I am back in China for a while, and I have used this as a chance to subscribe to my first ever newspaper…I feel almost grown up now. First, it was getting into the routine of buying a Sunday paper at my local shop regularly once the Sunday Herald came out for Yes on May 3rd, and now a digital subscription for 6 months to a daily (and yes – it gets under the Great FireWall of China very nicely, thank you). Yeah, okay – predictably, it is The National that I am referring to, the new paper produced from the Sunday Herald stable, proudly stating that it is ‘The Newspaper’ [note: singular] ‘That Supports An Independent Scotland’ under its masthead. A clear response to the market opportunity represented by both the 1.6 million ‘Yes’ voters and by the 110% increase in sales that the Sunday Herald witnessed after it declared its support for ‘Yes’, it comes with a short-term aim of resolving the print media’s political deficit in Scotland, and the longer term aim of providing the more balanced voice that was missing from any future referendum campaign, it is to be welcomed, encouraged and criticised to strengthen it.
Naturally, this has led to bitter howls of protest from the unionist side, who (regardless of what the referendum result says, appear to have been thoroughly routed by the campaign itself) bitterly referred to it as ‘McPravda’ for the Scottish National Party, an accusation that does not really seem warranted, given the diversity of voices as columnists within from Women for Independence, Business for Scotland, the Scottish Greens and others (in fact, a somewhat noticeable – and probably deliberate – lack of SNP voices). Unsurprisingly, the uptake during its 5 day trial week was huge (despite it apparently being banned by a number of large supermarket chains – but more on that another time), selling out over 100,000 copies on its second day (it took me until Day 3 before I could grab my first copy, from the local shop). The 5-day trial was an unsurprising success and this has just seen the end of its first full week as a regular fixture. Although unlikely to reach those figures again with regular sales, it has a voice and a refreshing psychology: it considers options leading to independence without instinctively barring its gates and throwing up its hands in horror at the very thought of such a dreadful thing.
This diversity of media voices is a healthy thing (do I really need to say that – apart from to those bitter ‘McPravda’ nuggets?), and it came up recently in the context of moving to China. This gave me an opportunity to catch up with one of those would-be north of England ‘No’ voters that I spoke about before (Having a Say, and Eating It: Or, what I actually DID say before dessert at the dinner with ‘No’ advocates…(with grateful apologies to Peter Arnott)), Derek. This time, his twin brother David was part of the conversation. Far more loquacious, David may have travelled slightly more than Derek, but both have really clocked up the miles over the years, going into Russia regularly since the seventies and China since 1986. So they have certainly been seeing the world, with all its political systems and changes for many decades. As academics, they have engaged with university departments globally (for example facilitating students to leave China so that they could undertake postgraduate study with them), and so know political issues from the perspectives of their hosts as higher education institutions. Which perhaps made what follows a little surprising.
Once again we were out at dinner (bizarrely, David and Derek wanted to have pizza) – which is a really big thing here in China, by the way: university departments lavish hospitality on their guests in a quite astonishing way, with banquets every night, and the host department picks up the tab. One could contrast this with the poverty of those working in the paddy fields and villages, but…anyway, the department representative (i.e. the guy with the cheque book for the evening) was my colleague Peiyun, way at the end of the table on the left. Peiyun has been a good friend to me, and has helped a lot, and I watched him as David brought the conversation round to what was happening in Hong Kong. We talked about the desire of the Hong Kong citizens to select their own slate of political candidates, rather than have them vetted by Beijing, and how incredibly modest this was, compared to the student demonstrations of 1989 in Tiananmen Square, which I had watched live on the BBC, when democratisation of their government was what they were calling for. But the premier then was Deng Xiaoping, a veteran of Mao’s Long March, and as much as he modernised the country by implementing a vast road-building programme, changes to the political culture of the country were not at all on his agenda. I might now say that what happened next is history…except it is not, really, in China itself, where a blanket ban on discussions of ‘the June 6th incident’ has resulted in a large part of the population being entirely ignorant of – and resistant to the idea of – the People’s Army attacking the people. It is an astonishingly successful suppression of a huge event from China’s recent political history, and a chilling reminder of what is possible when (as Orwell noted – allegedly from his time at the BBC) you control the past.
The conversation organically grew, and I started to notice a definite patronising tone in David’s discourse opposite me, as he talked about it being such a shame that there was so much money vested in the top of the Chinese government, which inevitably caused corruption. Peiyun was being calm and politely quiet, and maybe I felt the need to step in on my host’s behalf, as I said with a laugh ‘Just like Westminster’. “What?!!” Someone had evidently passed an electric current through Derek, sitting on my immediate right. David looked at me curiously across the table (it is true, I was wearing the new saltire hoodie that night) and continued onward. As he bemoaned the situation of how the media were reporting Hong Kong protests in China, Peiyun finally stirred.
“But you have protests in your own country, too, which are not reported.”
“So you are saying, it is not our business what happens in Hong Kong, and we should just look after our own issues?” I realised that David had misunderstood what Peiyun was saying when he said ‘not reported’ – he was not talking about it not being reported in China, as David assumed. His point was quite different.
“I think Peiyun is talking about the protests that the BBC refuse to report in Britain itself.” I interjected, and Peiyun asserted that this was correct – he had been noting that China was at least reporting its own protests, which was more than could be said for the BBC in Britain. “What protests?” said Derek disbelievingly. “There was a huge one where 50,000 people went through London over the summer and there was no mention of it” I said – referring to the infamous blanket ban on coverage of the anti-austerity march on Saturday 21st June. The BBC has seemed far happier to follow a government line since the Hutton Report and the resignation of Greg Dyke – one might guess that their enthusiasm to run stories inflating the idea of ‘benefit scroungers’ and not reporting marches against austerity cuts, played well with the narrative that the coalition government are currently trying to sell – but the observation that they selectively blanked such a huge public protest didn’t go down well with the brothers. “But the degree of media manipulation that you get here” wailed David…..”But you forget” I interrupted, “that people in traditional communist bloc countries like China or Russia have such obvious propaganda, that large quantities of the people just ignore them completely”.
“In contrast”, I continued “western democracies are taught to believe that what the media tells them is true, and therefore they are far far easier to manipulate politically.” David started to protest and I continued “and it is utterly naive not to recognize that vulnerability.” I paused, then noted that although China’s ranking in global freedom of journalism statistics was appalling, the UK was one of the worst in Europe. The conversation went silent again, as they eyed me darkly across the table…I had the impression that these razor-sharp fine intellectual minds conceded the points – but still rejected the conclusion completely that there was anything rotten in the British state.
Later, Peiyun and I bid our guests farewell at the hotel, then walked back to the department together, laughing about the evening’s conversation. He thanked me for backing him up: “You know,” he said “I think it is because you have lived for some time in China that you understand a little better the situation of the media.” “No, Peiyun”, I said, a little sadly, “it’s not because I have lived in China – it’s because I live in Scotland.”
The beginning of a daily newsprint voice that might stand against the one-sided wall of unionist opprobrium against independence is an important development, and a welcome advance on the social media that flowered over the past three years of political debate surrounding the Referendum, to fill the gap left by such low mainstream coverage of pro-Yes stories. But it takes a lot more money to support the much-needed alternative broadcast equivalent – and (although Dateline Scotland are working on it) that seems both far more significant, and very much further away.
“I like the Chinese people – they are smarter than us. I asked them what they thought of the Ukraine, and they said ‘we don’t know because we don’t believe the media.’” (Antonio, from Bergamo, Italy, resident in China)