2014 Referendum, Cynicism, Democracy, Media Bias, Newsnet Scotland, Opinion, Opinion Polls, Paul Mason, Politics, Professor John Curtice, Reverend Stuart Campbell, Scottish Independence, Voting, Wings Over Scotland
The latest opinion poll from Survation asserts that 48% of the Scottish electorate will vote No in the forthcoming referendum. Take a step back, look at this figure again, and suddenly it’s terrifying. People on the softer regions of the Left sometimes complain about the first-past-the-post electoral system because the minorities who vote for the losing parties never end up being represented in the government. After the 18th, not merely the government of the day but our entire democratic system will probably have a mandate from less than half of the population. And this is assuming that there is a 100% turnout – the worst case scenario involves only a third of adult voters trooping out to endorse whatever system prevails.
Any talk of “winning” in this context is grossly insensitive. The Scottish independence referendum is such a crisis for democracy because everybody loses. Whatever way the current polls are read, neither a new Scottish state nor the Union can emerge from the referendum with plausible democratic legitimacy. Of course, a mess like this is hardly unprecedented in post-colonial countries, even in the First World. Over the last fifty years, Quebec and Northern Ireland have been similarly divided and, after long periods of civic liveliness, both have eventually cobbled together satisfactory states. But the Scottish referendum is very different because it is supposed to offer a solution to today’s mass disenchantment with politics and the plunging turnouts in modern elections (such as the 50.4% turnout in the one which brought Salmond to majority power). Far from reversing this trend, the referendum is only likely to quicken it.
I might appear to be implying that we should all agree to postpone democratic decisions about Scotland’s future indefinitely, or at least until there is a solid enough consensus to make any referendum harmless. Not so: I’m merely pleading that we rejoice a little less in the referendum. It’s taking our democracy rather too lightly.
But what is a democracy to do when the interests of its media, which provides the information needed for the system to function, are by definition at odds with the interests of the democracy itself? It’s in the interests of our democracy to have a measured, careful debate, in which everybody makes painful concessions in order to build a consensus around the new system. It’s in the interests of the media, however, for the referendum to generate as much uncertainty and exhilaration as possible. And to speak of the media as having its own interests is rather like imagining your trousers walking around by themselves: the media travels with us and it goes where we require it to go.
The latest succession of opinion polls which show the gap between Yes and No “closing” and No’s lead “narrowing” are no doubt conducted with scrupulous scientific integrity. But the coverage accentuates the nearness of the polls rather than the distance. And so in last week’s Daily Mail, we saw “Scots Yes vote soaring” until the No side’s lead had “narrowed to just six points.” One gets the strange impression of Britain’s most conservative newspaper cheering on Salmond’s rattling revolutionary banger as it struggles to make it over the great traffic-pacifying bump of the electorate. Come on, you can do it! Just six more points!
Meanwhile, in a recent Reuters article psephology’s equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Professor John Curtice, finally admitted that opinion polls are basically as accurate as weather forecasts (“Some of the polls are definitely wrong because they don’t agree”). He never conceded that there might be a surprise Yes, but Reuters still managed to half-attribute this idea to him. This article also acknowledges the “hefty 14-point gap” between Yes and No (many newspapers don’t care to dwell on this); that “there is scant evidence that financial markets expect a shock”; and that bookies are still putting Yes at 9/2. But to reach these facts you have to get past a headline which demands “Polls say Scotland will spurn independence, but are they right?” and the opening gambit that, “what if, as Scots nationalists believe, the polls are wrong? Experts say it is a possibility.” Curtice has elsewhere predicted that, “interest in and speculation about the outcome of the referendum will remain at fever pitch,” which reflects the same professional detachment as an arms dealer who is maintaining that a civil war is too close to call and that everybody should keep on shooting.
A similar article pops up in today’s Guardian, this time written by the economic commentator Paul Mason. The concession that “It probably won’t happen” sits side by side with an intuition that “I don’t know whether the narrowing of the poll lead for the no campaign was just a blip, but it doesn’t feel like it.” Mason proceeds, with diabolical relish, to administer another turn of the screw. He rhapsodises about a high turnout in which “every percentage point above normal introduces volatility not captured by normal polling,” and the consequent surprise brings “extreme” shock to the British establishment.
You might think that this is hard cheese on pro-independence websites such as Newsnet Scotland and Wings Over Scotland. After all, these poor bastards have erected their great dire tower of victimhood on the premise that the media expresses an innate Unionist bias. Campbell Martin, writing at Newsnet Scotland, charges that, “most mainstream newspapers sold in Scotland will continue to print misrepresentations, downright lies and propaganda in furtherance of the British Unionist cause supported by their non-Scottish owners.” Martin concludes with great bravery that, “The British Unionists no longer control what we read.” Wings Over Scotland is such an enigma because one imagines that the majority of its readers no longer consume “mainstream” newspapers, but they still remain plugged into this website’s obsessive daily scrutiny of them. When interviewed by Michael Greenwell in March 2013, Reverend Stuart Campbell, the founder of Wings, explained that:
…if we shame the mainstream media enough, they will just have to take a more balanced or fairer approach… by continually picking up the mainstream media and letting them know that they can’t just get away with the sort of stuff they’ve been doing, that they will just be forced to do their jobs in a slightly more even-handed way.
Greenwell asked whether the “mainstream” media was deliberately biased or merely accidentally so, in the sense that journalists are prevented by newspaper budget cuts from undertaking thorough research and challenging the assertions handed down in Better Together’s press releases. Campbell replied that the bias was everywhere throughout today’s media, because until very recently Scottish nationalists have been widely viewed as cranks and not employed in prominent journalistic positions. We are left with a dim impression that there needs to be a programme of positive discrimination, perhaps with a certain quota of jobs in the BBC guaranteed for nationalists.
The good-for-nothingness of Campbell’s analysis should be plain to everybody. It is simply not a realistic picture of how media bias works. Crisis sells and it sells because we want a crisis. A lavish, lurid crisis with the country split right down the middle and nobody having a clue which side will win the referendum. And if the polls persistently attest that support for Yes is stuck at around 40% of the overall vote, a sense of urgency can be nonetheless imposed with screaming headlines and the claustrophobia of those poll leads which are “narrowing,” “tightening” and “closing” like hands around the neck of our democracy.
In an industry whose main income, advertising revenues, is being spread ever more thinly, newspapers and websites have to work harder to lure people through their pages. The referendum can be never allowed to become boring: this short-term imperative is the sum of any media bias.