Scotland’s political and media landscapes are weirdly juxtaposed these days. On one hand, since the arrival of Yáng Guāng and Tián Tián at Edinburgh Zoo in 2011, it’s become a common, indeed, a tiresome joke that Scotland now has more panda bears than it has Conservative Party Members of Parliament. On the other hand, when it comes to having conservative journalists, Scotland is indeed blessed – or cursed, depending on your point of view. For in Scotland, right-wing newspaper scribes seem to outnumber the midges.
For example, there’s Gerald Warner, whose last Scottish-related musings were sighted on the right-wing website www.capx.co, which “brings you the best thinking on popular capitalism from around the web.” These concerned the Scottish government’s Land Reform Bill, or as Warner puts it in his even-handed, non-partisan way, “another retrograde initiative by doctrinaire Scottish socialists”.
Then there’s Alan Cochrane, the Daily Telegraph’s Scottish editor, who late last year published some scribblings he’d made during the run-up to the referendum on Scottish independence under the title of Alex Salmond: My Part in his Downfall – The Cochrane Diaries. The resulting book attracted breathless, if possibly not 100%-serious reviews on Amazon. (It “shines a light on the dark and twisted mind of one of the most narcissistic individuals in Britain today. Also has a few mentions of Alex Salmond.”)
And let’s not forget Cochrane’s missus and fellow-journalist, Jenny Hjul, who’s contributed to the Telegraph, Herald, Scotsman and Sunday Times. During the referendum campaign, Cochrane and Hjul seemed to see themselves less as journalists and more as a crusading husband-and-wife propaganda team dedicated to keeping Scotland British: a sort of Union Jack-bedecked Hart to Hart.
There’s also the strangely bitter Tom Gallagher, columnist and Professor Emeritus of History at Bradford University, who once wrote a Telegraph item slamming Scotland for its antipathy towards the Conservative Party. It was a “Scottish hate-fest”, he claimed, which could be likened to “the fear and detestation of papists in John Knox’s Scotland which delayed the arrival of the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act by a good number of years.” So that’s you told, Scotland. Not voting Conservative – that’s as evil as hating Roman Catholics.
And there’s Daily Mail journalist Chris Deerin, who recently announced his withdrawal from Twitter. Tweeting “was fun,” he wrote the other day, “until the trolls took over.” These trolls weren’t only horrible Scottish nationalist cybernats, whom Deerin once described as “repellent individuals… who roam the Internet in search of unionists to duff up”. No, he also got abuse from another tribe of trolls, newer but equally ghastly, the Corbynistas – supporters of the left-wing Islington MP Jeremy Corbyn, who looks set to become the Labour Party’s next leader. I’ve been trolled myself occasionally but I don’t feel an iota of sympathy for Deerin. After all, he works for the Daily Mail, a newspaper that’s elevated the trolling of everyone non-white, non-Conservative, non-middle-class and non-English-Home-Counties into an art-form.
Also deserving mention is Andrew Neil, now something of a TV star thanks to shows like The Daily Politics and This Week, who served as editor-in-chief with Scotsman Publications from 1996 to 2005. During this time he managed to transform the once-formidable Scotsman newspaper into the cantankerously-conservative and moribund wee rag it is today. And there’s the Caledonian clique currently running the Spectator magazine: Fraser Nelson, Hugo Rifkind and Alex Massie. Young and unfashionably right-wing, Nelson, Rifkind and Massie were once defended on Twitter against charges of anti-Scottish prejudice by the comedian Brian Limond, who pointed out: “They’re Scots. The ashamed Lulu-voiced kind, but still.” Hugo Rifkind is son of former Tory Secretary of State for Scotland and disgraced former MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind; while Alex Massie’s Dad is Alan Massie, a novelist of some repute and – yes! – another conservative Scottish journalist. Massie Senior writes columns for the likes of the Scotsman and Daily Mail.
I have tried to list these Scottish right-wing journos in order – going from out-and-out dingbats like Gerald Warner, who basically lives on a planet of his own, to ones whom I think show vestiges of civility and rationality, like the two Massies. Mind you, both of the latter have blotted their copy books recently – particularly Massie Senior with a ridiculous (and unpleasant) piece for the Mail on Sunday prior to the last general election, which predicted that the River Thames could run red with blood if the Labour Party and Scottish National Party formed a coalition government. Meanwhile, his sprog, Alex, recently earned my ire not for his political opinions but for his musical ones. He slagged off Nirvana’s seminal 1991 album Nevermind at the site Ruth and Martin’s Album Club, calling it “the sound of bored teenagers trapped in a garage waiting for the rain to stop… They should shut up and do something useful. Like, read a book.” Memo to Massie Junior: It’s possible to like Nirvana and read books. I’m proof.
Anyway, what happens when you have so many people of a certain political outlook scribbling away in the organs of the mainstream media? You get the emergence of narratives. These narratives may not bear any relation to the facts, or to how things look to the ordinary man or woman on the street. But fashioned within the cosy – if these days beleaguered – bubble of Scottish conservativism, they are bounced back and forth, refined and fleshed out as one right-wing hack echoes what another right-wing hack said a few days earlier, in turn echoing what a third right-wing hack said the week before. And as these narratives are served up to the reading public, they’re treated as givens, never to be questioned.
One such narrative that’s surfaced recently that Scotland is now a one-party state. Typical of the hyperbole is a piece Tom Gallagher wrote for another right-wing site, www.thecommentator.com, warning that Scotland was falling prey to a Russian-style ‘creeping tyranny’. The Scottish National Party have a majority in the Scottish Parliament and, according to opinion polls, look likely to clean up at the next Scottish parliamentary elections in 2016. And they hold 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the UK Parliament.
They’re everywhere. They control everything – well, everything apart from the many areas of sovereignty that haven’t been devolved to Edinburgh from London. Any institutions that retain a vestige of independence in Scotland, like the BBC, are subjected to their bullying. At the Edinburgh Book Festival last month, didn’t the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson accuse the SNP of sending 4000 supporters to picket the BBC’s offices in Glasgow because they didn’t like the corporation’s coverage of the referendum campaign?
(c) The Spectator
Small wonder that Alex Salmond has been likened to Benito Mussolini (by Alan Cochrane), Joseph Stalin (by Cochrane again), Robert Mugabe (by the BBC’s Jeremy Paxman), Adolf Hitler (by barking mad right-wing historian David Starkey), Slobodan Milosevic (by former Labour MP and former convict Denis McShane) and Vladimir Putin (by Nick Robinson, who compared the BBC protests to something that’d happen in ‘Putin’s Russia’). And don’t be fooled by the fact that last September Salmond resigned as Scottish First Minister after defeat in the independence referendum and handed the reins of power over to his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon. That was dynastic stuff, which happens in one-party states too. Power passed from the Great Leader, Kim Jong Eck, to the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Nic.
(c) Daily Telegraph
The North Korean parallel is apt since another narrative has emerged – that the SNP is a cult that’s brainwashed the Scottish electorate into voting for it. The SNP is offering a “millenarian, hallucinatory vision… mystical Gnosis… the catechism of shared faith…” wrote Gerald Warner at www.capx.com. The SNP is “bluntly dumb, faith-based and irrational,” wrote Chris Deerin in the Mail. “If Nicola Sturgeon claimed the moon’s made of green cheese,” opined Alex Massie in the Times, “a plurality of Scots would, at the present moment, be inclined to agree with her.” Yip, those Scots who support the SNP are as deluded as the North Korean public who’ve been force-fed all those propaganda stories about the Kims, such as the one where Kim Jong Il managed eleven holes-in-one the first time he ever picked up a club at the Pyongyang Golf Course.
So dreadful are these narratives that it’s a shock to recall that Scotland is actually a democracy. Its turnout at the last general election was 71%, five percent more than that for the UK as a whole. The SNP are in the ascendancy because people, you know, voted for them. Oddly, I don’t remember hearing many complaints about Scotland being a one-party state a few years ago when the place seemed to belong, body and soul, to the Labour Party. At one point, from 1999 until 2007, the Labour Party ruled Scotland from London under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; and it ran the Scottish government in Edinburgh as senior partner in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; and it’d wielded power at council level in places like Glasgow since, it seemed, the dawn of time. The lion’s share of Scotland’s MPs were Labour ones and it was another well-worn joke that in Glasgow you could stick a Labour Party red rosette onto a monkey and it would get elected.
And the Labour Party’s links with the Scottish media were extensive. These ranged from Scotland’s (then) most popular tabloid the Daily Record acting as unofficial in-house journal for the Scottish Labour Party; to a Scottish journalist as respected and influential as the BBC’s Kirsty Wark going on holiday with former Labour First Minister Jack McConnell.
No, nobody seemed bothered by Labour’s long supremacy in Scotland – not even during those periods when the Conservatives ruled in London. The assumption seemed to be that it didn’t matter if the Jocks were dominated by Labour because Labour’s Scottish branch was never going to rock the boat in Westminster, where real power resided.
Also, I find it odd that Scotland is described as a one-party state when not only are Warner, Deerin, the Massies and co. free to criticise the party in government but the overwhelming majority of daily and weekly newspapers there are anti-that-party too. Only the National, the Sunday Herald and – when it suits them – the Scottish Sun will give them the time of day. I have to say that the government of a one-party state must be a bit wimpish when more than 90% of the one-party state’s mainstream media doesn’t actually support it.
Incidentally, a quick reminder to Nick Robinson. For full-on, destructive bullying of the BBC, look no further than 2003’s Hutton Inquiry. This absolved – many would say whitewashed – Tony Blair’s Labour government of responsibility for the death of biological warfare expert / weapons inspector David Kelly following the alleged ‘sexing up’ of the government’s dossier on WMDs possessed by Saddam Hussein. At the same time it castigated the BBC for inaccurate reporting and caused the resignations of BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies and Director General Greg Dyke. Oh, and the demonstration Robinson alluded to at the BBC’s Glasgow headquarters wasn’t organised by the SNP.
Perhaps the unpalatable truth for Scotland’s many right-wing newspaper hacks is that: (1) many voters have decided, after decades of disagreeing with the Tories and being taken for granted by Labour, that they rather like the cut of Nicola Sturgeon’s jib (especially her anti-austerity rhetoric); and (2) they’ve had to put up with so much biased crap from the mainstream media that they’ve decided it’s not to be trusted. That, indeed, the more it tells them that one thing is the case, the more inclined they are to believe that, no, it’s the opposite that’s really the case.