Scotland is a small place. This has many advantages. There is an intimacy to Scottish public life that can, on occasion, be charming. It is a place where everyone knows everyone else and this helps foster a climate of relaxed informality. Politicians, even more than elsewhere, are known by their first names. So it’s Nicola vs Ruth vs Kezia and this isn’t just because they are all women and all, in their different ways and to different degrees, quietly impressive figures.
But a small place, like a family, can be suffocating too. Intimacy is the other side of cosy. If that reflects itself in tight connections between politicians and those who cover them, it also manifests itself in the pressure politicians place on newspapers and, especially, broadcasters.
It is no secret, I think, that the SNP views the BBC with considerable suspicion. And with some reason, since the corporation undoubtedly subjected the SNP’s independence prospectus to greater scrutiny than it applied to the case made for the Unionist status quo. There was nothing, I think, disreputable about that: the arguments for change deserve more punishing analysis than arguments for maintaining a known reality. Nevertheless, it rankled with the SNP and the wider nationalist movement.
This was, of course, encouraged from the top. It was Alex Salmond who said picketing the BBC was a joyous and civic demonstration of popular, patriotic, fervour. This was certainly one way of putting it (though said demonstrations undoubtedly cost the Yes side votes n 2014).
Still, every journalist working in Scotland knows that writing stories or expressing opinions that dare to criticise the nationalist government guarantees an intemperate response. The fury chimps will pelt you with their own excrement.
Which is fair enough. Readers have every right to express their views. That’s the way the world works these days and there’s more than enough digital green ink to go round. (The Nats, it should be said, are hardly alone in responding like this. The Kippers and the Corbynistas behave in just the same fashion.) For that matter, engaging with readers is actually a good thing.
Still, there is something odd about Scotland too. Perhaps even something unique. I can’t think of anywhere else where self-styled satirists direct their mockery, not at the governing party, but at those who ask awkward questions of that government. The hashtag #SNPbad is used to scoff at any criticism, no matter how warranted it might be.
Which, again, is fine. It is also true that some criticism of the nationalists is exaggerated stuff. Nicola Sturgeon does not lead some kind of Tartan Reich. Nor is the SNP a uniquely wicked entity. Indeed, even by contemporary standards its nationalism is weak toast compared to, say, the nationalist parties thriving in countries such as France, Austria, Hungary, Sweden and Finland. One of the problems with Scotland, perhaps with any small country, is that we become so bound-up in our own tiny world we lose sight of any kind of sensible perspective. What is good is exaggerated beyond reason and what is less good is equally exaggerated too.
Still, there is a hostility towards the media – a hostility bordering on paranoia – which is not altogether healthy. The dreaded Mainstream Media (MSM) are conspiring to do Scotland down. Legitimate scepticism too often curdles into something rancid. Which no doubt is why a small but loud segment of nationalist opinion sees no difference between, say, Russia Today (which spread false claims that the independence referendum was rigged) and the BBC.
Of course politicians have always leant on the press too. Always have and always will. We understand this is part of the game, even if we might also believe politicians occasionally pause to think about the import of their words and actions.
Which brings me to the curious case of Stephen Daisley, Scottish Television’s digital politics editor. Daisley, whom I should say I know and almost like, is a pugnacious and waspish commentator. He’s an admirer of Nicola Sturgeon but also a stern critic of nationalist excess.
Nothing unusual about that, you may think and you would be right. Yet, for the last month or so Daisley’s byline has been oddly absent from the STV website. His Twitter feed has also changed, offering vastly fewer political opinions than it had previously.
So what gives? Well, it turns out that a pair of SNP MPs have complained to STV about Daisley’s writing and that, apparently taking note of this, STV have reportedly chosen to clip his wings. That is, of course, their right. We serve at the pleasure of our employers.
But we also hope, as journalists, our employers will defend us against political interference and pressure. We might even, in our more optimistic moments, hope our employers would view politicians’ criticism as a small badge of honour. And that when those politicians – John Nicolson and Pete Wishart in this instance, it is claimed – complain about journalists they will be told, politely of course, to get stuffed.
Not so at STV, it seems. Nicolson sits on the House of Commons select committee overseeing the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and there is a view, I suspect, within STV that it cannot afford to antagonise influential MPs.
So STV caved or, as it puts it, decided that Daisley’s role needed to ‘evolve’. That is, he shouldn’t write any more. And all because a pair of dimwitted nationalist MPs are unable to differentiate between the expression of private views on Twitter and a journalist’s published work on his employer’s website. Work routinely labelled Comment.
It is true that Daisley, like many of us, has on occasion tweeted some provocative and even asinine things. He enjoys poking the nationalists and pricking their certainty. But so what? Contrary to what Nicolson and Wishart appear to believe, tweeting in a personal capacity does not reflect STV’s ‘corporate’ view (whatever the hell that may be).
Nor is there any need for Daisley to behave or write in an even-handed manner (though as I say, he’s happy to praise the SNP when that’s warranted). He’s not bound by BBC-style rules.
No, this isn’t intrusion or repression on a grand scale and it would be silly to make too much of it. At the same time, it’s hardly a healthy development when you have SNP MPs apparently pressuring broadcasters to silence critical journalists. It seems worth nothing that neither Wishart nor Nicolson have denied they raised their ‘concerns’ about Daisley with STV.
There’s another wrinkle, however. With so many nationalists so scunnered by the BBC – boycotting the corporation (except for Eastenders) and refusing to pay the license fee and so on – there’s a clear commercial opportunity for STV to offer a friendlier face to the SNP. Perhaps – I only say perhaps – that also helps explain this small tempest.
The SNP lost so many elections for so many years that it was forced to develop a certain resilience in the face of such prolonged adversity. At the same time it spent years cultivating friendlier relations with the media. Now they are in power, however, their skin seems to have thinned.
There is a paradox at work: on the one hand many nationalists believe a biased press helped defeat independence; on the other they revel in the perceived irrelevance of the press. The press is simultaneously much too powerful and impotent. Never mind the contradictions, nurse your grievances.
It would be absurd to say dissent is outlawed in contemporary Scotland but, at the same time, it’s equally absurd to think that there’s nothing to see here. That reflects poorly on the MPs concerned but even more poorly upon a supine broadcaster happy to bend the knee to power.
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