Friday 28 September 2012

Trigger figures

Jackie Baillie - Treating voters like idiots
I had me a little Twitter-spat last night with "Scottish" Labour MSP and Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health, Jackie Baillie. Nothing remarkable in that, I hear you say. And it's true that Ms Baillie is one of the more irksome nonentities populating the seats at Holyrood which should be occupied by the opposition. But I surprised myself by the degree to which I was offended and annoyed by her interventions. In general, I regard politics as a pragmatic business in which emotions have at most a peripheral role. I tend not to get worked up about things, preferring reasoned analysis to emotional reaction. I think with my neurones and not my hormones. So what did Jackie Baillie say to push my buttons?

Looking at the exchange again in the cold light of day I realise that what pushed my buttons was the fact that she tried to push my buttons. What irked me was the way she tossed a figure into the discussion in full anticipation that it would provoke precisely the Pavlovian response that she wanted. It was the way she treated me, and by extension all voters, as if we are all shallow-minded simpletons that she can manipulate with casual ease. Most offensive of all, however, was the laziness of it. Such is her contempt for the people she is supposed to serve that she doesn't even consider it worth the effort to formulate an argument or prepare a defence of her position. She just assumes that nobody will think beyond the "trigger figures" that she throws at us.

In this instance it was one of Baillie's well-rehearsed, but ill-thought, pre-packaged sound-bites about alleged reductions in the number of nurses working in Scotland. A claim which is invariably associated with the phrase "patient care".
The context isn't hugely significant in this instance. What struck me was the way Baillie just took it for granted that (a) people would simply accept the figure and the assertion without question - despite her not entirely enviable record for accuracy and honesty; and (b) none of us mere plebs would have the wits to think beyond her own shallow analysis and ask "awkward questions". To what does this number refer? Is it nurses only? Or does it include others such as midwives? Does it refer to nurses and possibly others across NHS Scotland? Or does it refer only to those in hospitals?

What is the source of the figure? Where is the authority? What is this "reduction" relative to? In what way is patient care impacted? If staff numbers have in fact been reduced, to what extent is this explained by changes to the way services are delivered?

I could go on. But I think you get the point. It seems clear that Jackie Baillie has no more interest in such deeper analysis than she has genuine concern for either the NHS staff involved or the patients whose care she baldly asserts is suffering. It's all just grist the mill of "Scottish" Labour's bitter resentment at the loss of their entitlement at the hands of the SNP (Andrew Anderson Johann Lamont and the politics of resentment).

What Baillie offers is not a political argument or a policy critique informed by concern for the welfare of health service providers and users, but an angry lashing out motivated by bitter, irrational hatred of a political enemy with the arrogant assumption that the general public can be induced to join her in this intellect-free antipathy by the simple chanting of a well-worn mantra provided by her spin-doctors.

But Baillie is far from unique in this insulting assumption that the general public are a bunch of dullards to be herded like sheeple. The reason her trivial nonsense grated to such a surprising extent was the fact that it is representative of a phenomenon that I seem to have been encountering a lot in the British nationalist press lately. A low-grade propagandising that is offensive not most for its being total pish but for the effrontery of assuming that such palpable pish might be persuasive.

Arguably the most notable exponent of this use of "trigger figures" is The Telegraph's Scottish Political Editor, Simon Johnson. Another individual who imagines his own hate-fuelled idiocy to be the norm prompting him to treat his readers as hate-fuelled idiots.

Take this recent piece, for example Alex Salmond spends £370,000 on entertaining. Leaving aside the almost comically clumsy attempt to insinuate that the Scottish Government had tried to keep the information about it's entertaining expenditure secret, the article simply states the amounts spent as if it should be assumed there was something wrong in this. There is no attempt to put the data into any kind of context. No comparable figures for other periods or previous administrations are provided. Us dumb hicks are expected to respond with pre-programmed righteous indignation without ever asking any of those awkward questions that are the essential tools of the enquiring mind.

And just to prove that the foregoing was not merely a momentary lapse on the part of an otherwise competent journalist, Johnson is at his indolent, sub-tabloid inanity again today in a piece under the headline, Scottish civil servants get 'golden goodbyes' worth up to £250,000. Again, it's just trigger figures absent any context or analysis published in the expectation that they will provoke a given reaction among the mindless proles.

In both instances Johnson is aided and abetted in his insultingly simplistic string-pulling exercise by politicians from the unionist parties only too eager to put themselves in the same baw-heid bracket as Jackie Baillie by dutifully supplying an appropriate quote.

I am not an idiot. Unlike Baillie, Johnson and his Britnat quote-whores I don't imagine the people of Scotland to be idiots. I believe we are perfectly capable of dealing with complex issues in an informed and rational debate. I certainly believe we are worthy of being treated as mature, thinking people. I know we deserve better than Baillie and Johnson.
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  1. But are these people just using the new media soundbite culture?
    Is it not the norm in this media driven world to merely store soundbites as an indication of our own knowledge?
    We are bombarded every day with thousands of similar truisms. These political truisms are specifically geared to reach the spot of consciousness in the public. The whole NHS debate can then be summed up by "losing 2500 nurses".
    Most do not really care about how the NHS is governed as long as they themselves do not suffer.
    Labour, Conservative, LD, SNP, private/public etc. the intricacies are lost on many.
    However "losing 2500 nurses" is a currency that most appreciate, a soundbite that is a fantastic piece of info to bring into conversation wherever one is. Easily memorised, the numerical "fact" can floor a woollier, but perhaps more apt conversation, as the numbers "speak for themselves". The numbers can cut through rhetoric and political posturing, like a knife. It, however presupposes that "numbers" ARE "facts"; surely no-one would make up such a precise number, so it MUST be true.
    Quotable numbers, and thus "a fact" gives the conversationalist or political speaker the added bonus that many of their peers or targeted public will think that the proclaimer knows more than he/she actually does. He/She MUST be knowledgeable, they MUST know what they are talking about, as he/she is quoting real FIGURES!

    1. Hence the term "trigger figures". You quite accurately describe the value of these sound-bites to the political orator. Although this value is considerably diminished if the audience is sufficiently aware of the fact that the speaker is using a device which presumes their lack of wits.

      What I was questioning, however, is their value in terms of meaningful public debate - which we're all supposedly in favour of, right? My contention is that such devices do not add to debate but rather subtract from it. Which is not to say that I am foolish enough to expect that politicians and journalists will eschew such rhetorical artifice. My objection is to things like "trigger figures" becoming a substitute for debate. Purple prose and devious arguments add colour to discussion. But on their own they are just grey.

      And there is the question of attitude. What is revealed about Jackie Baillie, for example, by her use of these trigger figure sound-bites? To me, this is evidence of a lack of intellectual rigour as well as the offensive contempt for her audience that I have sought to describe in the article.

  2. Agreed. Sit down thinking is a function that is being eroded, we live in a world that demands speed, short-cuts and usually superficiality.
    The receptive audience has changed too, a lot of political public debate is now reduced to 140 characters on Twitter or a short question and answer session on FB, or watching BBCQT or HIGNFY.

    With the diminishing circulation of newspapers and books as THE means of knowledge, then authors, editors and columnists need to "grab attention", even bloggers and the like need to "grab attention". Their audience is fickle so they need to pepper their content with sound-bites, pics and sensationalist stuff, in order to be memorable. Real discussion is considered BORING... and doesn't sell.

    I can flick through countless articles in a 20 minute session from all around the world, flick being the operative word.
    With a swipe of my finger or mouse I could dismiss the true "meaning of life" in an instant. :)
    I can garner that knowledge I discover or memorise where to find that knowledge in a way that previously was unheard of.
    I am inundated with sound-bites from less than noble enterprises, I am distracted by celebrity, by commerce and by propaganda.
    For a person to get time to think and form deep valid opinions in this fast world and for politicians to communicate profound ideas to a public also reared on speed is becoming more and more of a challenge.

    However, I do feel that the public are very aware of all the ruses that politicians get up to. They are aware as never before of the lies, the spinning, the scamming and the doctoring of the truth. The U-turns are now easily mapped out with a quick Google search, the dodgy dealings are there for all to see.
    Superficial politicians who spend their time spouting rhetoric ad infinitum will need to get their act together as they are far more easily rumbled than in previous times.

    1. When I do that piece on the true meaning of life, I'll be sure to flag it for you. ;¬)

  3. You have summed up Bailey perfectly but not only her, the whole shooting match of unionism. The union was born on fear and lies and has been maintained thus since it's inception, it is spewed out with regular almost evangelical monotony by these people. Just look at the present rammy on Scotlands revenues and the distortions croaked out by the pre programmed mouths of the lies of Darling, Moore, Wilson, and the rest we know so well. I have put up two graphics on my blog which was posted on Twitter that demonstrates the lies we are witnessing.

    The other thing that makes me boil is the likes of Lamont, Mackintosh and Oor Wille who are allowed to punt the lie, and do so at every opportunity, that the Forth Crossing steel has been sourced from the Far East when it could have come from Lanarkshire. When we all know that Thatcher blew up Ravenscraig, along with the rest of our heavy industry, as Labours feeble fifty sat on their hands, no plant in Scotland makes the steel of the type and quantity that the Forth Crossing will require. And indeed none tendered for that reason. But Brewer and the unionists pet MSM just let the lies go unchallenged. If an SNP minister said them it would be all over the MSM instantly.

    As you say it is the lack of intellect, and the assumption that we are all as dense as they are that gets me seeing red.

    Vote yes and get a future for Scotland.

    Vote no and get nothing.

  4. Regrettably Peter, those with sufficient levels of intelligence to deny blind acceptance of such blatant propaganda are in the very small minority. It is an fact statistical distribution that the vast majority of people are within a band of average intelligence plus or minus a standard deviation of take yer pick. You rest within a sub population of less than 5% of the general population who has the capacity to question people like Ms. Bailie.

    Sadly, Ms. Bailie, Ms. Lamont and the rest of their cronies sit within the very same general population distribution to whom they hope to appeal with their shallow, thoughtless, analysis free headlines because they know that the majority will probably believe much of their rubbish, especially when its repeated then sanctioned by the biased print & broadcast media.

    So to overcome this intrinsically biased mantra, we have to take complex arguments and simplify them in a way that appeals to the emotions while sticking to the truth. Only recently has the resurgence in Scottish culture and awareness begun to have an effect on the conciousness of the general population. After all, how else to explain the election landslide by the SNP. Devolution has had the effect, Tony Blair never imagined and I am grateful for that; not to him but the outcome even if it was by accident. I'll take it. Call it luck maybe, I don't care if it lays the path to where I want my country to go down.

    Never show your own emotions to the enemy; it demonstrates to them that they have an affect upon you and gives them the confidence to believe that they will win.

    Chin up, steady as she goes.

  5. Excellent reading Sir. It makes me wonder that some of us must really be 'saft in the heid' though... they're still in their jobs, collecting a wage.