Monday, 24 August 2015

The Scottish media: self-censorship or SNAFU?

A big news story broke last week. I was almost going to add 'here in Scotland', however that wasn't exactly true. A big news story broke last week and was reported by The Times and The Telegraph, UK newspapers with a Scottish presence. I picked it up from the UK 'i', a distillation of The Independent. Here in Scotland the story was broken by The Press and Journal (for north and north-east Scotland), and then reported by the Scottish Daily Record (a left-tending tabloid) and the Scotsman (a 'national' paper published from Edinburgh and with a proud history, but which has almost no reporters left).

This big news story was not, however, reported by The Herald, the only quality paper in Scotland which can claim a national readership. Glasgow-based, it too has been laying off its employees for some years now, and reducing significantly its complement of specialised journalists and editors. Perhaps it just didn't have the staff. I waited four days until this morning to see whether the story might emerge, but no.

Oh, and the story was also not reported on the main BBC 1 news programmes, not even on Reporting Scotland. Perhaps they don't have the staff either. Nor was it reported by Channel 4. They definitely don't have the staff, not with Scottish experience anyway. As for the tabloids such as the Scottish Sun, forget about them.

So what was this news story then, given that you might be among those people who haven't heard about it?

Last week, the European Social Fund (ESF) withheld £45 million from the Scottish Government because of 'accounting irregularities'. Warning signs were apparent in December but little was done about it. The situation has now reached crisis point.

The ESF money is targeted towards organisations which work on improving people's employability: 'Scotland's poorest', as the Record describes them. Some of these 'poorest' are jobless Scots, not just in the post-industrial central belt but in deprived areas of the Highlands and Islands. Others of the 'poorest' are refugees who are trying to gain work-related skills, adapt the skills and qualifications they already have to the Scottish context and acquire the experience they need to support their own families in their new homeland.

The support organisations concerned - non-governmental, voluntary and not-for-profit - have already carried out the work for which this money was intended. In other words, they have already paid salaries, run courses, provided learning resources and interacted with clients, all of which costs money.

How have these organisations managed to survive until now?

With considerable difficulty, which is why some of their staff are in the process of being made redundant and why some of the organisations may go to the wall. Even if the £45 million is unfrozen in a few months time, it will be too late. The charities will have closed down and their clients sunk back into a sea of hopelessness.

It was piquant to say the least, to have to listen to Ms Sturgeon waxing lyrical about the nationalist government's support for welfare claimants and offering an open invitation to all asylum seekers to move to Scotland while the services which support them are being closed down because of Europe's judgement of her government's incompetence.

Who is to blame? According to the Scottish Government, it is 'other public bodies'. Now there's a surprise! Is this another example of those in charge of Scotland refusing to accept responsibility? After all, to whom are these other bodies accountable? Yes, you guessed correctly.

No doubt the politicians will soon start blaming the civil servants, that hapless handful. Lacking experience and with an average age of 14 and three-quarters, most civil servants are the scant survivors of the most recent waves of redundancies and early retirements instigated by their employers, the Scottish Government.

Actually, it is politicians which run government departments. In Westminster and Whitehall, Ministerial heads roll when departments make a 'cock up'. Not so in Holyrood and St Andrews House. Here public posturing seems to take precedence over attention to the nuts and bolts of government. We have leaders who are very good at campaigning but find running a department a bore.

However, it is not the loss of £45 million per se, nor its unfortunate casualties with which this post is concerned. It is the fact that neither The Herald nor the BBC seem to have reported on it. We have heard a lot about the inquiry into the Glasgow bin lorry crash and its implications, we have been informed of recent Edinburgh planning decisions, we have gloried in the excitement and chaos of the Festival and Fringe; however, Scotland's main newspaper and its national broadcaster have not felt the need to let taxpayers and voters know about a major weakness in public sector governance.

Pusillanimity, excessive caution or incompetence? I don't know. I suspect a mixture of all three.

Firstly, it is common knowledge that there is no love lost between the nationalists and the BBC. The SNP hasn't forgiven Nick Robinson for continuing to ask Alex Salmond awkward questions during the referendum. Indeed, a mob of four thousand people marched on BBC headquarters in Glasgow in protest. To my knowledge, no such mob has threatened Jeremy Paxman for carrying out his very similar inquisitorial role south of the border.

Salmond has successfully punted the view that English journalists have no right to challenge Scottish politicians. The word 'metropolitan' is the usual smear used. I cannot think of another part of the globe where that parochial principle applies. In unstatesmanlike fashion, Salmond unbelievably accused the BBC of 'Pravda-like' propaganda, which simply highlights his own lack of knowledge of any society outside Scotland. He added that Robinson, a highly respected journalist, should be “embarrassed and ashamed” of his work.

Since Salmond's bullying of the media, it has been rare indeed for any nationalist politician to be called to account on public television: they are asked to clarify and explain, but can you remember any challenge to an SNP politician in recent months? Who would risk further intimidation? After all, nationalist mobs recently penetrated as far as Orkney in pursuit of Alistair Carmichael.

It might suit the nationalists to dominate public life. However, we are all losers if the media are too cowed to do their job properly. A healthy democracy requires a confident citizenry and civil society which are not afraid to speak their minds.

Secondly, newspaper readers in Scotland do not really have much access to a broad range of opinion beyond The Herald. Other Scottish papers are pretty limited in scope. People like us read both a UK paper and a Scottish paper, but we are probably rarities. Apart from the Daily Record, most Scots have very little access to any but the dominant nationalist narrative. This was underlined recently when the Crown Office used The National to publish a statement on the bin lorry case. This is the first time I can remember a party political newspaper being used by a government department or agency to communicate with its citizens.

The Herald cannot risk drawing down the wrath of the SNP. Financially weak, owned by a private company and answerable to shareholders, it is far more vulnerable than the BBC. It is hardly surprising that The Herald should be cautious. Scotland is likely to have a nationalist government for the next few years. The quality media are understandably wary of alienating it. So, don't ask politicians difficult questions, in case it irritates them. Far better to launch into yet another rousing chorus of God Bless St Nicola.

However, at the end of the day, what we may be observing here is perhaps less the result of a conspiracy to deny the public important information than of simple incompetence: SNAFU (In WWII parlance, Situation Normal, All F****d Up). Just today, it was announced that a further 20 staff at The Herald would be cut, the third round of redundancies this year alone. Perhaps that is why the paper did not report on the government's loss of £45 million and the further weakening of the Third Sector; not only did it not have the staff, their minds were probably on other things. This is a pity given that The Herald is the only reputable and relatively unbiased national news outlet in Scotland.

Thank goodness then for The Press and Journal. Though perhaps it is only safe from government pressure because Aberdeen is just so far away.

No comments:

Post a Comment