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Showing posts with label Gary Robertson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gary Robertson. Show all posts

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

An English MP from a minority party - George Galloway - debates with Jim Sillars on Newsnight Scotland special

George Galloway puts himself about as energetically as ever. MP for the English constituency of Bradford, and therefore an English MP (a description at which he takes great offence!) and leader of a minority party, Respect, he seems to find his constituency and Westminster duties so undemanding that he finds loads of time to tour Scotland campaigning against independence – not exactly a minister without portfolio but more opportunist with a carpetbag.

On this second of the Newsnicht specials, he and Jim Sillars are interviewed by three of BBC Scotland’s finest – Isabel Fraser, Gary Robertson and Laura Bicker, BBC network news correspondent based in Scotland who will be part of the new team for Scotland 2014, Newsnight’s replacement for the Referendum.

What can one usefully say about Galloway? He is unfailingly entertaining, the more so since he has lost any real relevance he ever had to British politics, and this doubtless explain the “thousands – thousands – who pay to hear me speak!”, as he boasts vaingloriously here.

In this intimate studio session, he fails to adapt his mass meeting style – loud blustering, hectoring – and totally inappropriate to such a setting – and trots out all the old rhetorical tricks, failed mantras and soundbytes in his trademark style of faux internationalist socialism that is as dead as the dodo. (It is now the stock-in-trade of the right-wing Labour Party that replaced the People’s Party around 1951, and achieved its apotheosis under Blair, Brown and Mandelson.)

Galloway is not only wrong, he “is wrong at the top of his voice”.

Jim Sillars retains his calm, and his considerable dignity in the face of Galloway’s Monkland’s Labour-backroom-style interruptions and attempts at point-scoring, and wins hands down in intellectual terms. Sillars’ reputation is secure in Scotland, as is his place in Scotland’s history. Galloway, in contrast, will be a footnote in UK history.

He can, of course, aspire to replace Tony Benn as a national treasure of the Old Left, to be patronised by people he affects to despise, but I think the affection quotient for this politician - who squandered his formidable oratorical talents in my view - will be sadly lacking.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Has the BBC learned nothing? Is it incapable of learning – or determinedly unwilling to learn?

Let me position what I’m about to say -

First, I don’t believe the BBC as an organisation is institutionally biased politically. If it were so biased -

1) the many fine, informative debates, reports and documentaries on Scotland’s independence would never have taken place or been made.

2) 90% of the 887 video clips on my YouTube channel would never have seen the light of day

3) its 60,000 viewers over the last 30 days, its 331,000 viewers over the life of the present channel, dating from January 2012, and all those viewers of clips now taken down dating back to 2008 would be significantly less well-informed. (…and I’m just a tiny part of the YouTube independence debate!)

Second, I don’t believe journalists should lack a political viewpoint, or not have a view on the referendum. I don’t call having a view or a position bias – I call it being politically aware. I do believe they must respect facts and present them objectively, without spin or distortion.

Third, I do not believe BBC television journalists acting as interviewers, anchor persons or chairing discussions should  refrain from hard questioning or interrupting when they deem it necessary. I do believe they must be equally demanding and vigorous with all comers, regardless of the TV journalist’s personal political stance (see my second statement above).

Fourth, I believe a have the right as a voter, a media viewer/listener and print media reader to form a view of where journalists stand personally in the independence debate – or conclude that I don’t know their standpoint – and that making such a judgment and expressing it is not, in itself, a criticism  of their journalistic integrity or professionalism. (see my second statement above).

Fifth, despite the fact that I don’t believe the BBC’s political output as a whole is institutionally biased, I reserve the right to criticise selectively specific examples where I feel that

poor editorial judgement

poor interviewing

poor selection of panellists and commentators or audience

poor control of debate and discussion

has created an unacceptable imbalance, and have given an impression of bias, even if no conscious bias was present or intended.

Sixth, I believe the very nature of the BBC creates an inbuilt tendency to support the social and political status quo, I believe it is subject to heavy influence by the British Establishment and the Government of the day - even though it has challenged both frontally on many occasions, notably in the 1960s - and I believe its most senior managers have displayed serious failings and poor judgment in recent decades.

Having got my position clear, let me proceed to the discussion in question, an item on The Sunday Politics Scotland yesterday (see video clip).

Gary Robertson was joined by Kirsty Scott, freelance journalist and formerly Guardian correspondent, and Magnus Gardham, political editor of the Herald.

Kirsty Scott is a widely experienced journalist and writer. Here’s one rather odd sample (to me) of her journalism, At Care UK homes, 'private sector brings freedom' from which one might be tempted to draw some conclusions about where she might stand on Scotland’s independence – or at least on private health care. (See The Mirror on private health care and Cameron)

But a sample of one is not enough, so here’s 138 Guardian articles.  Since only a minority relate directly to politics, I find it impossible say from them whether she might be a YES, a No, an undecided or a fence sitter. It seems clear from Kirsty’s Guardian output that she is not a political journalist per se, but a general commentator. (She may well have another heavyweight body of political work that I’m unaware of. ) I couldn’t find any YouTube clips, but I have a vague recollection of her commenting on a BBC political programme before.

So I must judge Kirsty on what she said today on Sunday Politics Scotland.

All Magnus Gardham’s work that I have read and all his media appearances lead me to conclude that he does not support Scotland’s independence.  I may of course be mistaken in that view.

One would have hoped that the Sunday Politics Scotland editor chose two journalists whom he believed to be either independent voices, or alternatively reflected YES and No views. Given the choice of Magnus Gardham as one, I would have expected a balance for YES. Was Kirsty Scott such a balance? Let’s see

THE INTERVIEW

The first topic was David Cameron’s big speech and Gary’s question - Was it a big mistake, as claimed by Alex Salmond - was put initially to Kirsty Scott.  She was in no doubt that it wasn’t …

Kirsty Scott:I don’t think so at all – I think he had every right to make the speech, and I thought it was a bit much in Alex Salmond’s article today – he described it as using sport – because it was held at the Olympic Stadium – using sport as a tawdry tent to use it as a political tool. Do we remember Wimbledon, and the unfurling of the Saltire?”

Kirsty clearly remembers her series of Guardian articles on Andy Murray and Wimbledon, and takes the unionist position – and David Cameron’s position – that the First Minister of Scotland unfurling the Scottish flag - in  a stadium festooned with Union Jacks, watching a Scottish tennis star winning an international sporting event – was somehow behaving badly and exploiting a sporting event, and sees it in some way as the equivalent of a Prime Minister commandeering the Olympic stadium and explicitly evoking the “Olympic spirit” to mount an emotional attack on the aspirations of Scots using a democratic legal referendum to vote on their independence.

No one on the YES side of the argument would have used such an example, and many Scots on the No side were delighted to see their country’s flag displayed in recognition of the achievement of a Scot.

Looks as if you do have a position on independence, Kirsty, but let’s hear the rest of your views …

 Kirsty Scott:I think there was no way that David Cameron could have presented that would have suited Alex Salmond – but I think he had a right – he’s the Prime Minister of the UK: he’d the right to make the speech and he was appealing to the rest of the UK as much as he was appealing to Scots.”

Dave will be proud of you, Kirsty. In another reading of your line - not one you intended - “he was appealing to the rest of the UK as much as he was appealing to Scots” – currently he appeals to Scots not at all and to rUK less and less by the day! Now to Magnus …

Gary Robertson:Was it an error for him to deliver it in London, as opposed to coming to Scotland?”

Magnus Gardham:Well – I mean – the admirers of the Prime Minister, erm, admired the speech, they thought it was a very, very good speech. The problem of course is that the Prime Minister has very few admirers in Scotland. I think the general idea of England love-bombing Scotland isn’t a bad one, and for a campaign that’s accused of being negative, it is a very positive flip side to that. Is the Prime Minister in London the best to be delivering it – well, possibly not, but it will be interesting to see how it develops, and if that message – if we start hearing that sort of message from place like Sheffield and Newcastle, and Leeds – and places…  So I think the strategy is probably a good one.”

Dave’s spin doctors and Better Together couldn’t have phrased it better, Magnus. I would describe your reply as delicately supportive, with a complete absence of a “flip side”.

Gary tries to devil’s advocate  and get past the solid support for Cameron, but he does it very gently. After all, he’s dealing with fellow professionals, journalists committed to objectivity and rigorous examination of the breadth of the debate, not partisan politicians who would advance polarised views – isn’t he?

 Gary Robertson:  “ .. and it’s interesting to see it from the other perspective, because writing in the Observer, Andrew Rawnsley talks about how ‘fear-mongering”as he calls it ‘isn’t enough’ – ‘David Cameron is betting the Scots want to be told they’re loved’.”

(My note – Andrew Rawnsley is a journalist, and manages, all on his own, to examine both sides of the argument and many views!) Gary moves on …

Gary Robertson:Is there now a realisation, or perhaps a belief that things are too negative from the Better Together side?

You could have just leaned over and stroked them gently, Gary. That sounded more like a feed line than a question to me, and in any case was redundant, since Magnus has just said exactly that -“for a campaign that’s accused of being negative, it is a very positive flip side” and doesn’t really need help to say it again. But Kirsty picks it up  …

Kirsty Scott:Possibly, but I think, you know, what’s interesting – you were talking earlier about the poll, in terms of what’s important to voters – obviously the economy came further up, but what was quite low down was relationship with the rest of the UK, which I think was quite surprising.  I thought that was  - and that was obviously something that David Cameron was banking on – that we actually felt stronger than that. I think he would be concerned about that. But then I think the message he gave was very positive – it was ‘We don’t want you to go, and we feel you add something to the UK …”

We do indeed add something to the UK, Kirsty – most of our oil revenues, more taxes than we get back, a dumping ground for WMDs, the lives and limbs of our servicemen and women in ill-advised or illegal wars, a northern playground, a retreat for the Royal Family where they can play at being Scots, some excellent grouse moors, colourful locals with comic accents, etc. But now I know you better, Kirsty, I wouldn’t expect you or Magnus - or even Gary - to bring such tangible, hard-edged matters up when there’s a warm bath of sentiment and nostalgia to soak in …

Kirsty Scott: “… but I think Magnus is absolutely right, you know – and I think Mr. Cameron and his advisers understand that – they’re on a bit of a hiding to nothing in terms of how he’s viewed in Scotland – I think he could have made the speech in Stornoway and he would have got the same brickbats. There’s no way he could win. But certainly maybe we do need something – to see something a lot more positive coming from the No campaign.”

Mr. Cameron and his advisers – when they get time out from trying to wind up Whitehall, academia, Russia and Putin, Spain and Spanish newspapers, oil magnates and business leaders to attack independence for Scotland – probably do think that, Kirsty.  And of course he could spend more time getting the people of the south of England out from under the flood waters that are devastating their lives, instead of priming Eric Pickles to blame the Environment Agency.

Gary moves on to a much bigger question …

Gary Robertson:Of course, one of the big questions is Will there be more devolution for Scotland if the result is a No vote? There’s a piece in Scotland on Sunday today asking where now for the Labour Party particularly. It seems that splits are developing, Magnus Gardham – and there’s talk of a previous commitment to tax raising powers to be reined back on, come the special conference in Perth.”

Before we come to Magnus Gardham’s reply, let me remind you of my analysis and views, repeated ad nauseam over recent months, weeks and days, that neither media nor commentators seem to understand the heart of this vital issue, nor indeed do some of the politicians. If you hope for recognition of that, or illumination of the issue from Gardham, Scott or Robertson, you are going to be disappointed yet again …

Magnus Gardham:It’s - yeah, I mean, it’s a big issue for Labour – there are sort of genuine and – you know – principle differences – difference of opinion on this.”

Was it a struggle to get that out, Magnus?

Magnus Gardham:Em – I think it is going to be very, very – eh - difficult for them to – to manage this. And - and to really get themselves into a place where they’re going to be able to say convincingly to voters that –eh - further devolution will be on offer- eh – in the event of a No vote.”

Gary Robertson:Is Johann Lamont the woman to bring the Labour Party together? It seems there are divisions, not just amongst MSPs but involving MPs too.”

Kirsty Scott:The Labour Party - yeah, absolutely. I – well I think she has to be. I think to change it now, you know, would be a bit of a disaster for them. I think Magnus is right, we do need to see some sort of   -a greater sense of cohesion and purpose from the No campaign – and we haven’t seen that. A lot of the criticism of the YES campaign is we don’t have clarity on issues – that now people are saying, well persuade us. If we vote No, what will it look like? You know, why should we? And I think we haven’t seen that yet. So yes, there would …”

Magnus Gardham:It’s interesting that you’ve got the LibDems at the moment making a concerted effort to try and get themselves and Labour, and the Conservatives on the same page – and Labour aren’t even on their own same page with this. It highlight how difficult it’s going to be …”

Already we’re in the same muddy water and blurred thinking that I’ve complained of all along on this question – both Scott and Gardham refer to Labour, LibDems and Conservatives without making it clear that they’re talking about the Scottish party organisations, not the Westminster parties to whom they are subservient, and who show every sign of being hostile to more powers for Scotland – for the very good reason that it would be electoral suicide to promote such a course in their election campaigns for the 2015 General election, given the widespread hostility in their own parties, in the Lords, in many institutions of state and among the electorate to giving Scotland any more, least of all after the Scots rejected the chance of being independent in a referendum.

As always on this point, it is difficult to determine whether journalists and commentators have failed to understand the issue, or whether they are sedulously avoiding it. Since I lean to the cock-up explanation in life and politics rather than conspiracies, I am forced to the conclusion that these professional journalists don’t understand this most fundamental of referendum issues.

Gary Robertson:And clearly this plays into a narrative we’ve had from Alex Salmond – he will be trying his best to exploit that - If you vote No, you don’t get any change at all.

By this point in the discussion, a distinct impression has built that this was not a discussion among three objective journalists examining two key aspects of the great debate now gripping Scotland (and gradually permeating into the wider rUK consciousness) but instead a discussion among three supporters of David Cameron, his love-bombing, devo something-or-other, and of the Scottish unionist parties trying to cobble together a united front to persuade the Scottish electorate that they won’t be monumentally screwed by UK and the Westminster parties after a No vote.

Now I’m sure this must be a mistaken impression, and not one Scott, Gardham and Robertson would want to give – they have their professional reputations to consider – and certainly not one that BBC Scotland would want to give at this time on their flagship weekend politics programme, having just axed their midweek flagship, Newsnight Scotland. 

More care with language would have dispelled such a false idea, especially from the interviewer, e.g.  “.. plays into a narrative we’ve had from Alex Salmond – he will be trying his best to exploit that” etc. in describing the First Minister and the Scottish Government’s view of the consequences of a No vote, a valid alternative viewpoint which is supported by a mass of statement from senior figures in the Commons, the Lords, and other non-governmental rUK bodies.

Let’s see how they continue …

Magnus Gardham:Yes, as we know, surveys suggest that, eh, a beefed-up Holyrood would be the most popular outcome – more popular than the status quo, more popular than independence, you know – it’s kind of – there is evidence that people, eh – that people support that – yeah.”

“A beefed-up Holyrood” This is how Magnus describes his best understanding of the will of the Scottish people at a profoundly significant moment in Scotland’s history, when perhaps 47% or more of Scots committed to voting are gripped by a vision of complete independence, of a new, vibrant Scotland, free to determine its own destiny.  But Magnus sees a completely different shining vision, “more popular than independence, you know – it’s kind of – there is evidence that people, eh – that people support that – yeah.”

Gary Robertson:You mentioned that survey earlier, Kirsty – of course this is the BBC Scotland poll, indicating that Scots believe the economy’s the issue that will matter most when it comes to the referendum vote. Perhaps not a great surprise, because we’ve known for quite a long time that people feel this way – it reinforces it.

Kirsty Scott:It does reinforce it – in some ways I think it’s been a good lesson for us all, because we’ve been talking about – em – the currency and possible sterling monetary union and people said – actually, that’s not really what matters to the person in the street. Well, it is – they’ve now said Yes it is, we need to sort this out, we need to know exactly what’s going to happen on this.”

 Gary Robertson:And then we’ve had this figure – this £500 figure – for some time with some social attitudes surveys saying that £500 better of or worse off – it might sway a lot of the undecided voters.”

 Magnus Gardham:Well, I mean- I’m not surprised that the economy’s emerged as the key issue. I’m a little bit surprised actually – when you get into the specifics and, you know, looking at the currency, which clearly is very closely linked to the economy and issues like the EU – they’re a bit lower down ..”

Gary Robertson:Pensions, certain welfare formats ..”

 Magnus Gardham: “If you look at where the political rows have been, and where, you know, the stories that have dominated in the newspapers – we’ve been obsessing about, you know, currency union and EU membership and things like this – and they’re not absolutely at the top of people’s priorities.”

Gary Robertson:Yeah, absolutely – a lesson there for the media – but also for the politicians as well, in terms of what they talk about in the seven months as we go forward.”

Kirsty Scott:Yeah, absolutely – I think, you know, we’ve kind of forgotten that polls like these are so helpful – cause we tend to pick up  - particularly in the media – pick up on issues which we think are important, but we understand what people really want to hear about – yeah and I think possibly next week we’ll see a kind of swing on what we’re talking about.”

Gary Robertson:Are there difficulties – very briefly – on the economy? For either side?”

Magnus Gardham: “Well, I think it’s – I think it’s clearly a sign that the First Minister needs to, eh, needs to do more to get, eh, to sort of explain how he will grow the economy in an independent Scotland.”

 Gary Robertson:Thank you very much.”

SUMMARY

Some may think I’ve taken a large sledgehammer to crack a very small nut here. Having written over three and a half thousand words (almost twice the daily output of a professional writer and about four times the output of a weekly political columnist) to comment on a 6m 38sec video clip, they may be right. Why did I do it?

Well, because I thought this little discussion, which shed little light on anything useful, contained within its structure and assumptions much that is wrong with BBC Scotland’s political output. (I also believe that there’s much that’s right about the rest of its output, including the wider contribution of Gary Robertson, whom I respect and admire for his work on radio and television.)

In my view the format was wrong, the selection of journalists for the discussion was quite evidently going to produce a one-sided discussion, and there was a failure to get to the essence of vital issues, not to mention a failure to understand them: the discussion was narrow and failed totally to air other views.

May I again, almost despairingly, offer the following questions to the BBC, to be asked in any future discussion of more powers and more devolution?

In the highly unlikely event of the three Scottish unionist parties ever reaching a core consensus on more powers after a No vote on September 18th -

1) How do they intend to persuade the Prime Minister of an already fragmenting Tory/LibDem Coalition (which may not hold until 2015), the Leader of the Labour Opposition , and whichever politician is currently at the head of UKIP to agree to incorporate their recommendations in their 2015 manifestos to the UK electorate, given that there is highly vocal opposition to more powers for Scotland among senior figures in all of them?

2) How do they intend to persuade them to make a definitive promises to do this to the Scottish electorate during the remaining months of the referendum campaign?

3) How do they think such a commitment would be received by an English electorate already groaning under austerity, assuming their homes are not under water because of a complete failure of their government to manage their flood defences?

4) How do they intend to persuade the MPs, the peers and the institutions who have expressed their adamant opposition to more powers for Scotland?

5) And finally, how do they explain to the large group - at one point a majority – within the Scottish electorate and the institutions comprising Civic Scotland - why they denied them a second question in the referendum that would have recognised their wish for  such powers, if not for the obvious reason that UK and Westminster has no intention whatsoever of granting them?

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Johann Lamont and Gary Robertson interview – Sunday Politics Scotland

LETTERS 30th Oct 2013 "TV interviewers must do better" John Kelly

I took issue with John Kelly on a number of observations and facts, and sent a letter to the Herald setting out my core point. It wasn’t published, probably because the Letters page was full of much more topical and vital material on subsequent days, so I have no complaints about the Herald’s priorities and editorial decision.

However, I thought my more extended analysis of the Lamont/Robertson interview might be worth setting out here.

 

Reading John Kelly's letter I wondered if he watched the same Sunday Politics Scotland broadcast as I did.  The anchorman was not Andrew Kerr, as stated by Mr. Kelly, but Gary Robertson, a highly experienced television and radio journalist and expert political interviewer. In just over eight and a half minutes, while allowing Johann Lamont every opportunity to answer questions and make her case, he managed to reveal the gaping holes and contradictions in her position on welfare and benefits, and a misleading an inaccurate campaign leaflet distributed in the Dunfermline by-election by Labour.

It is not the purpose of daily newspapers to hold our elected representatives to account - that is the job of the electorate and, where appropriate, the law. The role of newspapers and the media in general is to tell the truth to power by informing the electorate of the facts that politicians often do not wish the public to know. One of the most powerful tools for doing that is the televised political interview.

A television interviewer’s job is not to act as a a chat show host, allowing his or her celebrity guest to use the 'interview' as a platform for their unchallenged views or as a party political broadcast - the interviewer's role is to explore with penetrating questions the contradictions inherent in all political policy and to elicit answers to questions that the politicians do not want answered, or at least make it starkly evident that the politician is either unable or unwilling to give such answers.

Reading John Kelly's letter I wondered if he watched the same broadcast I did. The anchorman was not Andrew Kerr but Gary Robertson, a highly experienced television and radio journalist and expert political interviewer.

Robertson, on the Grangemouth crisis, asked: "Had you been in Alex Salmond's position, would you have been compromised by being a member of Unite?"and also Lamont’s position on the central role of Stephen Deans in the dispute and police involvement over emails.

She denied seeing the emails, and tried to move away from the issue, denying that the shambles in Falkirk was over the manipulation of candidate selection. It patently was.

Robertson's question on the Dunfermline by-election victory margin and its significance produced an extended reply, with only one minor query from Robertson, and the observation that by-elections rarely change anything, adding that an IpsosMori poll showed 57% electorate support for the Scottish government, and that they seemed to be doing well. Lamont said it "didn't feel like that" to her. Robertson put all his questions briefly, courteously and concisely and Lamont was given every opportunity to respond, which she did at length.

Robertson went on by saying that Labour had said what it was against - independence and the bedroom tax ("eventually") - but what was it for, what was it pro? He interjected - as any competent interviewer would - to try penetrate vague generalities that came in response, asking "What are the issues you are for, then?" Lamont simply persisted with a recitation of problems - all without offering a single policy or what Labour would do about them.

Robertson then moved to the contradictions inherent in the election leaflet put out in Dunfermline, and Lamont's own position on welfare, the welfare budget and her Cuts Commission, contradictions between Labour’s and their key policy adviser Professor Midwinter's views on welfare, council tax, and his position that it was an inefficient use of public funds.

In just over eight and a half minutes - while allowing Johann Lamont every opportunity to answer questions fully and make her case - he managed to reveal the absence of any coherent Labour policy, and gaping holes and contradictions in her position on welfare and benefits.

Gary Robertson did his job superbly well – perhaps that is what really bothered Mr. Kelly.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Vince Cable, Fergus Ewing and Good Morning Scotland

Good Morning Scotland and Gary Robertson are usually fair but hard-hitting over the independence debate. But this interview fell short, and the failure I suspect was in editorial decision. At every stage this morning at various times, GMS delivered airtime to Vince Cable's claims virtually unchallenged but attacked the SNP rebuttal in a simplistic and inappropriate manner

When Cable was interviewed he was allowed to make his claims without being asked to justify them in any way. In marked contrast, Fergus Ewing – in marked contrast - was repeatedly asked for the exact cost of regulation in an independent Scotland, with Gary Robertson using the interview technique of the 'broken record', repeated question. Now this approach is valid if the interviewee is evading an answer, but consider the timescale and dynamics of this situation -

1. Regulation at every level in UK has failed spectacularly since the millennium - in banking, in the Press, police regulation, child abuse, NHS Trusts, Parliamentary expenses, etc. Major regulatory bodies have either been replaced completely or their heads forced to resign. This was virtually ignored.

2. Vince Cable is a Government Minister with all the current facts and costs of regulation, and a full knowledge of its failure. He was asked about none of these things.

3. Fergus Ewing is a Minister in a devolved government, over 14 months away from a referendum and the commencement of an 18 month complex negotiation on every aspect of government and the break-up of the UK. Scotland will achieve its independence in March of 2016, more than two and a half years from now on the conclusion of these negotiations. The SNP then has to prepare a manifesto for government and fight an election, together with all the other Scottish parties.

To ask Fergus Ewing to predict the exact cost of regulation under these circumstance is asinine and beggars belief, and Good Morning Scotland, Gary Robertson and the BBC should know better.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Alex Salmond on NATO and nuclear submarines – Radio Scotland 18th Oct. 2012

Gary Robertson: On the issue of NATO, which your party is discussing at your conference, is a change in policy crucial to reassure Scotland when it comes to voting in the referendum?

Alex Salmond: No, I think a change of policy is the right thing, because all parties should change their policies to equip them for the modern, and the long-term consistency in SNP policies has been our opposition to nuclear weapons. I mean – the SNP in my lifetime has been pro-NATO, we’ve been anti-NATO, we’ve been in favour, as we are now, of Partnership for Peace, which is a NATO organisation. So that’s been an emphasis in the policy, but the underlying consistency is our opposition to nuclear weapons and the best way to remove Trident from Scotland.

Gary Robertson: So would an independent Scotland allow nuclear-armed vessels from allied countries to enter Scottish waters or ports?

Alex Salmond: Well, an independent Scotland would not have possession of, or allow nuclear weapons on Scottish territory …

Gary Robertson: So you’re saying no to to NATO members with nuclear armed vessels ..

Alex Salmond: As you well know ..

Gary Robertson: .. to enter Scottish waters?

Alex Salmond: As you well know - that – the presence of nuclear weapons on a vessel is never confirmed by any power. There’s many examples of this, but 26 out of the 29 countries in NATO are non-nuclear countries. It’s perfectly feasible for Scotland to be one of these, but still engage in collective defence with our friends and allies.

Gary Robertson: But it is a nuclear – broadly, it’s a nuclear umbrella as it were – so it’s all very well saying on one hand you’ll get rid of Trident – but you are suggesting here that, if nuclear weapons arrive on Scottish shores from NATO members, they would be welcome.

Alex Salmond: I didn’t say that, Gary, as you’re well aware. I’m just pointing out that no country ever confirms the presence of nuclear weapons on its ships. But what you’re trying to tell me is that the policy, for example, pursued by the Canadian Government is somehow inconsistent, or the policy pursued by 26 out of the 29 NATO countries is inconsistent. I mean, I can’t wish away nuclear weapons of the United States of America: what I can do is remove the nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction from Scotland called Trident – and I can do that if Scotland votes for independence in two years time. and we can devote the enormous resources that are wasted on these nuclear weapons just now to things like employment for young people and further investment in Scotland’s colleges.

Gary Robertson: But when we go back to Kosovo – when you called that an act of unpardonable folly, you also talked about it being “an act of dubious legality”.  Why would you want to be part of an alliance that acts in a dubious legal way?

Alex Salmond: Because we are under no requirement to follow any provision of international policy which is not sanctioned by the United Nations. If you look at my attack on the Kosovo policy, it was specifically because it wasn’t sanctioned by the United Nations – and if I can take you to a more recent example ..

Gary Robertson: But Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty says an attack on a member is seen as an attack on all NATO members, so you could well find yourself being involved in conflicts that you don’t agree with

Alex Salmond: An attack on a member state – it’s a  - it’s a collective security alliance. Kosovo was not an attack on a member state – and I if was going to point out to you a much more recent example, of course … If you remember back to the famous debate between two nuclear – two NATO countries, that is France and America over the illegal war in Iraq, with the American Government along with Tony Blair and the UK Labour Government and Conservative parties arguing to get into that illegal war – and the French Government and other NATO countries arguing against that illegal war ..  Membership of NATO doesn’t commit you to taking part in international engagement which are not sanctioned by the United Nations and of course, the motion before the party conference explicitly makes it clear that we’d only be in NATO on condition that we were a non-nuclear country, like the vast majority of members, and that we had the right to follow United Nations precepts on international engagements. That doesn’t tie our hands at all in engaging in collective security with our friends and allies.

COMMENT

The essence of this vital short exchange is in the following questions, posed by Gary Robertson, and the First Minister’s responses. I won’t say answers, because he didn’t answer them. But in failing to answer directly, his responses, despite the evasion, gave a vital and, for me decisive insight into just what is in the SNP leadership’s mind.

EXCHANGE ONE

Gary Robertson: So would an independent Scotland allow nuclear-armed vessels from allied countries to enter Scottish waters or ports?

Alex Salmond: Well, an independent Scotland would not have possession of, or allow nuclear weapons on Scottish territory …

Gary Robertson: So you’re saying no to to NATO members with nuclear armed vessels ..

Alex Salmond: As you well know ..

Gary Robertson: .. to enter Scottish waters?

Alex Salmond: As you well know - that – the presence of nuclear weapons on a vessel is never confirmed by any power. There’s many examples of this, but 26 out of the 29 countries in NATO are non-nuclear countries. It’s perfectly feasible for Scotland to be one of these, but still engage in collective defence with our friends and allies.

Gary Robertson: But it is a nuclear – broadly, it’s a nuclear umbrella as it were – so it’s all very well saying on one hand you’ll get rid of Trident – but you are suggesting here that, if nuclear weapons arrive on Scottish shores from NATO members, they would be welcome.

Alex Salmond: I didn’t say that, Gary, as you’re well aware. I’m just pointing out that no country ever confirms the presence of nuclear weapons on its ships.

No, you didn’t say that, First Minister – you didn’t say very much at all …

The question is avoided completely in its initial. straightforward, crystal clear formulation , by a simple repetition of SNP nuclear policy by the FM. When Robertson persists. the FM retreats behind the eyes closed, don’t know, don’t want to know position, followed by yet another repetition of the mantra of what the non-nuclear NATO member countries do.

But in not answering, the First Minister has answered, by default.

An independent Scotland in NATO will offer, without question, safe havens to any nuclear submarine of any NATO nation without insisting on an inspection – perfectly feasible – to determine whether they are carrying nuclear weapons.

In other words, we will become a passive, notionally non-nuclear dock for nuclear armed vessels of a nuclear alliance committed to first strike, NATO.

SECOND EXCHANGE

Gary Robertson: But when we go back to Kosovo – when you called that an act of unpardonable folly, you also talked about it being “an act of dubious legality”. Why would you want to be part of an alliance that acts in a dubious legal way?

Alex Salmond: Because we are under no requirement to follow any provision of international policy which is not sanctioned by the United Nations. If you look at my attack on the Kosovo policy, it was specifically because it wasn’t sanctioned by the United Nations – and if I can take you to a more recent example ..

Gary Robertson: But Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty says an attack on a member is seen as an attack on all NATO members, so you could well find yourself being involved in conflicts that you don’t agree with

Alex Salmond: An attack on a member state – it’s a - it’s a collective security alliance. Kosovo was not an attack on a member state – and I if was going to point out to you a much more recent example, of course … If you remember back to the famous debate between two nuclear – two NATO countries, that is France and America over the illegal war in Iraq, with the American Government along with Tony Blair and the UK Labour Government and Conservative parties arguing to get into that illegal war – and the French Government and other NATO countries arguing against that illegal war .. Membership of NATO doesn’t commit you to taking part in international engagement which are not sanctioned by the United Nations and of course, the motion before the party conference explicitly makes it clear that we’d only be in NATO on condition that we were a non-nuclear country, like the vast majority of members, and that we had the right to follow United Nations precepts on international engagements. That doesn’t tie our hands at all in engaging in collective security with our friends and allies.

The First Minister’s response to Gary Robertson’s simple question - Why would you want to be part of an alliance that acts in a dubious legal way? – is distorted to make it sound as if he said that the Kosovo was an attack on a member state, thus allowing the FM to mount a defence based on his strawman. Robertson did not say that. If I may offer my understanding of his question, it was -

The Kosovo attack was an illegal, unilateral attack on another nation by NATO. Why would anyone, least of all Alex Salmond who had rightly condemned that attack, want to be part of an alliance that had so recently been capable of such a crime?

What follows in the FM’s closing statement offers a fairy tale world, in which moral, non-nuclear Scotland is partners with this international nuclear gangster, NATO, permitting it to come and go as it please with it WMD-armed submarines in Scottish waters, using non-nuclear Scotland as a key base to launch attacks at any time that would carry unimaginable destructive power to the four corners of our planet, but somehow escapes any responsibility for what it does because the Scottish Government prefers not to ask what the subs are carrying, and can draw its skirts back in mock horror, disassociating itself from anything morally dubious.

This is the morality of someone who rents his property to a whoremonger, but claims no knowledge of what is done on his premises.

Has your pragmatism and flexibility come to this Blairite position, First Minister? Do you expect the Scottish electorate to endorse such a contemptible course of action on their way to – independence?

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Budget – and sterile interview exchanges on the Scottish media

I watched Newsnight Scotland last night, with John Swinney facing Gordon Brewer, and listened to Radio Scotland this morning, with the Finance Minister and Gary Robertson.

In both instances I was struck by how stereotyped and unproductive media interviewing techniques have become – a sterile, entirely predictable exchange, certainly not a dialogue, that is rarely illuminating and contributes little to the process of holding politicians to account and informing the nation.

Much of it originates with Jeremy Paxman’s alleged statement that he approaches a politician in interview with the mindset “Why is this bastard lying to me”? Perhaps he never said it, but he behaves as if he believes it. The rictus expression of scepticism is fixed on the face, and the body language signals suspicion, the politician braces himself and the ritual dance begins. (Gordon Brewer can slip into this mode, something to regret, because I believe he can be very effective on other occasions.)

Occasionally it works – usually with either a pompous, self-important politician or an inexperienced one. In the latter category, a recent example is the hapless Danny Alexander, only just emerging from his rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights phase.

The sterile model that is now almost universally adopted is this -

The interviewer comes with a targeted set of factual admissions that he wants to get from the politician, admissions usually structured around the most simplistic attack points of the political opposition, instead of what the electorate might want to know, and has a right to know.

The politicians comes expecting this, in the full knowledge of what points will be raised, and with the determination to avoid them. Neither party expects a dialogue or a real exchange of views – the inter-view, which literally means a sharing of views between people, gets totally lost in the process.

The interviewer asks virtually only closed questions, aggressively demanding yes/no answers, and is terrified of asking open questions, which can lead to real dialogue. The closed questions are of the “Have you stopped stealing apples– answer Yes or No!” type. If the politician answers yes, he used to steal apples but has now given up the practice – if he answers no, he is still at it. The model adopted is therefore that of adversarial questioning of a witness in a criminal trial. Its manifest weakness is that a prosecutor in court adopts the principle of never ask a question  that you don’t already know the answer to – he is seeking confirmation of something he already knows, and wants the witness to incriminate himself. The political interviewer is supposed to be seeking the truth – to illuminate, not convict

The witness, of course, if he is guilty, will attempt to avoid the question or “take the 5th” by refusing to answer on the grounds that he might incriminate himself. In a court of law, the judge may demand that he answer. In a political interview, there is no judge to compel an answer.

If the witness is innocent, he may wish to be truthful, but in the knowledge that responding to closed questions may falsely incriminate him, becomes either confused or defensive.

The politician is untroubled by either of these concerns – he comes expecting to be attacked by the interviewer with the simplistic arguments of his political opponents. He blocks by resolutely rejecting all closed questions, responding to them by either ignoring them completely and answering the question he wished he had been asked, rather than the one he was asked, or by simply re-stating his version of events. He does this by always opening his response with the words “What I am saying is …” and if challenged on not responding to the closed question, says “I am trying to answer you in my own way …” or “I am coming to that …” – but never does.

The interviewer, under constraints of time, repeats simple – and often simplistic questions – at machine gun speed – the interviewee goes into long re-statements of policy, secure in the knowledge that he has all the time in the world but the interviewer and the programme schedulers do not.

The interview becomes a point-scoring, adversarial contest, and rarely shed any light on anything of value.

Some years ago when I was with Scottish Brewers, my boss, Tony Belfield, the MD, sent me and my board colleagues off to be trained in media technique at Glasgow University – the personnel director (me), the sales director, the finance director, the operations director and the commercial director. (The marketing director fell out of the pack – I can’t remember why.)

Our tutor was the formidable Fiona Ross, STV’s chief political reporter, the daughter of the former Scottish Labour Party Chief and one-time Scottish Secretary, Willie Ross. Fiona has politics and media in her blood, and is a consummate professional. (She was awarded the OBE in 2005.) The interviews were videoed in two contexts – a studio interview, with a full studio set-up of lights, camera and camera crew and make-up, and a more intimate session, in a simulated office environment.

These simulations in themselves were invaluable, because most interviewees have no idea from their experience of viewing television interviews what the intimidating reality is like, because of the framing of shots for transmission. For men, being subjected to the attentions of a make-up artist for the studio interview is bad enough in itself: the office interview was conducted in the late afternoon, when the manager was more than a little rumpled, and sporting a five-o-clock shadow, looking like Richard Nixon in his notorious TV duel with Kennedy.

Fiona was a wonderful tutor, and in her critique of the interview performances on playback she didn’t mince her words – she described one interviewee as “coming across like a suburban undertaker”. (Other descriptions were even less flattering!)

Fiona conducted the interviews herself, in her own inimitable and effective style. She never bullied, never tried to intimidate. She had considerable gravitas, and radiated authority and competence – fully briefed and totally professional. Perhaps most importantly of all, you knew she really wanted to hear what you had to say. Fiona understood the nature of questions types and their framing, and the tactical responses open to the interviewee to evade the key questions. She used a rapier, not a bludgeon, and if she skewered you, you died happy in the knowledge that you had lost to a master of the art.

Our current crop of Scottish journalists could learn a great deal from her technique, but they probably won’t. A great pity