Thursday 25 October 2012

Communication and understanding

Lakhovsky: The Convesation; oil on panel (Бесе...
Lakhovsky's The Conversation
I do not permit myself the conceit of imagining that my scribblings enjoy a large readership. But I do know from various communications that I have a few regular readers. Those who honour me thus will be aware that, as a general rule, I tend to hold political journalists and pundits of the mainstream media in somewhat low regard. It is not my intention here to catalogue my complaints against this contemptible clique. I merely note that, as a breed, they have signally failed to win my respect.

Nor am I going to point the finger at any individuals. No names, no pack drill, as the saying goes. Although most of you will, I suspect, have found the name Alan Cochrane popping into your heads, unbidden and unwelcome.

There are exceptions, of course. I am not given to blanket condemnations or facile stereotyping. That would make me no better than those I condemn. Every once in a while one of them will say something that doesn't have me shaking my head in despair at the shallowness, the prejudice or the blatant dishonesty of it. On much rarer occasions there may be found some little gem of insight, perspicacity or elegance of expression such as to turn that head-shake of despair into a slow nod of momentary agreement or even fleeting admiration.

There are exceptions too in that there are a few journalist I generally admire. And it is particularly disappointing when one of these solitary beasts comes out with something that puts them back with the heaving herd. As Iain MacWhirter does in today's Herald (Salmond has lost face defending the indefinable).

At this point I must make an admission. I have not read the entire article. I have not done so because The Herald is one of those newspapers which has decided to put its online content behind a paywall. And I won't pay. Not because I'm tight-fisted - which I assuredly am not. Not because I'm broke - which I most certainly am. I won't pay because I reckon it's up to them to offer a product that makes me want to pay for access. To date, they have not.

Having said all this, I really don't think I'm missing much. The teaser pretty much signals what's in store for anybody prepared to part with a chunk of their hard-earned to access the rest.
It's catching.

The contagion of omnishambles, which has been raging uncontrolled in Westminster these past months, appears to have spread north and infected the Scottish Government. Or perhaps that should be "omniboorach". It was certainly a mess. It is simply not possible to reconcile what the First Minister, Alex Salmond, said to Andrew Neil in the now infamous Sunday Politics interview in March, and what the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said in her statement in the Scottish Parliament this week.
Let the despairing head-shakes commence!

An aside. Hands up everyone who, like me, is suffering from "-gate-fatigue". By which I mean bone-weariness with that practice, bequeathed to us by the era of Nixon and Watergate, of appending the suffix "gate" to an otherwise perfectly serviceable word in order to denote some scandal in a way that easily fits in a 144-point headline. Does it not just make your teeth grind? Now we have this "omni-" nonsense being levered in everywhere. And it sure as hell didn't take forty years for that to become mind-numbingly tiresome. Now even Iain MacWhirter is at it. It's becoming ubiquitous. I can't bring myself to write, "omnipresent". Enough!

But I digress! Back to the little lump of sadness that is MacWhirter's article.

First, there is the headline with it's assertion that Alex Salmond has "lost face" over what the tabloids would doubtless be calling "advice-gate" if they thought they could get away with it. Has he? Did MacWhirter even ask himself that question? It doesn't seem so. Last night I saw Salmond on Scotland Tonight in an interview with Bernard Ponsonby and he certainly didn't strike me as a man who had lost face. He came across as someone who saw this latest puerile smear attempt for the vacuous nonsense that it is. He was completely unfazed by any of it. In fact, he seemed to be quite relishing the discomfiture of his enemies which drives them to such desperate lengths.

He knows full well that this whole sorry business will be all but forgotten by the end of next week after the Sunday papers and TV politics shows have had their bite of the cherry. The smear cannot be maintained because there is no substance to it. It's good enough for the immediate impact of newspaper headlines, but it will not stand up to sustained scrutiny - particularly in the social media.

What MacWhirter and his sorry colleagues fail to recognise is that the only people making a song and dance about this - apart from the coterie of commentators eager to talk it up for the sake of an appearance fee or a few column inches - are those who hate Salmond anyway. And the only people being impressed by that song and dance are those who would in any case have preferred to chew off their own nipples rather than admit that they trusted Alex Salmond. The entire exercise has changed precisely no minds. It has altered absolutely nothing. Stands Scotland where it did? Verily!

If anything, it is those doing the smearing who stand to lose face. Although in the case of leading culprits such as Paul Martin and Jackie Baillie that will not amount to a significant loss. British Labour in Scotland has totally failed to take on board the fact that the electorate has come to utterly detest this kind of petty, puerile politicking. Even among those credulous or prejudiced enough to believe the empty charges being levelled against Salmond there will be many who are sickened by the manner in which he is being hounded.

If the assumption of Salmond having "lost face" is, on more thoughtful examination, found to be unconvincing at best, then what can we say of the shallow and wholly wrong-headed analysis on which MacWhirter bases his assertions about that interview with Andrew Neil back in March. Surely a man of Iain MacWhirter's intelligence and experience must be aware that you cannot sensibly analyse a verbal exchange as if it were a written text. And this is precisely what the British nationalists and their friends in the media have done in order to contrive yet another smear campaign against their principal hate-figure.

Because verbal communication involves so much more than mere words - intonation, facial expression, body language - it is simply not possible to fully understand the content of a verbal exchange simply by looking at a transcript of the words spoken. Proper understanding of a conversation is critically dependent on an appreciation of the whole context of that conversation. Many conversations are totally meaningless stripped of their context. Much of the content may not even be recognisable words. And yet the participants comprehend one another perfectly.

And because we are, as fellow human beings, familiar with all the subtle and complex codes involved in face-to-face spoken communication, we too can understand a conversation by observing those taking part.

To be absolutely scrupulous in our analysis we should really watch the entire interview. Because the entire interview is a single communication episode and it may be that the participants at times reference, in oblique ways, earlier parts of the conversation. In this instance, however, it is sufficient to know only that two different types of "legal advice" were referred to in the conversation and, armed with that knowledge, confine ourselves to looking at the minute or so from 10m 40s on. Below is a transcript of the segment in question and here again is a link to the video.
NEIL: Have you sought advice from your own Scottish law officers in this matter?

SALMOND: We have, yes, in terms of the debate.

NEIL: And what do they say?

SALMOND: You can read that in the documents that we’ve put forward, which argue the position that we’d be successor states.
Salmond's accusers have contrived their "case" on the basis of very selective quoting of this written transcript stripped of its context. Their inane assertion is that we can easily understand what was meant simply by looking at a few words abstracted from a complex verbal exchange. This is plainly idiotic.

Watch the video! What you will see is two people momentarily talking at cross-purposes. Neil switches to talking about unpublished legal advice while Salmond is still talking about documents already in the public domain. But it is what happens next that is interesting, indeed fascinating to students of communication. Watch closely! Both men immediately realise that there has been a miscommunication. And both men move instantly to correct that miscommunication without ever even acknowledging that it has occurred.

This explains why Neil did not pursue the matter of what, if it was what Salmond's accusers claim it to be, would have been a remarkable faux pas by the First Minister as he breached the very ministerial code he had previously been adhering to so strenuously. It is also what makes Neil's subsequent claims about his understanding of what Salmond said so... shall we say, dubious.

Properly regarded, the exchange is an almost wondrous example of the magnificent power of human verbal communication. As a bit of an anorak in such matters, I find myself almost welling-up in awed appreciation of this seemingly miraculous interactive, cooperative process.

Imagine how I feel when people treat such a wonder with the dumb contempt shown by those who, for wholly unworthy political ends, would strip spoken language of all its subtlety and complexity and bring it down to mere words on a scrap of paper. I am disgusted. I am angry. And the more so when this philistinism is the work, not of a hate-fuelled politician or some spin doctor foolishly convinced of their own supreme power to manipulate, but a writer I otherwise respect and admire.

Shame on you, Iain MacWhirter! Shame!
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  1. Hello, regular reader here!

    This whole stooshie has been puffery and hot air about nothing. Everyone knows, and accepts, the convention of the Ministerial Code, but, that doesn't stop politicians and commentators from attempting to make capital with concocted indignation. The manufacturing of political capital only works because there is a large enough group of readers who do not know all the details or who, for whatever reason, do not bother to discover them. I commend you for presenting the facts in a cogent manner for those who do want to discover the truth.

    I do, however, diverge from your view on Iain MacWhirter. He is free to write what he wants in the publications of his choice and everyone else is free to read and or pay for his contributions if they want. Personally, I long since gave up paying for or clicking on any links to the unionist press not because of columnists like MacWhirter but propaganda dressed up as news.

    Of much more concern to me is the nature of reporting by the BBC which is supposed to be impartial but is acting like a colonial mouthpiece and Scotland is, almost, the last outpost.

    None of this media storm will make any difference to Scotland's future relationship with the EU. Legal precedents, political realities and logic dictate that Scotland will be a member of the EU upon independence.

    Furthermore, I suspect that Nicola Sturgeon understood the significance of what she said in Parliament and it is part of an elaborate unionist trap. I hope time will confirm my suspicion.

    1. Apologies for the delay in your comment appearing. For some reason it was dumped in the spam folder.

      I would not dispute that Iain MacWhirter is at liberty to say what he likes. My complaint is that what he has chosen to write on this occasion is not up to the standard I would expect of him/ Not by a long way. He's gone for the easy option. Play along with the consensus. Don't ask awkward questions about what other journalists are saying. It's all a bit of a let-down.

      Not sure whether there was a plan. But the current stooshie has certainly distracted from the Nato policy shift and subsequent resignations. Silver lining?

  2. This reminds me of a couple of years back when Bill O'Reilly on the Fox News channel interviewed Jon Stewart of the Daily Show. The interview was pre-recorded with a usually funny Stewart being pro-Obama and a usually obnoxious O'Reilly of course being anti-Obama. There was a string of questions about Obama which led to debate and argument. When the interview was aired Stewart went ballistic at O'Reilly on the Daily Show accusing Fox of cutting that segment of the interview which made Stewart sound like he was critical of the President, when in fact he was praising him. This led to Stewart demanding the transcript of the interview to be made public. He was successful and got a lot of media interest with it. Since then Fox and Bill O'Reilly's interviewing has been heavily scrutinised by the media and public at large. (the Stewart/O'Reilly ding dong is on YouTube to see). Unfortunately it seems that this utterly filthy and nasty selective techniques are being used on this side of the pond, unfortunately and worringly, we don't seem to have a major media outlet to scrutinise these things. Scottish media today feels like Soviet Russia circa 1980.

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      The point about the gross imbalance in the media is well made. It is something many people have remarked on. But it's difficult to know what can be done about it.

      There is a serious market opportunity awaiting the first paper to go pro-independence. Sales will soar. Maybe tha will tempt one of them. But there would need to be a big staff clear-out as well.

    2. Thanks for the reply ... well, Johnstone Press is currently trading at 9p a share :) I would suspect The Sun will come out as pro-independence, even if its just to stick it to the The Daily Record lol! But something has to happen to try and stem the tide of circulation loss at some point. With the Daily Mirror having a footprint in Scotland when will Trinity Mirror continue to suffer big circulation losses at the DR? I think 2013 will be a watershed in Scottish Media.

    3. doh! Meant to say ... Daily Mirror having a TINY footprint in Scotland ...

    4. I think you may be right about a "watershed". I would have said tipping point. But I think it may be into 2014 before circumstances begin to erode complacency.

      Like British Labour in Scotland, much of the media still clings to the notion that all of this is just a blip, and that things will shortly return to "normal". They simply haven't accepted that Scottish politics has changed for good - in both senses of that term.

  3. Agreed Peter, if an old hack like A Neil or his very competent DP/TW staff and colleagues had sniffed at "a story" regarding the interview with AS, then it would have been run in all its glory all over the BBC when it aired.
    The fact that nothing was heard about it until now, means ANeil is in fact being disingenuous and he is merely jumping on the Unionist bandwagon, in an attempt to discredit A Salmond and at the same time, grabbing a bit of triumphalism for himself.

    1. Short version: Andrew Neil is an oleaginous arse.

  4. I don't think you can rely on any person to always make sense or to align themselves to your way of thinking. Do you think that a commentator working for the rabid Herald will have free reign in what they write? There might not be a direct instruction for a journalist to follow a particular line but instead some self censoring. One has to consider future job prospects if you rely on writing for your income. MacWhirter has some history in this department, remember the irrational hissy fit he had over Salmond and Murdoch. I took that as a proclamation that he was still on side.

    The unionist parties and mainstream media are only to aware of how real the prospect of Scottish independence has become and in consequence are becoming desperate. I can think of no other explanation for the ludicrous nature of some anti-independence stories in the last few months. However, they can't keep this up for the next two years which explains why they wanted the referendum "sooner rather than later". I look forward to the Scottish Government and Yes Campaign slowly shooting the ducks off the wall between now and autumn 2014.