“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here–not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.” – Hunter S. Thompson
(This blog post previously appeared in Common Weal’s weekly newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter here.)
I had a fascinating discussion on the Policy Podcast the other week. I spoke to a couple of our comrades at Melin Drafod, a Welsh pro-indy think tank who recently published a report on the fiscal position of an independent Wales (while they don’t directly reference any of our similar work for an independent Scotland, it’s very interesting to see how the same structural weaknesses in devolution rear their head and how the same international principles and precedents also apply to Wales in similar ways to Scotland). They also organised a strategy seminar at the weekend attended by Robin on behalf of Common Weal and also by many members of the Welsh independence movement such as Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price. It’s a fascinating discussion and I encourage you all to listen to it.
During the discussion a very interesting question was raised that has been burrowing into my head since. I asked a question about the state of the UK’s media and how it plays its role in the unity of the British State. I reflected that from where I am it looks largely like Scotland has its own local media – much of it fragmented, underfunded or taking its orders from elsewhere, but some of it doing at least as best it can to tell us about what’s happening in Scotland – and then there is the UK media that gives a view of and from London. Never mind that we suffer from a limited outlook on and of the rest of the world, what we often lack is a view of the rest of the UK. I’d hazard that unless you have a specific interest in looking for information about it, you probably don’t really know all that much about what’s going on in Northern Ireland, or Wales, or Cornwall or even right across the border in the North of England (unless you live in the South of Scotland and get ITV Border from Cumbria rather than STV). Not unless whatever is happening is “big enough” to affect London in some way…then it gets noticed. I asked if the view from Wales was similar and my guests more or less confirmed it with the caveat that Scottish local news media is probably stronger than in Wales, especially after the sad demise of their iteration of The National newspaper.
Now here’s the question that has been niggling at me. I can see why things would be set up this way. Paymasters for a highly centralised state with a highly centralised economy probably want to know what is happing around them and around them is London. When cuts come, it’s easier to cut away at the periphery (i.e. everywhere else) and so local media erodes away. It’s also possibly true that the UK’s centralising political agenda is reinforcing itself through that media. What used to be a “Precious Union” of voluntarily associating states is being rapidly reframed as a unitary state of “Britain” and a unitary state requires a unitary message over and above any rustic notions of regional distinctiveness. So by broadcasting the same “London-First” message out to the provinces, you can ensure that they all hear the same message, sing the same song and believe in the same vision for the country. This whole state of affairs was hilariously and wonderfully illustrated in James Robertson’s poem “The News Where You Are”.
But is that strategy working? In one sense, keeping England relatively ignorant about Scotland (except insofar as the “national” message that Scotland is heavily subsidised by the UK is starting to stick in the “wrong” places), or Scotland relatively ignorant about Wales or vice versa has its role in dividing us from those who we would otherwise be standing in solidarity with. If we can’t see them, we can’t see our differences, sure, but we also can’t see our common strengths either.
This is something I see done much, much better in countries around – and even across – Europe. Organisations like Arte do a fantastic job of showcasing the best of Europe in a way that really does foster a common sense of “Europeness” because of all of its cultural corners, not in spite of them.
(And if you want a view of Scotland from the continent right now, then I can’t recommend enough their recent documentary on the current bedraggled state of the independence movement and compare it to one by dbate from a couple of years before. The light might be on for Scotland in Europe, but we have to understand what is being illuminated by it)
However the strategy of only broadcasting “the news where we are” might also be reaching its limit. Not only because access to information is generally easier these days (“generally” because access to MISinformation has never been easier and the search engines that act as our primary gatekeeper on the internet are straining under the weight of that misinformation combined with information-free “SEO” techniques and AI-driven confident-but-mindless drivel) but because there might well be another narrative forming in the minds of those who receive that news from where we are not. Namely, that if all of us around the periphery of the UK are seeing only the London-eye view of the “Precious Union” then that becomes our only point of contact with that Union. Then we who, as James Robertson said, can each see who we are end up comparing ourselves to that single point of contact. Of course, none of us really do. And so we start to question why we might want to stay in a union that doesn’t represent us, who we are or who we want to be. Ironically, if the Union celebrated the commonalities of all of us, it might have done more to bring us all together. It might even learn a little about itself and about us in the process and be all the stronger for it.
I’d really like to chew on this idea a bit more. Especially why the centre of the Union appears unable now to do precisely that and instead has resorted simply to trying to deny independence through sheer force of will. If you are involved in media circles and would like to discuss this and other aspects of the media in Britain on the Podcast then please do get in touch. Till then, let’s all try and do a bit more to look out into the world, to find out about our kindred spirits elsewhere and to see the news where we are not.