Referendum Radio Rehearsal

I’ve been seeking alternative voices on the referendum to gauge what’s really happening and not relying solely on sources that will support my own point of view, which is what we all do for reassurance and to keep our focus. But the big  unknown out there is what those who are persuadable are thinking and especially in areas where the population is highest. In board terms that means West Central Scotland where by some estimates nearly 40 per cent of voters associate themselves with Labour. And as we know, Labour’s position is anti independence – officially. We also know many Labour people don’t take that view and others are ready to make the leap if they can be convinced. So what does that take? How do we persuade them to back the transformation of our country? One of the most astute analysts of Labour politics is Steven Purcell. His rapid rise in Glasgow politics caused resentment in Labour and his emergence on the national scene did the same for many Nationalists. When he had a public fall from grace there was much laughing behind hands and, as I described it later, unedifying pleasure. He’s back in business now and sharp as a tack, his loyalty to Scottish Labour strong but unconstrained by a need to appease leadership egos.

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I am part of a group putting together a Referendum Radio station which will provide, among other items, long form interviews with key players in the debate. In the meantime I’ve been practising. I spoke to Steven today and as a taster of what we are planning thought you’d like to hear his views as this is the week of the Labour conference. I will be using professional equipment soon and this meeting was inexpertly recorded by me! So you get the first cut. (This is the blogosphere after all) He has some interesting things to say and I suspect there is more to come as the campaign moves on.

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Don’t laugh at the quality, either of the sound or the interviewing….But  let me know what you think.

Catching Up

Busy weekend and no time to blog…that’s where tweeting comes in. Why should anybody go more than a  day without knowing what I think?

If Headlines is dropped from Radio Scotland, I don’t think it shows bias, just lack of understanding of what the audience wants and lack of respect for the listeners. It has become one of the forums for different views and is a rarity on RS in that allows free flowing discussion at length, something that listeners crave. It also treats the listeners with respect by disparaging the silly scare nonsense that so much of the media pretends to take seriously. It also allows us to laugh which gets away from the mock sincerity of so much current affairs.

But why for example would you drop Headlines but keep the Business programme on a Sunday morning…a minority interest surely in what is surely dress down time at the weekend.  We shouldn’t make the assumption that the BBC knows what it is doing.  It manifestly does not, as with the   Saturday morning changes when they dropped Newsweek in favour of a two hour under resourced GMS. I hear it may be replaced with a debating format in which a Yes goes up against a No which could be a good idea with the right guests and referee but disastrous otherwise. I’m not sure that’s the relaxed Sunday morning thing either.

It won’t be presented by Andrew Marr, a fine journalist like James Naughtie who sought fame in London and found it. The problem here it seems is one of assimilation because after 25 or 30 years absorbing London culture and learning about it, embedding themselves there and bringing up families, they lose some aspect of what makes them Scots.

Is it not the same principe that applies to immigrants to Scotland? They adjust and acclimatise and are no longer the same people who left another country through time. It is a natural process but we make the mistake if assuming London or England is the same country when it is not. But like all diaspora they develop a confused impression of their identity and blame the rest of us for not sharing their view.  Presenters are notoriously egotistical and are allowed to puff up their egos until they become bullies and Big shots. They think they are bigger than the people they interview. Marr blew his Barroso interview and he now knows it. The lack if a follow up to find out what legal process would follow a Yes vote was inexcusable and laughable. Yesterday he was trying to cover that failing up but made a worse mess by giving us the Marr Declaration on the EU and was embarrassed by Salmond. It is the triumph of vanity over talent. And it is noticeable that the London Scots treat Salmnod with contempt, with a different tone from the one applied to Cameron.

Whatever bias there is in Scotland, we get a double dose via the London BBC.

Journalists at Work

I’ve been asked for my views on the Bias in Broadcasting evidence to the Culture Committee earlier in the week and I’ve been putting off a response. The BBC hate me when I do and my correspondents hate me more. I criticise one and defend them to the other. It’s the Endurance of the Long-Distance Blogger.

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From what I saw, the BBC are in full assault mode and totally unapologetic and as a result look unreasonable, defensive and flustered. It has become the default position of an organisation caught out by events and floundering.

To be fair, the BBC has to defend its reputation. It has a duty to do so and to stand up for its staff. It is the way it has gone about it that is wrong, by opening an inquisition on the author, referring the matter upwards to his boss, adopting an aggressive tone, questioning his credentials, nit-picking his report and failing to make sure it was reported in the normal way. At every stage, they made their predictable mistakes, one after the other, displaying a total lack of what an enlightened management would have regarded as a one-day wonder. By blundering into attack mode, placing themselves above another institution, resenting criticism and overreacting they insured we are still talking about the issue today, have had to read about it in the mainstream papers and found themselves hauled before MSPs.

It all underlines what I said about the day in 2011 when Salmond won his majority – the BBC should have seen the signs and prepared. From that moment the game was on and the Corporation was going to be centre stage. McQuarrie took his eye off the ball because 1) he was concentrating on cutting budgets and getting rid of journalists and 2) he spends far too much time in London and has no effective deputy. That is institutional failure.

Two things about the performance struck me. The first is how shifty John Boothman manages to look when asked a challenging question. He quickly shifts into angry mode creating an air of confrontation when a dash of humility or even, heaven help me, wit would be immeasurably more helpful. There is always a sense in which it is a personal attack he is undergoing rather than an inquiry into the organisation he represents, a fundamental flaw in a manager in which the two become interchangeable. It is exactly what I disliked about his dealings with Paul Sinclair in Johann Lamont’s office, seeming to confuse a personal relationship with what is surely a professional role heading BBC news and current affairs. Questions about programme content should be dealt with through the proper channels, not answered personally. His tendency to bridle and build up aggression doesn’t, to me, leave a positive impression of the BBC. I also suspect that he is everything Kenny McQuarrie dislikes as an urbane and cultured man himself. He must be aware of the image his head of news projects.

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There is too a conundrum here. In any other newsroom in the world where their executives were facing a grilling from politicians, the journalists would crowd round the screens and egg their bosses on. ‘Defend us. Tell them we won’t be intimidated. Free speech’ etc. I doubt if a single journalist in the BBC newsroom did that. Instead they would be hoping the MSPs would land a blow or two on the BBC, so discredited and disliked are BBC managers. When McQuarrie praised the impartiality and professionalism of the journalists and the high quality output, you just knew they would be listening and saying: ‘If only…’ They know who cut the budgets and sacked their colleagues and damaged morale and made quality journalism that much harder. In sport it’s called losing the dressing-room.

Incidentally, I heard them say they didn’t have a number for how many complaints had been received about referendum coverage. I don’t believe it. That information is retrievable and if it showed say one per cent complaints, would have bolstered their argument. We’re not hearing the number because it’s too embarrassing to publicise.

The Bias story is a little tragedy for BBC Scotland. When I survey the output, I genuinely find very little to object to. Brian Taylor on GERs for example in his blog this week gave the classic fair BBC analysis. I don’t consume the mainstream obsessively though so inevitably miss a lot. What disappoints me is the failure to take control of this massive story and lead it…to provide exemplary coverage, to bring to the fore their own talented people into frontline roles (James Cook is the exception on the Scottish question time programme, interestingly produced by an independent company which presumably chose him for the job, not the BBC).  The Bias row will be a legacy for the BBC, passed into the history of the campaign, leaving a taint over its reputation and for a huge number of Scots voting Yes, it will be confirmation for them of the Corporation’s failure. But right now the journalists have to get on with the job and put it behind them, as they have had to do over budget cuts since the whole suicidal exercise began. You don’t need John Robertson’s report to know how bad things are in the newsroom – check out the departure lounge. People are choosing to walk, leaving a career and pension and benefits behind in order to breathe freely and start again.  And the air is good.

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I know we’re poor but I had no idea it was this bad. We’re told oil prices are volatile and when they prove to be, erm, volatile, it is proof that we uniquely can’t look after our own budget. No, it must be left in the hands of those with a track record of looking after the national resources…the men and women who invested so wisely in an oil fund which smoothed our way through the financial crisis and who have avoided Britain running up debts of say, £1.3trillion pounds. I’m getting the picture now.

It seems that the concept of investment is one that has passed Alistair Darling by. One reason oil revenues are down is that the companies are using their money investing in new drilling areas and new ways of extracting oil. That is a good thing – not for this year’s revenues but for the future. If the industry wasn’t investing, you know what Darling would be crowing….they’re not investing any more, the North Sea is finished.

In fact it’s only months since Cameron was in Aberdeen as BP announced its massive investment West of Shetland when it was hailed as a major event for the British economy. And he’s been back since to show how Britain plays its role in the sector. The Unionists didn’t moan about investment then. (Alistair knows his master’s voice when he hears it)

There was also a prolonged shutdown of the Brent pipeline which hit production but such details are not required when talking to the Scots. Just as the sheep need not know what chemicals are in the sheep dip, so the gullible locals can be immersed in fabricated distortions about the oil boom being over. If I heard a calculated case calmly dismantling the public finances I might get worried. But what do I get?

Breathless, staring-eyed Darling falling over his words as he exults in running down his own people…the very man who not only oversaw the worst financial meltdown in 80 years but who, along with Brown, devised the very regulatory system that failed the country. I tweeted yesterday – yes, I’m getting the hang of it now – a clichéd line

How sad is it that Unionist Scots jump on news implying their own country is poorer than they thought? ‘We’re crap and proud of it!’ And I think that works because that’s all we hear. Darling is delighted the oil revenues are down. He’s chortling that Scotland’s income is less and the deficit is higher. He loves it. He doesn’t even pretend by manufacturing a sense of concern or disappointment, he just goes for it with relish. He is a man laughing all the way to the bank that his own country is poorer. What do we make of such a character? I always shy away from language like quisling because it has wartime connotations and implies treachery but I repeat, what do we make of a man thrilled to his boots that his fellow Scots are in a worse financial predicament? Shallow? Mean? Myopic? Or is it really an expression of the unpatriotic, the perverse or to call it as it is – anti-Scottish.

I believe a real politician can warn of financial problems and convey those warnings with gravitas and candour while expressing regret but that’s not what we get from the Unionist campaigners. We get sneer and triumphalism and a longer-term message that it serves us right.

With Danny Alexander I have to confess to feeling contempt of my own. I see a nice middle class lad with barely any formative experience of life, who has never been in charge of a company or organization or indeed of people, whose friendship (with Clegg) catapulted him from obscurity to the Treasury – he was originally destined for the Scotland Office backwater as the prize of his friendship – and who now lectures hard-pressed families that it is better for them to pick up benefits to eke out poverty wages and tells legions of men and women who ache for their country to be free to make its own decisions that they are unworthy of doing so. He has no wider vision of Scotland and is tightly focused on a political campaign so he is blinded to what he is conveying to the Scots. What is it in the education system that turns out individuals who can so casually belittle their own people in the interests of their own careers? Again my conclusion is not the most attractive but here it is anyway – they are not believers in Scotland – how could they be – but believers in Britain. Britain first, Scotland second. Britain good, Scotland not too bad. Scotland independent? Do me a favour…

This was rather confirmed for me today by a piece of writing in the Herald by a very nice person whom I like dearly, Catherine Macleod, who is known to both Alistair and Danny. She was adviser to Darling when he was Chancellor and they are both deeply committed Britnats. In this item she expresses amazement at the idea of Scotland functioning independently and says there is no such thing as independence and the whole idea she dismisses as if it’s silly childish affectation that keeps people from focusing on matters of real importance.

It is a breathtaking view of your own country but it is typical. When Darling said a currency union was a good idea he added that we have one now so why go through all the complications of independence to end up where we are today. I shouted at the screen: Because we want to have our nationhood. Scotland is our nation, not Britain and once we’ve got independence we will decide – not London- what currency we use and what other decisions we make. It’s called independence.

And Catherine and Alistair just don’t get it. They literally do not think of Scotland as a nation or a country or an entity that could or should express itself on a world stage. Scotland is a wee place that rightly sits inside Britain where all the good and talented people, like themselves, go south to make money and progress. It is an old story in our history and they are victims of it, held enthrall to the power of London. But it has robbed them of the of the natural means of national expression that brings joy and a sense of freedom to all the other people of the world and leaves them emasculated when confronted by the Yes movement’s love of Scotland and aspiration for her. They both know the Highland and Islands of our country, as does Alexander, but is that it? Do they just love the scenery and are blind to the potential? Doesn’t their Scottishness zing in them and drive them to express it? Don’t they look at other Scots and see people capable and better at running their own affairs? Or is that a daft dream of the little people they left behind.

I think pity is in order.

Stop Press!

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?

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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’.

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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.

The Hamster Wheel

No matter how hard you try and no matter how fast you run, you can never escape. All you want to do is get out and be on your own and be free to make your own decisions but with every step the wheel keeps turning and you get nowhere.

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My other nightmare is the hall of mirrors in which every image is a distortion of reality, every inviting corridor closes and diverts you into another and when you look over your shoulder there is a gigantic face of Jackie Baillie with a beatific smile saying No way out….

What is it about the Union that drives them to work so remorselessly hard to defend it at all costs when it is something so creaky and antiquated that even they have to devise ever complex models to reform it?

If it is worth so much to them that it supersedes every other issue why is it in need of such fundamental reform that it appears, even in their own terms, to be broken? What are they clinging to? We may reach a stage soon – and I think many in England think we’ve already surpassed it – where we have effective independence and about the only thing we don’t have is the flag…the very thing they accuse Nationalists of idolising.

Is it sentiment – some deep-rooted emotional attachment – because if it is then that’s what I feel for Scotland so that would make them Britnats which, I argue, by definition, means they care about Britain before Scotland. If you really did believe fighting poverty is a priority, as Gordon Brown was suggesting yesterday, wouldn’t you seek the best solution rather than contort yourself into painful political yoga positions to accommodate the very system which has created the poverty?

Naively, I thought poverty could be laid mostly at the door of those who have run Britain for 300 years, devised and retained its welfare policies, its monetary policy and taxation system and controlled every lever of power until the last 15 years when even for most of that time it was Unionists who ran Holyrood as well. That was until I saw Jackie Baillie on television and learned poverty was the fault of the SNP. Yes, deprivation only started seven years ago – stop complaining, Easterhouse…you had a job until Salmond came in, Whitfield…there were no low wages until 2007, Torry…You didn’t start dying before age 60 until the Nationalists arrived, men of Calton…remember how Labour created a world of plenty, now left in ruins, you people of Pilton…

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It may be the unerringly smug delivery that frightens me most about Ms Baillie for her demeanor is of one who has been right all along, if only you had been clever enough to realise it. She emits a kind of insane logic in which something manifestly untrue changes shape before your eyes and just might be right after all. If, as The Axe Murderer, your life depended on it, you’d want her as your defence lawyer.

Brown and Ming succeeded in confusing me with detail until I wondered if it they had planned it that way – so that you couldn’t focus on the detail too much but got a generalised view about more powers.

I don’t want more powers. I want out. These guys decided they didn’t want their plans to go before the people because they weren’t interested in the governance of Scotland but in the interests of their parties. This isn’t Project Fear, it’s Project Destroy Salmond. That’s the only reason they’re in this game and if they could convince him to walk away tomorrow, their plans would follow him. Scots who do want more powers have to ask themselves who is really delivering those powers. The answer of course is Salmond. Without him there would be nothing on the table. I watched Brown pacing like a caged bear having mastered a new technique to scare the nervous and after every new idea I said the same thing: …’entrenched powers’ – why now? ’40 per cent of tax’ – why now? ‘partnership of equals’ – why now?

Because they’re in a deadly struggle to save their Union and must wring every ounce out of the system to persuade us to stay on side when all of this could and should have been enacted when he was in power but it didn’t matter enough then. Remember his backroom meddling in Scottish Labour to keep his influence alive? Remember how he couldn’t bring himself to speak to the newly elected Fist Minister for weeks because of his psychotic loathing of Salmond? Brown is seen as a big beast but his personal relations – with Blair, Darling, Salmond, Alexander and the Civil Service – reveal him to be a small man.

His credo is based on control. He is threatened by free minds and new ideas. He is literally history and represents a past Scotland is growing out of. He failed at Westminster and Scotland is his last chance to claim a sliver of success and influence. How complete would his tragic decline be if the Scots voted Yes. I’m fed up running around in circles.

The Future’s Behind You

I shouldn’t…I really shouldn’t…but damn it, I will. I’ll say what I think many are thinking. I’m losing patience with Unionist tinkering with the constitution. Didn’t they throw away their chance to claim they have the answer when they said No to a second question? Wasn’t that the time to step forward with an alternative and put it to the people for a mandate in the referendum?

Where have Ming and Gordon been all this time? (Sorry, I forgot, Gordon has been jetting around the globe business class earning over £900,000 for his “office” but not for himself, oh no, not like the man he stabbed in the back and tried to fire – Alistair – who at least spends the £170,000 a year he earns on top of his MP’s salary and expenses)

How many formulations of powers, responsibilities and services can we take, let alone assimilate? Why has it proved beyond them – those who can so enthusiastically club together against Scotland – to sit down and agree a precise and detailed option they all agree on…Ben Thomson at Reform Scotland managed it within weeks of the SNP winning the election. It is this total failure to come together to be constructive that is the least convincing part of their case. If they can’t do it now, what chance they will agree in the horse market of Westminster with angry English backbenchers demanding Scotland be told to shut up or it loses the Barnet Formula?

The Liberals won’t win the next election so we can pretty much discard their offer. It is highly unlikely either Labour or the Tories will win outright and whatever line-up we have in power they will be confronted by an angry mob who have had enough of the Scottish question and in no mood to back “concessions”. As you can see from the BBC website under today’s New Powers from Brown and Campbell story, the southern punters are already talking about appeasement by which I think they mean enhanced powers.

I will always accept the best Scotland can get if it’s less than independence but in order to persuade Don’t Knows I think they each need a guarantee from their London leaderships on the minimum powers to be in a manifesto and to have a done deal ahead of a General Election with red line issues no matter who forms a government or coalition. That is the question to be put to them. Does the London leader back this in the manifesto and is there agreement between all the Unionist parties (minus UKIP)? After all, they were able to bury every disagreement between themselves on the economy, on poverty, welfare, privatisation and every other divisive issue in order to present a united front against change so why not in support of change? So although I’m always interested in ideas and alternatives but this is a bellow from the elephant’s graveyard. Not so much a call to arms as a retrospective plea for mercy.  I think Scotland has moved on and they haven’t noticed.

Why wasn’t this the thrust of their approach for the last two years, with public meetings, published reports on policy areas, open debates on what kind of devolution in addition to the commissions? Has Johann actually asked her party members what they want? Her MSPs? Her constituents? Don’t be silly. This is Labour where they like nothing better than a darkened corridor and the smack of Stalin. Mind you, I haven’t noticed the party membership making demands either apart from LFI. Are they comatose, intimidated or silently waiting to vote Yes…

And is there something just a bit cringe-making about Johann always sitting behind other people? She’s behind Gordon and behind Alistair and behind Ed (either of them). I thought leaders were supposed to, erm, lead.