How do you report a larger deficit in Scotland’s budget? Easy – you report that the income is down because oil is volatile and get someone from each side of the debate to state their case. In essence, that is it. It is the simple, formulaic process used to inform the public. But does it…inform?
Only if you think reporting a car crash amounts to saying two vehicles hit each other on the road. If you are interested in why that happened and how it could be avoided in future, you are unlikely to learn from most broadcast news where the event itself is classed as ‘news’. Presumably neither driver intended to crash into the other, so why did they? Inexperience, road conditions, weather, speed, mental condition, surrounding scenery, driving on the left, an animal on the road, headlight beams too high, a passenger attacking the driver…the list of possibilities goes on and will take the police weeks to collate. Sometimes it leads to changes in vehicle design or road markings or even, as happened on the *A1 near my former home, a realignment of the road itself.
The trick with much of the news is to simplify mainly because information has to be digestible for a lay audience that doesn’t root around in GERS reports. This is where it gets complicated for the journalist and where the talent comes in – or not. How deeply into it do you go to give perspective before the audience switches off? The way this works is that the approach taken beyond the mechanistic coverage is often dictated by third party news players rather than the journalists. So a correspondent has his or her own store of knowledge and analysis but will almost always look for validation elsewhere from an outside source. Phone calls are made to those close to the action, political types, academics with a known interest, trade unionists perhaps, business sorts and economists. One or two may be contacted on a given story and asked for their view and the correspondent will either have his own judgment vindicated or be put right by another voice. He assimilates this into a coherent script. He is most unlikely to mention on air who he passed his ideas by, which leaves the chosen contact in a position of unseen influence. Most journalists will use contacts with whom they are on good terms – obviously – to perform this role and that often means, because we are only human, someone with whom they often agree. These people are influencers and I’ve used them myself.
Some years ago I started to look at news differently. I had spent a working lifetime relying on conventional sources for help rather than truly challenging what I was told or trying honestly to imagine what the public would want, or needed, to know. This had surprising results. Instead of accepting for example that the SNP was nationalist without hesitation, I asked what does nationalist mean. From there it emerged that the notion of nationalism had changed in Western Europe from the 18th century concept of sovereignty and identity into an expression of collective will. That meant a distinct indigenous political culture favouring perhaps public rather than private services, high taxation, universal benefits and pay limits was an expression of national collective will – a form of nationalism. I have argued before that the German model of family-owned businesses – the Mittelstand – operating in niche sectors, often engineering, and financed from local regional investment banks was a form of nationalism as it is peculiarly German format which is embedded in their way of life and represents a distinctive feature of which all Germans are proud. It helps to define the nation to the rest of the world. It is German nationalism and a million miles from what used to be the equivalent sixty years ago. The idea is not to take anything for granted. My first editor challenged me on why I had got a story wrong and when I said I had assumed what someone meant, he roared at me: ‘never assume anything, Bateman’.
You can apply this kind of back-to-basics mentality to any subject. Instead of reporting with horror cases of child abuse, we asked: If there is so much paedophilia in the world, is it a naturally occurring phenomenon in some humans and does it occur in the animal kingdom? Why are almost all despots ageing men – Mugabe, Amin, Gaddafi – who would rather destroy their country than retire? What is that human impulse?
We take for granted that southern hemisphere countries will be poorer than the north, but why is that so and what is it that allows white South Africans or Australians to create a rich society in the south? Uncomfortable, no?
I apply my naïve question to Scotland’s budget. We are continually told that our budget is a particular sum and that is it. We receive tens of billions in and another set of billions goes out. But my question is: Why do we assume Scotland’s budget will always remain the same? Every claim and counter claim about income and spending and deficit takes for granted that the budget is fixed. What if it’s not? Isn’t the point of independence to do things differently and take control of the levers that allow us to grow our economy…why shouldn’t our global sum rise as we encourage economic activity and cut waste, adjust tax rates and invest in positive areas like childcare? The deficit today is tied to the overall budget but takes no account of what changes can be made to the way to raise revenue and spend. Does anybody believe we will follow exactly the Westminster model? That is just myopic.
Unionists say we’ll have to raise taxes or spend less. Why not create more? Why not generate, expand, promote…All new countries start with a clean slate and a desperate energy to hit the ground running. I encountered that spirit in Romania not long after the revolution when a similar mood of frantic entrepreneurship gripped the country. It happened in the Baltic states too. We will start from a far higher level of economic development and infrastructure than them.
The Iain Grays and the Danny Alexanders are backward looking, unimaginative Can’t-Dos. They don’t have ideas – they are merely managers. They have no idea of the energy and optimism sweeping Scotland that is tired of their dead economics and ready and eager to start anew. I’d like to see some journalists asking what would it take to add one per cent to our economic output – how many more tourists…how much more whisky exports…oil industry expertise…how many life science deals. Let’s see them quantify what it would take to eliminate the deficit and make people see what is possible.
*The A1 was dualled after a woman in a Transit with five or six children killed them by mistaking a single lane for a double and hitting an oncoming car. We had argued for a double lane for years for that reason but the Scottish Office relied on simple reporting of accidents without asking the deeper question why they were happening. It was only after a dreadful tragedy that change occured.