Conflation and Personalisation: The Deliberate Blurring of the Leadership of the Yes Campaign

One woman that I spoke to during the mass canvas the other Saturday surprised me when she expressed the hope that the forthcoming debate on the Tuesday on STV would provide more information. Two hours of live television might produce spectacle – but I would have been somewhat surprised if it had produced much information at all.

Fair enough – I may have a slightly different threshold for ‘more information’ than many: by a brief skim through my mailbox, I can see that I have read over 2,000 articles on the Referendum in the last 18 months. To me, the debate was Salmond settling for Cameron’s stooge – possibly a tactical mistake, as it blurred the leadership question in the way that ‘No’ had been trying to do for a while.

On the first hand, the case for Yes rests on Westminster’s mismanagement and different political direction to Scotland’s – and on that basis, the First Minister of the Scottish Government holding the Prime Minister of the Westminster Government to account, and questioning what the case for Scotland staying in the Union was, by asking the leader of that political Union directly, does not seem unreasonable. Cameron has paid lip-service to the idea that it was ‘for the people of Scotland to decide’, at the same time as cabinet ministers were regularly parachuted in for one day missions in Scotland before running away again, and more and more money was sunk into Whitehall producing reports and distributing leaflets to every home. So his intervention and controlling hand has been clear in the campaign, even as much as he avoids direct debate.

But secondly – and perhaps more critically – Alistair Darling, as Chair of the No campaign, should technically only be debating his opposite number in Yes – Dennis Canavan, the Chair of Yes. But No has tried hard to avoid that, as they want to make the Referendum solely about Alex Salmond. This is very much part of the No strategy to (echoed by the media) personalise ‘Independence’ as a solely Salmond (or SNP) issue, to thus try to ignore the wide variety of organisations coming out in support of independence as a way of seeking social justice and a better society for the people in Scotland that cannot be achieved through Westminster. This process deliberately ignores a broader political coalition, and attempts to marginalize the movement as narrow and minority-led. Once Salmond becomes perceived as the face of the Yes campaign (instead of Chief Executive Blair Jenkins or Chair Dennis Canavan), and bodies such as The Common Weal, Business for Scotland, National Collective, Wealthy Nation (and of course the mythical ‘CyberGnats’) can all be ignored or bizarrely (paranoiacally?) portrayed as ‘front organisations’ for the SNP, then Yes becomes a single man to target – which is much easier than the broader target of a nation’s collective aspirations, or a dissatisfaction with the current system of government. Because – as we have all heard at least one person say, as a reason for voting ‘No’ – “Ah hate that Alex Salmond.”

This perceived approach was to a degree confirmed by the academic study of broadcasting bias in referendum coverage on BBC and STV, by the University of the West of Scotland’s Professor John Robertson (MediaLens carries a summary report). A particular strategy that he noted was
‘the conflation of the First Minister’s wishes with the YES campaign seems a classic case of undermining ideas by association with clownish portrayal of leading actors [in the campaign].’
He recalled that this skewing of the coverage was reminiscent of the way that the corporate media demonised previous Labour Party leaders Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot, as well as miners’ leader Arthur Scargill.

In terms of this agenda setting by a media following one side’s narrative, it is perhaps interesting to note Noam Chomsky’s comments relating to ‘Manufacturing Consent’, and the need for citizens to take two specific actions in order to break free of this form of control. Chomsky asserts that in order to break free of Media Control and Agenda Setting, citizens must take 2 actions:
1. They must seek out information from Alternative Media (media outside the mainstream and usually having a particular point of view).
2. They must move toward change by becoming engaged in community action – because people can use their ordinary intelligence to make changes in their lives and communities. Grassroots movements begin there.

When I first came across this a day or two ago (I confess I had never read anything of Noam’s beforehand – noting only his presence as an achievement in some computer games – although I had noted with passing interest that he had come out in support of ‘Yes’), I could not believe how coincident these two actions were with what the Yes campaign has already achieved: the outbreak of citizen journalism, alternative news sites, alternative media broadcasts as part of the campaign external to Yes Scotland certainly fulfils action 1, and the grassroots movement that has taken over from the previous centralised Yes Scotland campaign has wonderfully fulfilled action 2.

The BBC (and to a lesser extent STV) has been shown to be demonstrably biased through academic research, in particular noting the one-sided and classical tactic of personalisation to try and undermine a political movement. Further actions such as ignoring (suppressing?) Yes campaign releases, except through the filter of the No campaign, has created the dissatisfied and restless environment for the rise of ‘citizen journalism’, using online resources and social media, in a way that is truly reminiscent of the Arab Spring (perhaps a ‘Caledonian Spring’, if someone is looking for a title for one of the innumerable books that will inevitably arise in the wake of this Referendum?).

David Hume asserted some 250 years ago that power always rests with the people, but they don’t use it because they are oppressed or manipulated. It remains to be seen whether the people of Scotland have heeded Hume’s warning and fulfilled Chomsky’s prescription for freeing themselves from manipulative media, in time to objectively judge their choice on the 18th September.


“There is a reason there is no genuine grassroots movement for No, and there’s a reason Yes has seen an explosion in people power.” (Hamish Gibson, National Collective)

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