A recent piece on the excellent Lallands Peat Worrier blog contained the following less than flattering assessment of mainstream political journalism,
Understanding the politics of devolution increasingly demands that we understand the law of devolution. Regrettably, most of our key commentators and opinion formers still haven't the nearest, foggiest clue about how the powers and reservations of devolution are delimited. And more frustratingly still, they tend not to stir themselves to find out. Instead, they spend their time discussing political tactics, impressions, aspirations, court politics -- and as a result, allow politicians to peddle guff unchallenged.
On Bella Caledonia, Peter Burnett begins his review of George Gunn's book, In The Province of the Cat with a justifiably scathing attack on an article in The Economist,
These attempts to portray a lawless government north of the border in an article supposedly about the crofting industry in Caithness and Sutherland are not reportage, but are unsubstantiated and un-referenced opinions reliant on undemonstrated assumptions. Nobody is interviewed and the article quotes nobody, cites no external sources and presents no evidence that its author, Jeremy Cliffe, has even been to Scotland.
I, too, have found cause to write of "toxic media" and "the agenda-serving distortion of facts and downright dishonesty that is increasingly commonplace in the British media, and increasingly resented by audiences".
All of which is by way of providing context for something which caught my attention in one of Kenneth Roy's increasingly bilious columns for Scottish Review. Bemoaning the declining fortunes of newspapers in general, and what he inexplicably regards as "quality" Scottish newspapers in particular (The Scotsman!?), Roy remarks,
What surprises me is that this is the case at a time when Scotland is supposedly politically conscious and active as never before.
The entire piece is pretty much one long whine about how awful it is that the public are being derelict in their duty to provide secure and lucrative employment for self-regarding, self-important scribblers by purchasing newspapers in the quantities that once they did. But this one sentence seems to encapsulate both the dumb refusal to accept that journalists themselves bear any responsibility for the decline of the print media, and a telling illustration of the kind of observational and analytical failure that has contributed to that decline as surely as any social, economic and technological factors.
It simply doesn't occur to Kenneth Roy that the new political engagement in Scotland, far from being anomalous in relation to the decline of newspapers, goes a long way to explaining why people are abandoning traditional media in droves. He has found something rather puzzling. But he declines to reflect upon it. He utterly fails to ask the obvious questions about the possibility of some kind of causal link between rising political awareness and diminishing interest in what people such as himself have to say about politics.
It's not as if such a link is at all implausible. It makes perfect sense to suppose that, as political awareness and engagement increases, so does the capacity for more critical consumption of political messages, including those served up by "key commentators and opinion formers". Indeed, one wonders what political engagement might look like if it did not include an ability and readiness to actively scrutinise the perspectives and interpretations offered by political journalists.
And it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that, should more critical consumption of media messages lead to dissatisfaction with the product, then consumers will turn to alternatives. A proposition made all the more credible by the fact that such alternatives have lately become available in the form of what Kenneth Roy rather contemptuously dismisses as "social media", but is in fact a range of online sources of information, opinion and analysis which is growing in size, diversity, sophistication and, crucially, authority.
There is a train of reason here which appears to have totally eluded Kenneth Roy. If I can immediately identify this gaping hole in his analysis, so can others. Having found what he has to offer so badly flawed, why would we not seek something better elsewhere?
As others have noted, this kind of inadequate, inept and often maliciously biased commentary is hardly uncommon. It makes up the larger part of the content of the politics pages of what Roy, however laughably, deems to be "quality" newspapers, as well as other "respected" publications. But it no longer goes uncontested. "Her Majesty's Press" no longer pontificate with impunity. And, all too evidently, they aren't happy about it.
The road to ruin
Of course, failure to identify (or determination to deny?) the role of journalists in plummeting newspaper sales, as described in the first part of this article, is only part of the story. If you omit one highly pertinent question, such as "who?", then you miss other highly relevant questions that arise from the answer to that question - such as "how?" and "why?". Seeking answers to such questions would take far more space than is available. But, with all the usual caveats about the risks inherent in over-simplification, there is no harm in offering a few thoughts on the matter.
It's something of a chicken-and-egg question whether it was budget cuts which precipitated declining standards and falling sales, or some other permutation of these three things. What is reasonably certain, however, is that political editors became increasingly reliant on material fed to them by the political parties to fill the spaces between advertising. That then becomes the norm. Genuine insightful analysis and commentary gradually becomes the increasingly rare exception. Because it is effortful.
In such an environment, political contacts are ever more valuable commodities. Until a point is reached at which these contacts are all but totally dictating the content. No political writer can risk losing the "inside sources" which were once mere accoutrements of their trade, even if very useful.
The need to pander to the machinery of the "major" parties, being common to all political journalists, a cosy consensus develops among them based on what is required to satisfy the beast. Newspapers now have a political agenda which is indistinguishable from that of the British establishment. Dissent or challenge is only possible to the extent that this is within the bounds of the faux rivalries between and among the parties of the British establishment.
This situation might dodge along for a fairly long time. But something happens to disturb the comfortable arrangements between the political press and the Westminster elite. There arises something which is perceived to be a serious threat to the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. Structures in which the mainstream media are inextricably enmeshed.
The Scottish National Party wins an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament and a referendum on Scotland leaving the UK becomes inevitable.
This is seismic! Among many other effects, such as the explicit acknowledgement that the rivalry among the establishment parties was all but entirely a façade, newspapers were put in the position of having to choose sides. Not that this posed much of a dilemma for them. The media, being part of the British establishment, was bound to defend the British state.
At first, this makes little difference as the threat posed by the referendum is not taken too seriously. The line taken by the British establishment - and, therefore, the British media - is a kind of paternalistic, lightly mocking condescension which, nonetheless and not in all cases or at all times, sought to at least pay lip service to the fact that this was a democratic process.
Then we saw the rise of the Yes movement, mass political engagement by people determined to challenge the status quo, and an inexorable narrowing of the polls. Within the British establishment, complacency turned to concern; then to fear; then to panic. The mocking condescension of the early weeks and months devolved into a campaign of increasingly vicious smear, lies, distortion, scaremongering, threats and empty promises. A campaign in which the vast majority of the British media colluded eagerly.
Prompted by the need to defend the old order and the old ways that served them moderately well, newspapers abandoned any pretence of impartiality or balance or reasonableness or even honesty to conduct what history will record as arguably the most savage peace-time propaganda campaign since the darkest days of the Cold War.
The newspapers had given themselves over to be transparent instrument of established power. Political journalists had abandoned professional integrity. The media had given itself licence to behave in all manner of reprehensible ways on the grounds that it was being done in the interests of "the nation". Conduct which would otherwise have been universally condemned as deplorable was held to be justified in defence of the established order. While everything said by the Yes campaign either went unreported or was grotesquely distorted, nothing said by Better Together, the British parties or the UK Government was ever in any meaningful way scrutinised.
It worked! Enough doubt and fear was engendered amount Scotland's voters that, when added to the hard core of ideological (and ultimately violent) British nationalists, led to the tragic No vote.
The British establishment thought that would be an end of things. There would still be the "nuisance" of the SNP to be dealt with and, obviously, the threat from Scotland would have to be neutralised by various means, such as undermining confidence in major institutions seen as symbolic of Scotland's distinctive political culture and using devolution legislation to effectively cripple the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government. But it was anticipated that it would soon be exploitative business as usual.
Some see the election of a Tory government in London as significant. But as far as "dealing with" the situation in Scotland is concerned, it made no difference which of the British parties was in power at Westminster. All shared the same imperative - destroy the SNP, and put the people of Scotland back in their box.
It wasn't going to prove so easy. Events in the wake of what had at first appeared to be a calamitous referendum outcome showed that, far from subsiding, the tide of democratic dissent in Scotland was stronger than ever. Project Fear, rather than being wound down to a background hum of grinding negativity and denigration of all things Scottish, had to be kept spinning at full tilt.
Newspapers had no way out. Having committed to Project Fear, they could not now abandon it. Having chosen the path that they did, they could not now change course without acknowledging their willing collusion in the shameful campaign mounted by the British establishment against the peaceful, lawful, democratic movement to normalise Scotland's constitutional status.
Unable now to retrieve any semblance of the professional integrity which was abandoned in order to defend the ruling elites of the British state, the British media are predictably artful. They move to make their present condition the new benchmark for journalistic professionalism. Hence, we have an episode of journalistic debasement so despicable that even some journalists were moved to condemn it elevated to nomination for a prestigious award.
The submission by The Telegraph for the accolade of a PressGazette British Journalism award of the iniquitous smear against Nicola Sturgeon in which Scottish Political Editor, Simon Johnson, conspired in the most scurrilous manner imaginable with the then Scottish Secretary and now disgraced but tenacious Liberal Democrat MP, Alistair Carmichael, and its acceptance by the panel of judges, marks the point at which the shark is well and truly jumped.
Whether or not the "story" wins, the very fact of being an accepted nominee gives the journalistic profession's stamp of approval to the complete absence of any professional standards involved. The bar has been lowered to accommodate the gutter-crawlers of the British press. On a good day, The Scotsman and even the Daily Record might aspire to this new standard.
The political press has failed the people of Scotland in the most abysmal manner. It is dealing with this ignoble failure by redefining it as noble success. Is it any wonder that, as Keneth Roy acknowledges - while blaming everyone except journalists - the decline of newspapers in Scotland appears to be terminal?
Is it at all surprising, given the depths to which the old media has sunk, that people are turning to alternatives such as blogs and independent online news websites?
Whether this is to the detriment or otherwise of democracy and society is a question for another day. No matter how obvious Kenneth Roy imagines the answer to be.