept, as a society, to adhere to the basic principles of law and order and fair dealings between ourselves, within a functional regulatory framework.

    In 2014, the Union could be fairly assessed as functioning within these principles. The referendum in that year reflects the sentiment that the Union could still function, despite the weird fettish about leaving the EU – which no one thought was even a remote possibility. Including Johnson.

    Now, in 2022, we see the ramifications of the vote in 2016 and the path the UK has chosen to take.

    Beginning with farce where the leaders of both Leave and Remain were members of the Tory party, who then proceeded to argue among themselves for more than 3 years afterwards what it was they had voted for, you have to wonder why the British electorate didn’t immediately outlaw the Tory party as a criminally inept menace to the body politic.

    Instead, in late 2019, exhausted by the Brexit theatre, it chose to hand itself over entirely to the most extreme elements of the very party which had unleashed these arguments in the first place. A definitive example of stupidity you would be hard put to argue with.

    And as always, with reactionaries, you get exactly what it says on the tin, the UK going boldly were every man has gone before – into the past. It is a square the supporters of British Unionism cannot circle. The past is our future, is all they have.

    In the misty eyes of the press in the UK, as the only remaining defenders of the concept of the mythical UK liberal democracy, a vote for independence is a direct threat to this belief. Johnson’s ascendancy should have pursued them otherwise. It hasn’t.

    They will therefore retreat to their penultimate response before the inevitable. That the Scots are uniquely unqualified, among all the peoples of the world, to govern themselves.

    Somehow I doubt this argument will work, the second time around. Whenever it happens.

    1. Drew Anderson says:

      “…Somehow I doubt this argument will work, the second time around. Whenever it happens.”

      If the UKSC decides referenda are beyond the competency of the Scottish parliament, then the following UKGE becomes a plebiscite election in Scotland. The Unionist parties position will be interesting, to say the least. Paul Kavanagh at Wee Ginger Dug said this:

      “…Asking the people to give you a mandate to ignore them is certainly a novel proposition in a democratic election, but that is exactly what the anti-independence parties are going to have to do…”

      In a nutshell, they’ll (the Scottish branches of the UK parties) will be asking the electorate to vote to deny themselves their right to self-determination in perpetuity.

  8. Squigglypen says:

    And these ‘journalists ‘ get paid..the old bag o’ siller.
    Excellent discourse as ever but you missed a soundbite…’Sturgeon’s a one trick pony’….

    It’s amusing to listen to the voices of doom. But I suspect our First Minister has got it right with her legal, democratic approach which means the
    dark forces will have to find another way to terrify the Scots…

    Keep your powder dry First Minister and make sure your team don’t get entangled in pinching..whipping…the sort of stuff that goes on in Westmonster….make them behave till October 2023….

  9. Paddy Farrington says:

    The chorus of Unionist (or rather, anti-independence, or perhaps just anti-SNP, as none ever advance an argument for the Union) voices in the media sounds angry, predictable, and terribly tired. As do some of those journalists that once were on the pro-independence side (Kevin McKenna, Iain Macwhirter for example). There are far too many middle-aged, discontented men in this game.

    My hope is that many new voices emerge, from many different quarters (especially those as yet unheard), to engage with the issues, and refresh the debate. Should they do so in sufficient numbers to make the case for self-determination, I think they would carry the day.

  10. Jennifer Houston says:

    Not sure what you mean by “revert”. We’ve had solid Project Fear for two years straight – Covid, MonkeyPox, Nuclear War, Climate Change, Polio outbreaks, economic collapse. Lots of fear. It’s almost like it’s easier to control people when they’re terrified to go out of their doors.

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