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Showing posts with label The Herald. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Herald. Show all posts

Saturday, 14 March 2015

The “democratic principle”– and Unionist attempts to deny it when YES voters exercise it.

I wrote this in response to a Herald letter from a regular correspondent to Letters who echoed with uncanny accuracy the line being pursued by the UK unionist parties on YES Scotland’s (I refer to those who voted YES) temerity in not giving up after the referendum, but forging ahead with the SNP in exercising their legal and democratic rights to participate in the Parliamentary union the September 18th 2014 ballot result had compelled them to remain a part of. A great silence has followed my letter – so far …

Herald Letters March 11th 2015 

"SNP is a regional party ..." Peter A. Russell

Dear Sir,

I hardly know where to start with Peter A. Russell's letter on the SNP role in the 2015 general election. It reflects the deeply confused constitutional - not to say democratically questionable - assumptions that lie at the root of so many unionist arguments.

1. The "democratic principle" is that a government, once elected, is accountable to all the voters, not to the "majority of the voters" who may or may not have voted for the party or parties that form the government. In the 18 general elections since 1945, no single party forming a government has ever had 50% or more of the vote. The present combined Tory/LibDem Coalition had 58.08%. (As an aside, I have delivered leaflets and campaigned, at some level of involvement, in every one of them from the age of 10.)

2. The SNP has not "chosen to be" a de facto regional party in the UK". It stands candidates for the UK Parliament in Scottish constituencies determined legally and constitutionally under UK-wide law. No political party has a duty to stand candidates across the UK. It is committed to an over-arching objective of Scotland's independence, but it currently operates with a UK framework of law, offering itself to an electorate that contains voters in favour of and opposed to independence.  Once elected, SNP MPs represents all shades of political opinion within their constituency, in exactly the same manner as any MP anywhere in UK. It is clear beyond doubt that Scottish voters opposed to independence voted - and will vote - for the SNP.

3. The SNP forms the devolved government of Scotland. It can never be the main party in government of the UK, nor does it seek to be. While Scotland remains a part of UK, its objective is to represent Scotland's interests within the democratic structure and arithmetic of Westminster voting. It cannot pursue independence at Westminster, only further devolution within a UK framework. It has no intention of "dictating to 90% of the UK electorate" but will pursue an agenda for the electorate and the people of Scotland - all of them.

4. Independence can only be secured democratically by a referendum - the UK Parliament will never vote for the independence of any of its four component countries. The Scottish people rejected independence in the last referendum. If the SNP wins a large block of seats on May 7th, and subsequently wins a decisive third term majority in the 2016 Holyrood election, it will undoubtedly be a powerful democratic indicator that a majority of the Scottish people want a second referendum.

5. The UK electorate may vote for a party label, but they in fact vote for individual constituency MPs who, without exception, represent a "regional' constituency" under a first-past-the-post system. Most MPs run under a party label and accept a party whip, but in Westminster they vote as individuals MPs, whipped  or independently. That is UK democracy, however distorted on occasion by the party system.

yours faithfully,

Peter Curran

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Labour’s crime – the Iraq War – and my March 2003 fears on the eve of war

I wrote this letter to the Herald on 17th of March 2003. I was then, at least still nominally a supporter of the Labour Party, as I had been all my life and as my family had been.

The war against Iraq began three days later on March 20th 2003 with the U.S. launch of the bombing raid on Baghdad - Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Never in my life have I more wanted to be wrong in a prediction, but what followed unleashed unimaginable death and devastation that lasted from 2003 –2011, beyond my worst imaginings - and, in a very real sense, is not over yet.

The long slow death of Scottish Labour began in March 2003, in significant part due to their moral cowardice at that pivotal moment in history. New Labour – the creation of Blair, Brown and Mandelson seemed to die in 2010, but the rough  beast is stirring again, slouching towards Westminster.

child1child 2

My letter, published in The Herald, 17th of March 2003.

Seventeen and a half per cent of the UK population are children of 15 years of age or younger. (Source of data – CIA website)

41% of the Iraqi population are children o 15 years of age or younger. (Source - CIA website)

Therefore in any “collateral damage” to innocent civilians, 41 children will die or be maimed in every 100. (My source for these statistics - CIA website).

To add to the misery of the Iraqi children already hurt by Saddam Hussein and our sanctions will be an international crime.

Much has been made of Tony Blair’s “sincere conviction” over his stance on Iraq. If sincerity of conviction was the touchstone, the actions of any misguided politician in history could be justified. I hesitate to offer a list of those who pursued policies destructive to justice and life who were “sincere” in their conviction, but produced horrific consequences by their actions.

This coming war is profoundly misconceived and unjust, and Tony Blair is profoundly mistaken to pursue it.

He has wrecked our relationship with our European allies, damaged our international status, weakened our democratic and parliamentary traditions, has perhaps delivered a damaging blow to the Labour Party, and will undoubtedly damage our economy and our security.

As for Scotland’s MSPs supporting Blair's action by their contemptible inaction – don’t look for my vote (Labour for more than four decades) in the May elections.

I now know where the politicians of principle are – a tiny minority in the Scottish Labour group, and a majority in the SSP and the SNP. My advice to the few MSPs of principle left in the Scottish Parliament is to cross the floor now.

Iraq has become the defining political issue of our time, and the question that will be asked of politicians (and all of us) is – where were you when there was still time to stop it?

Peter Curran

Iraq

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Black Ink Art of Spin by Headline – or is it just about selling papers?

I take a keen interest in media, especially print media. I am one of a dying breed – a newspaper subscriber (the the Herald/Sunday Herald) – and I believe a free press is vital to a functioning democracy. Print media may not matter as much as it once did to political campaigns (some would argue that it never has!) but despite apparently inexorably declining circulation figures, it still matters to many, and it definitely matters during the one year run-up to the Referendum.

I am not a journalist, and have no direct experience of what goes on in a newsroom, except that gleaned from news, drama, films and television, but I have some experience in my industrial career of news management – or attempts at it – by major companies and organisations, usually through journalists in their PR departments who did have inside knowledge.

My views, for what they are worth on newsroom and newspaper values and objectives (and to some extent television) can be condensed into the following core beliefs -

1. The first duty of a newspaper is to sell newspapers, just as the first duty of a politician is to get elected, and the first duty of a manager to get appointed. None of the higher, more noble objectives can be pursued, none of the key values can be expressed, nothing can be achieved until the power to pursue and achieve them has been secured, and that position, that power is always under threat.

(Many supporters of independence – I won’t speak for the other side – seem largely oblivious to these simple facts.)

2.  Journalists, editors and newspaper staff don’t own the newspapers that employ them, at least in traditional print media. They are either salaried employees or freelances, they have to earn a living, and to earn a living they have to get their work published or carry out editorial functions, etc.

3. Those who have the resources to establish newspapers, or buy existing newspapers  must have one thing only - money.

They may not be journalists, they may have no media experience of any kind, nor are they required to have political values, ethical values or a political viewpoint. All that is required of them is that they conform to the law of the land, and as we have seen recently, they don’t always do that.

As proprietors, they may or may not try to exercise influence over editorial freedom, they may or may not espouse a particular political or social viewpoint.  Examples of both extremes of involvement exist, and just about every point on the spectrum between them. Editors must make their own decisions when they accept a post where their editorial freedom is or might be constrained.

4. Exceptions or at least partial exceptions to the above are the Guardian Media Group, and the BBC – a public service broadcaster.

5. Journalists, salaried or freelance, must accept the right of the editor to alter their copy.

Whether they challenge this or not depends on the reasons advanced for the edit, and their professional judgment as to whether it distorts what they want to say, and a realistic assessment of the likelihood of being published if they do. The journalist who constantly disputes an editor’s decisions is likely to have to find another newspaper – or maybe another job.

6. A journalist and by extension a newspaper, owes a duty to the readers, to truth as they see it, to objectivity and to facts – and to the society of which they are a part.

That does not mean impartiality, or that elusive and usually unattainable concept of balance. Journalists and newspapers have the right to espouse causes, to take a political stance.  Where would the balance have been in reporting the holocaust, had the information been available at the time had we not been at war? Would Hitler and Himmler have been given equal space and airtime? The distinguished journalist John Pilger would have been shocked had he been accused of ‘balance’ in some of his most famous reports.

HOW THE NEWS IS PRESENTED

Certain facts seem evident to me as a reader and a voter, despite my lack of direct newsroom experience.

From all their sources of information, newspaper editors must decide what stories to run, their relative significance and how they will be presented.

In the ideal world that many independence supporters aspire to – understandably, since they are trying to create a better Scotland that more closely approximates their ideals – there would be rigorous fact checking, an attempt to ensure that all viewpoints are equally reflected (the elusive balance), news would be presented as news, and opinion would be separately reflected as comment. Stories would be presented in accordance with their relative significance, i.e. big, significant stories would make the headlines and the inside spreads, and lesser stories be given fewer column inches and humbler placement.

At the highest level of the Fourth Estate, this ideal is sometimes approached, but rarely completely achieved. The Financial Times, for instance, deals with the hard business of business and finance, and charges a premium price to its mainly well-heeled readers for presenting fully-researched news, data, information and informed opinion.

The Guardian, run by a trust, has a long honourable record dating back to its days as The Manchester Guardian – a newspaper avowedly of the Left, but committed to telling truth to power, investigative journalism of a high order. The Times, a paper of the right (though it might argue that it isn’t) has high journalistic standards and is rarely cavalier with facts. And there are other honourable examples among the broadsheets and the regional press. The less said about the Telegraph under the Barclay Brothers proprietorship the better.

NEWS STORIES: SELECTION, SIGNIFICANCE, PLACEMENT, HEADLINES

Here’s Hollywood’s version of a legendary editor, Ben Bradley of The Washington Post, discussing the embryo Watergate story. Hollywood hokum? In part, yes, but based on the real story as told by the reporters, so probably accurate in essence.

Bradley considers the facts, and the risks of running the story, confronting in the process the inescapable and unpalatable facts that he has to trust his reporters and they have to trust their source.

That’s a single big story. But what happens on any day in the wider editorial conference? I speculate, because I have no inside knowledge -

The editor gets his/her key staff together and considers the potential content of the paper for the following day – new, features, sport, etc. Let’s focus on say, The Herald and one item -  a political story.

The political editor and his/her team will have had a pre-meeting, checked facts, sources and made a preliminary assessment of significance, and the core story will be written, possibly with a tentative headline. The political editor will have a view of how big the story is, but the editor must decide, perhaps in the face of competing non-political stories – entertainment, world events, celebrity, Royalty – even sport, because if a sports story is big enough, it can make the front page. (Rangers ongoing saga!)

It should be noted that a paper has to run a front page story every day as its main story, regardless of whether there is a big news story or not. On a dry day for news, this can result in a relatively minor story acquiring rather more prominence than it deserves.

Catch a paper on such a day, give them a good story, properly researched and presented and a headline hook to hang it on and they’ll run it! (I have personal experiences of this in an industry context.)

Despite all the claims, however justified, of mainstream media anti-independence bias, this is a lesson YES Scotland and the SNP need to re-learn over and over again. Sadly, it is a lesson Better Together and the well-resourced and shadowy interests who bankroll them have learned all too well.

Back to my analysis and my political story scenario -

The political editor makes his pitch to the editor, and let’s say the paper is The Herald – it’s Wednesday and the Thursday edition for 12th September is under consideration. Two big stories are competing for attention: the ongoing crisis in Syria, with key talks imminent between Obama and Putin, and the Scottish Budget and the row over the Bedroom Tax impact. 

What does the editor, Magnus Llewellin, decide to run with? He opts for neither, but instead for a story from the Highland correspondent, David Ross, based on an Audit Scotland report, Renewable Energy. This report clearly has political significance, so Magnus Gardham, the political editor (who takes a keen interest, as he must, in the independence debate) would have been a significant voice in the decision to run it as the front page main story. Audit Scotland’s website headlines their story on their report as follows -

Scotland's strategy for renewable energy is clear but achieving goals will be challenging

What headline did Llewellin and Gardham decide to run?

CIMG1439

What was it in the report that led them to choose this headline from the report’s comments, topics and conclusions that they could have chosen to offer as capturing its essence? What were the other influences and considerations that led to this choice of headline, and indeed to the choice of  this sober Audit Scotland report as the front page story?

Let’s look at what quotes they could have picked from the report summary by Audit Scotland -

“The Scottish Government has a clear strategy for renewable energy that links with other policy areas, and it has made steady progress so far.”

“Renewable energy projects are progressing more slowly than expected, due to the economy and changes in UK energy policy.”

“"Scotland's strategy for renewable energy is a good example of clear leadership and direction supported by integration across other policy areas.” Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland

“The Scottish Government needs to estimate how much public sector funding will be needed after 2014/15 to attract private sector investment and meet its goals for renewable energy.” Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland

Now, I could have crafted a punchy headline from any of those, and caught the sense of what Audit Scotland and Caroline Gardner actually said, e.g.

Scots renewables policy makes steady progress, but is hit by UK economic factors and changes in UK energy policy says Audit Scotland

or

Watchdog cites good example of Scottish leadership and direction on renewables, but calls for tighter funding estimates

“… cast doubt on Scots renewables policy” is a partial and misleading comment on the thrust and conclusions of the report in my view.

What led the Herald to choose this story over, say, Syria or the Budget for the front page?

What influenced them to choose this headline?

I can think of two alternative reasons that might have influenced the editors -

1. Renewables policy is vital to Scotland’s energy policy, jobs and industry infrastructure, Scotland leads the world in renewables, Scotland has unrivalled natural resources of wind and wave to exploit renewables, and alternative energy matters to Scotland, to the UK, to Europe and to the planet.

2. Any story that can be spun to attack the SNP Government, and by extension the independence debate, and any story that attacks renewable energy and by implication favours nuclear power is worth the front page.

If the editors were driven by the first reason, they made an odd choice of headline, and should have followed up with a centre page spread offering a full analysis of the report and of renewables policy.

If the editors were driven by the second reason – and I hope, as a lifetime Herald reader and a current subscriber that they were not – then it is a bad example of spin-by-headline, something that belongs in the tabloids, a relic of the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst.

They have just one year, as editors of a great Scottish newspaper – and as every Scot has – to decide how they can play an honourable role in the great debate, at this pivotal moment in Scottish history.

They might look to their sister paper, The Sunday Herald, to find a model of responsible journalism to equip them for such a role.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

A nuclear letter over three years ago …

My letter to the Herald of 21st February 2009 letter in full - it was edited in some aspects in the Letters page of the Herald. It was prompted by an Alf Young article, who then and now opposes Scotland’s independence and supports nuclear power. (Where he stands on the nuclear deterrent I don’t know.)

Since that letter, over three years ago, we have a majority SNP government, an independence referendum scheduled, and the continued implacable opposition of the SNP to nuclear weapons in Scotland, an opposition that I hope continues to include an equally implacable opposition to an independent Scotland being a member of NATO, a nuclear alliance, implacably committed to the possession and use of nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

Letter to the Herald of 21st February 2009

Dear Sir,

Alf Young (20th Feb) advances the case for nuclear power in Scotland, and criticises the SNP’s implacable opposition to nuclear. I am one of the very large number of Scots who, in 2007, abandoned my previous political allegiance (Labour) and transferred my vote and my commitment to the SNP. A major factor in that decision was precisely the fact of the SNP’s implacable opposition to nuclear weapons and nuclear power. In spite of my strong commitment to an independent Scotland for many other reasons, I would resign my membership of the party instantly if that commitment ever wavered, however, I am sure that will not happen.

I will not rehearse the arguments against nuclear power generation versus alternative sources of energy in relation to the global warming priorities, for the simple reason that I would rather accept the energy deficit and all that goes with it – although I do not believe that this will happen – because of the link between the civil nuclear power and the nuclear arms industry. Every advocate of civil nuclear power generation I have read, heard, or met personally is either an advocate of nuclear weapons, nuclear defence policies and the so-called ‘nuclear deterrent’, or, frankly, must be naive, and unaware or badly informed about this insidious linking of the civil and military aspects.

The facts are these, and in setting them out, I would remind readers of the famous quote by American senator, Daniel Patrick Moynahan – “You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts ...”

Any country that has nuclear power has the undeniable potential to make nuclear weapons. This is why the West is making such a fuss over Iran’s nuclear programme, and was the ostensible reason for invading Iraq. The UK is a massive exporter of nuclear technology and uranium enrichment processes, and this is at the core (forgive me) of nuclear weapons production. If the UK abandoned this deadly trade and never built another nuclear power station it would be taking a major step towards reducing international tension, nuclear proliferation and creating a safer planet.

The International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) is charged with investigating the regular, and sinister, transfer of nuclear material between civil and military stockpiles, but its powers are limited, and by the UK government’s own admission, its acceptance of inspection was not intended to provide an assurance that such material would not be used for defence purposes. In any case, the notorious ‘national security reasons’, the final refuge of totalitarian, militaristic governments everywhere, can be used to stop the inspections at any time.

In America, in Britain and in France, where one might assume that there were safe and secure procedure, unaccountable and unexplained discrepancies exist on plutonium. It is not just Russia that has problems of the theft and smuggling of nuclear material, not to mention inadequate and permeable storage arrangements.

I am a grandfather, and this status provides a special focus, a special viewpoint. I may not live long enough to experience the appalling consequences of our present nuclear obsession, but my children may, and my granddaughter almost certainly will. I was born in the 1930s, the decade of an unprecedented rise in militarism, and the lead-up to war. I sat in 1945 in the Park Cinema in Glasgow (formerly The Marne Cinema) as I watched with fascinated horror the dropping of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb and its appalling aftermath. I grew up in the 1950s with the spectre of nuclear annihilation hanging over my world. I followed with apprehension the Cuban missile crisis in the 1960s, when that threat became real and immediate. I don’t want my beloved granddaughter to have to live her life under this radioactive cloud.

The nuclear power industry and the nuclear arms industry are conjoined twins, locked forever in a deadly embrace, and cannot be separated. You can’t have one without the other.

Until homo sapiens evolves into a greater maturity, the world can afford neither nuclear power generation nor nuclear arms. We owe it to ourselves, our children and our grandchildren to reject these deadly twins. Alf Young used the word ‘meltdown’ in the title of his article. I hope it does not prove prophetic in a context other than the one he intended.


Monday, 12 March 2012

Zip your lip, Darling! Don’t try to rewrite history …

The Herald carries a page two article today Darling lays into Salmond over his RBS judgment, and a featured interview with Anne Simpson and Darling on page 12. To say that Anne Simpson’s introduction to her piece is a little partial is probably to understate the case.

“ … Alistair Darling is not someone given to social affectations. Candour not coyness defines him. Yet why is this proud Scot, former chancellor of the Exchequer and committed fiscal Unionist so reluctant to spearhead a campaign against the man who would sever Scotland from the United Kingdom?

“So far Alex Salmond has steered the independence argument exactly to his liking. Meanwhile those who disagree with the First Minister’s plan for radical amputation are without a central figure whose gravitas could pull together a robust opposition.”

"... the man who would sever Scotland from the United Kingdom?"

What, Anne – no approving words on the First Minister’s candour, no plaudits for him as a proud Scot? No recognition that in every word, every policy statement, every media interview, the First Minister makes it clear that his vision for independence and a social union with the rest of the UK after independence is the very reverse of a ‘radical amputation’?

Well, moving on, let’s take a look at ‘candour not coyness’ Darling on ABN Amro -

In 2007 ABN Amro was acquired, in what was at that time the biggest bank takeover in history, by a consortium made up of the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, Fortis bank and Banco Santander. Here’s what Alistair Darling said in his memoirs about what happened at the end of 2007, just before 2008, the year when the world’s banking system fell apart.

Extract from memoirs - "time to start worrying"

On a Saturday morning, just before Christmas 2007, I answered the door at my home in Edinburgh. There on the doorstep was Sir Fred Goodwin, chief executive of RBS, holding a gift-wrapped panettone.

Although it would mean not having my private secretary with me, I felt entirely relaxed about seeing him alone, at home. I was also intrigued. I had seen other CEOs of the banks alone in the past – none of this was abnormal – but I knew that his asking to see me in private could only mean that he was worried about something.

I had a great deal of sympathy with what Fred Goodwin was saying, but I asked the question: why were the markets singling out RBS for particular concern? His answer was that they felt RBS didn't have sufficient capital. I asked whether he was comfortable that RBS did have sufficient capital, and his response was that he felt that it did. And yet I was worried. It occurred to me that Sir Fred had not come just as a shop steward for his colleagues. He would not admit it, but I sensed that RBS, which until that time had seemed invincible, its directors and senior staff exuding confidence verging on arrogance, was in more trouble than we had thought.

Does this sound like a new Chancellor who had anticipated anything bad in relation to RBS? His pal Fred Goodwin, the CEO of RBS. “which until that time had seemed invincible had just popped in with a panettone. He asks Fred the Shred “why were the markets singling out RBS for particular concern?” Suddenly, the presence of neighbour Fred and his gift-wrapped panettone worries him.

This is the man who criticises Alex Salmond for supporting the ABN Amro deal. One might reasonably assume that Alistair Darling had a helluva lot more information about the ABN Amro deal and his pal Fred than Alex Salmond did, but in December 2007, the end of the year in which the deal was concluded. just before the world fell apart in 2008, he gets belatedly worried about Fred, RBS and his gift-wrapped panettone?

As the SNP commented after Darling ‘criticisms’ -

This is a laughable attempt to rewrite history by Alistair Darling. He was the Chancellor responsible for banking regulation and its failure at the critical time, and he was the Chancellor responsible for the signing off of the ABN Amro deal.

“Labour gave Fred Goodwin his knighthood, and Mr. Darling’s contacts with Fred Goodwin were far more extensive than the First Minister’s. Fred Goodwin was an adviser to Alistair Darling as chancellor, and was still a member of a key Treasury body advising Labour months after the banking crisis and quitting RBS.”

Here is ‘proud Scot’, ‘candour not coyness’ Darling talking to Isabel Fraser very recently. Judge for your self - Alistair Darling -- naive, disingenuous, or just woefully unprepared for Isabel Fraser?

As for Darling’s defining quote, the one used to headline the Anne Simpson interview -

Separation means that once you go, you go. You can’t come back.”

Leaving aside the banality of the statement, it is undoubtedly true – and none of the countries who ‘separated’, or rather secured their independence from Britain over the centuries have ever shown the least signs of wanting to come back …

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Lies, damned lies and stats - UCAS and student fees - and post hoc ergo propter hoc

There are still a few innocent souls out there who believe that such a thing as an objective media report exists, free from all that nasty politics thing. Aye, weel …

The ancient logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc -that because one thing follows another, it was therefore caused by it - has been much in evidence, partly out of the mouths – and the pens – of those stupid enough to believe in it, but mainly from political parties and their media mouthpieces, who find it convenient to adopt the fallacy even when they know it is nonsense.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc abounds in religious thinking, e.g. everybody else’s house fell down in the gales, mine didn’t, therefore God loves me, or alternatively, natural disasters are God’s way of punishing  mankind for homosexuality, etc.

It is also highly evident in much right-wing thought: right-wing American republican presidential candidates seem addicted to it, as they do to fundamentalist religious doctrines. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is in fact primitive thinking that preceded logic and the scientific method – a desperate attempt to explain apparently arbitrary events and avoid their negative consequences, by both propitiating supernatural powers deemed to have caused them and finding some scapegoat believed to have provoked the supernatural power, i.e. a god or gods.

TUITION FEES

Tuition fees have become a highly political issue since the LibDems abandoned their principles, the Tories underlined the absence of principles in their pernicious creed, and the Labour Party continued their search for their principles, which went missing somewhere in the last generation or so. The SNP, who actually have principles and are prepared to put them into action politically (e.g. Megrahi Release, minimum pricing for alcohol, access to education by ability to learn, not ability to pay, etc.) very definitely regard tuition fees as a political issue, and indeed a defining issue for Scotland.

Politicians of all political hues have been waiting either eagerly or apprehensively for the UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UK) interim figures on application for university places, post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments ready to hand, together with a large statistics hammer to render the truth malleable and shape it to their ends.

The Coalition is desperate to justify their decision to increase tuition fees. UK Labour, devoid of any clarity in policy terms, simply wants to attack the Coalition. The scurrying rump of the Coalition parties in Scotland have a dual interest – to support their UK bosses and to attack the SNP. The Scottish Labour Party, perhaps the most confused of all - in their values, their policies and their split allegiance to Westminster and Scotland - will do anything to serve their only real allegiance, which is to their careers and the Westminster gravy train.

And so to the reports today -

The UCAS report costs money to access, so I have no access to the original figures – the interim report. (If anyone can point me to a free version of it, I will be obliged.)

My first intimation was the following paragraph from Reform Scotland -

Studying at Scottish universities: Figures released by UCAS show overall applications to Scottish universities rose by 0.8 per cent in December compared with the same time last year.  The rise includes a 0.1 per cent increase from Scottish students, a 7.6 per cent increase in applications from the EU, though applications from the rest of the UK fell.

Reform Scotland went on to refer to press reports, but whether their figures were drawn from the press, or from the original report is unclear. They draw no conclusion from the figures, at least in this summary.

The Courier -Dundee and Tayside - mysteriously reads the UCAS report to mean that the December figures are ‘down only 0.8%’ but comments that it was the best performance in the UK, which it notes was down by 8.3%.

The Telegraph claims the UK figures are ‘down by almost 8%’  and notes that there has been ‘a sharp drop in demand from candidates from mainland Europe who pay the same fees as their British counterparts.’

Note that British. Clearly, the Telegraph either no longer regards Scotland as British, or intends that phrase to mean that in Scotland, the EU candidates pay the same as Scottish students, i.e. nothing. But the Telegraph still reports UCAS insisting that ‘figures showed a late surge in applications as many students take more time over decisions’.

What UCAS actually said was that the mid-December figures did not reflect the likelihood of a late surge by the deadline for most course, January 15th, and that this late surge was already emerging.

The Financial Times is about as objective a print medium as one can find, since, as I observed in a recent blog, “money ain’t funny”., and their hard-eyed readers want the facts, man, not political spin and prejudice.

The FT reaches a conclusion from the figures – that school leavers have not been deterred from applying to university because of higher costs, but older students have. It also notes that the number of British 18-year olds applying for a university place in 2012 had fallen by 2.4%, but that this fall was in line with the demographic decline for people in that age bracket.

The FT also accurately reports the UCAS comment on the likely late surge as the January deadline approaches. It also concludes the previous increases in fees hadn’t affected applications.

THE SCOTTISH PRESS – Herald and Scotsman

Now we come to the gentlemen of the Scottish ‘quality’ press, Latin scholars to man, to whom the post hoc ergo propter hoc argument is often a matter of journalistic necessity when real life and real data tell a politically inconvenient story.

The Herald is in no doubt what the figures say and what the story should be. A large chunk of page 8, under the heading NEWS, a label that sometimes has to be approached with caution when reading the Herald or the Scotsman – a case of caveat emptor or maybe caveat lector. The headline is Fall in applications from rest of UK to Scots universities, with the sub-header Concern as tuition fees look to have had impact on potential students’.

The first two paragraphs give Andrew Denholm’s understanding of the UCAS figures -

“SCOTTISH universities have seen a decline in the number of applications from prospective students from other parts of the UK after moves to charge them higher fees.

“Official figures from Ucas, the universities admissions service, show applications from England, Wales and Northern Ireland have dropped by 5% over the past year from 24,979 to 23,689.”

Note the gentle lead in to post hoc ergo propter hoc – after moves to charge them higher fees.

The third paragraph rather hammers home the sub-agenda -

The decline follows the decision by the Scottish Government to allow universities north of the Border to introduce fees of up to £9000 for students from the rest of the UK (RUK).”

Aye, right, Andrew, we’ve got it, OK …

They quote Mary Senior, Scottish Official of the UCU lecturers’ union, who is worried by the drop, but has no doubts about the cause. (The UCU is not affiliated to the Labour Party. Mary Senior is a former Assistant General Secretary to the STUC.)

It is still concerning that the introduction of significant tuition fees is having an impact in this way,” says Mary confidently. (Watch out for that old post hoc, etc. Mary!)

Have a word with another Mary, Mary – Mary Curnock, UCAS Chief Executive, who says

"Evidence of a late surge as the 15 January deadline approaches is now emerging. Applicants are taking longer to research their choices but the applications flow has speeded up, as these statistics show."

Or Nicola Dandridge, CE of Universities UK, who speaks for vice chancellors and says -

As expected, December saw a significant increase in applications. This suggests that people have been thinking carefully about their choices and are waiting longer to make their decisions. It is very possible that the increase in applications will now continue right up until the 15 January 2012 deadline.”

Or look at the FT report, which noted that applications to Scottish institutions were only down 112, year-on-year, from 14,729 to 14,617.

Mary, however, has an ally in Robin Parker, President of the NUS Scotland, who also confidently claims the decline in English students on fees. No wishy-washy waiting around for January 15th deadlines for Robin – he just knows

But Robin does note that Scottish students heading for English universities “might be put of by the trebling of fees south of the border ..” Now there I think you might just have a point, Robin. I didn’t need a degree to reach that tentative speculation.

The Scotsman, in marked contrast, majors on the late surge - Eleventh-hour rush by Scots to study at ‘home’ universities – and provides a fairly comprehensive report that includes the Mary Curnock comment on the surge. It largely avoid post hoc propter hoc. Every ready with a quote, NUS Robin Parker pops up again, this time to congratulate the Scottish Government for”the right decision by the Scottish Parliament to keep education in Scotland free”, but repeats his Herald post hoc conclusion – “The same can’t be said for students from the rest of the UK, though, as we again see a decline in numbers, due to the imposition of fees and the reckless decision by some Scottish institutions to charge the highest amount in the UK.”

And what does the SNP have to say?

Commenting, SNP MSP and Member of the Education Committee, Marco Biagi MSP said:

“These figures, which now represent a very large proportion of applications – showing a rise in applications to Scottish universities by students from Scotland, in stark contrast to the position south of the Border – are a vindication of the Scottish Government’s policy of no tuition fees.

“We are fortunate that – thanks to the SNP Government – the betrayal of students by the Lib Dems in coalition with the Tories at Westminster does not apply to Scots students studying in Scotland.

“The SNP’s investment in our universities and maintenance of our policy on no tuition fees means that young Scots have free access to some of the best universities in the world – universities that draw applications from around the globe. The English higher education sector by contrast faces an uncertain future, and according to UCAS’s figures have seen a 7% drop in the total number of applications this year.

“Within England there has been a staggering drop of 8.3% of English students applying to study, while in here in Scotland there has in fact been an increase in Scots-domiciled students applying to Scottish universities, as well as an increase overall.

“Its abundantly clear that the Conservative/Lib Dem UK government’s tuition fees are damaging English universities and reducing opportunities for England’s young people.

“The message has clearly got across to Scotland’s young people that the ridiculous and damaging policies of the UK Government don’t apply here, and that they continue to have the opportunity for tuition free education in Scotland’s world class universities.”

 

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Religion in politics: Two letters – two faiths – and alarm bells ring for me

I subscribe to no religious faith, but I defend the right of members of any faith to worship in accordance with their faith without interference from the state, and to live out their beliefs in their daily lives, and without interference or persecution or threats or sectarian abuse calculated to lead to violence. I support their right not to be discriminated against in employment, in business or in politics.

I also believe in freedom of the individual within the rule of law in a secular democracy, and I expect the state to reflect core values that are shared by all in that democracy, values that are best expressed by and derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What I oppose with every fibre of my being is any attempt by a religious group, or coalition of religious groups to attempt to deny these core human rights to anyone within their faith group or groups, or attempt to impose a belief that is not supported by or founded in law in the wider society of which that that faith group or coalition of faith groups is a part, beliefs based on holy books, ancient writings and ancient traditions.

I extend that opposition to political philosophies or political parties, whether religious based or ideologically based, that seek to subvert the processes of democracy and the rule of law to deny core human rights to any individual or group, and to impose ideological behaviours and constraints that deny core human rights.

The fact that most religions subscribe to the core values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, either wholeheartedly, or in some case, nominally, does not mean that religious groups or any particular religious tradition or faith group invented them or owns them. The essence of these core values of the human species, painfully developed and asserted, often in the face or religious or secular persecution, the rack, the scaffold, the stake, the firing squad, the gas chamber, the executioner’s block, is that they are the fundamental, shared core of our common humanity, and not the property of any faith or ideology.

For all of the above reasons, I support and will defend a secular democracy and I am opposed to any move towards a theocratic state, and I oppose faith schools, because they have a single core purpose – to indoctrinate, and I include within my definition of faith schools institutions  supported by an ideologically-based or totalitarian state that professes no religion, but inculcate a rigid ideology, such as those that existed in the USSR or Mao’s China, or Hitler’s Germany or regimes such as Pol Pot’s.

MY CORE BELIEFS AND MY POLITICS

Anyone who holds strong social democratic values will sooner or later find that they create a conflict with the mundane realities of their political affiliation and their political party. I am no exception to this, and some of what I am about to say may leave the Scottish National Party unhappy at this crucial stage in Scottish history when a great objective – the independence of Scotland – is within sight of being achieved.

A political party - and a master politician and a great political strategist and statesman such as Alex Salmond - must balance all the forces within the society it hopes to govern and to transform. Scottish society has within it three churches grounded in three great religious faiths – Christian, Judaic and Islamic.

A politician who ignored the reach and influence of such institutions would not survive for very long, but equally a politician who allowed himself or herself to be dominated by them, and who allowed them to exert an undemocratic influence on the core values of a democracy would not deserve to lead a nation.

Some political prices are too high to pay. So I must speak out as an individual, and hope that others will do likewise, even if boats are rocked.

THE TWO LETTERS – The Herald

The debate that has been building for some time now, at first a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand, but now heading for a storm, is the issue of gay marriage, covered by me as best I could in a recent blog.

Two very recent letters to The Herald have now crystallised the essence of the religious opposition, one from the Catholic standpoint and one from the Muslim viewpoint. Both of these religious groups now appear to speak with a single voice, although I can only hope that this is the voice of the institution and not the unanimous voice of all lay Catholics and Muslims. (The voice of the Kirk has yet to speak out authoritatively, but many individual voices within the Kirk have spoken out and they are divided.)

The first letter I refer to appeared in Monday’s Herald – the 17th – from a Michael McMullen. The header the Herald gives it is - Church is duty bound to speak out against the promotion of sin – which is a fair summary of its content. Church is duty bound to speak out

Michael McMullen’s last paragraph says unequivocally where he stands and where he believes the Catholic church stands -

As a missionary and teaching institution, the Catholic church and its ‘practising membership’ can ‘never’ accept sin. It is duty bound to oppose it: thus its bishops speak out, because they are expected to. This is especially true when a powerful lobby or elite is hell bent on promoting sin.”

Mr. McMullen was attacking Iain Macwhirter’s article on this matter, and his quotation marks refer to comments from that article.

The second letter from the Herald today – the 19th – is from Bashir Maan, a man with a proud record of achievement in Scotland, widely respected both within the Asian community and Scottish society, carrying a name that resonates for the SNP.

He opens by saying that he fully support Michael McMullen’s comments, and he closes with words than send a chill down my social democratic, liberal spine -

No one has the right or the authority to change the divine scriptures to suit certain times or certain people or for the sake of political correctness.”

I fear that those words and that sentiment will be fully endorsed by Cardinal O’Brien and his Scottish bishops. and by certain voices within the Kirk, and by some MSPs, including some SNP MSPs.

As someone committed to a secular democracy, I find them deeply dangerous, medieval in nature, and a denial of our democratic values and the rule of law. They are an attempt to assert religious values and ancient and highly-contested writings from another age as binding for all time, not only on those who subscribe to them, but to others who do not, and they are in conflict not only with the inalienable human rights of a minority but potentially with the rule of law and democratic processes.

To anyone who thinks that a political process dominated by a specific religion, its doctrines and its concepts of ‘sin’, and ‘family values’, one that has moved from being a secular democracy to becoming effectively a theocracy is a good thing, I recommend a study of Franco’s Spain, or the Republic of Ireland, or of anyone of a number of Muslim states.

And we don’t have to delve into the distant past to see such ‘values’ in operation – the recent history of the Catholic Church in Ireland, in Britain and in America and the abuse scandals, from the Magdalene laundries to child abuse and the protection of child abusers by the hierarchy, tells an appalling story.

One might think that the appalling brutalities and persecutions of minorities and the opposition in Franco’s regime in Spain, fully and unequivocally supported by the Catholic Church, are a distant memory. Not so.

A documentary on BBC2 last night – Spain Stolen Children – demonstrates with chilling force the application of the ‘family values’ of the Catholic Church, with the connivance of the law, the police and the state, that resulted in the theft and sale of children by nuns, priests and doctors, a scandal that has been suppressed since the death of Franco in 1975 by the supposedly democratic regimes that replaced him, but is now growing to a scandal of monumental proportions – a crime against humanity.

Here are my edited clips of the programme, an attempt to catch its essence in nine minutes or so – but the full one hour programme should be watched, painful and distressing as it is, to appreciate what the dangers are for Scotland.



Perhaps Cardinal O’Brien, his ever-vocal bishops, and all those who have had a lot to say about what a terrifying threat to family values and the stability of society the attempt to allow to people of the same sex to pledge their vows in a civil ceremony and call it marriage represents, could offer some comment on what the values of two societies dominated by just those religious values actually produced in Spain, in the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere.

Perhaps Bashir Maan, a good man who has contributed enormously to Scottish society, should consider just what he is endorsing. And lay Catholics, Muslims and Protestants  should also consider what some religious leaders who claim to speak for them are saying in their name.

Alex Salmond now has the opportunity – and the duty – to demonstrate that he is the true statesman that I and many others firmly believe him to be, by standing up for the rights of all the people of Scotland, and resisting the pressures, the blandishments, the thinly-concealed political threats of withdrawal or democratic or financial support by sectional – and sectarian – interest groups.


Same sex marriage - Moridura blog

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

It’s that independence thing … Letters to The Herald


I haven’t written to The Herald is some time, but a letter yesterday from Alex Gallagher of Largs on the definition of independence and devo max, focusing on the recent Newsnight Scotland programme featuring Stewart Hosie and George Kerevan caught my eye. Since I had clipped this programme and offered blog comment on it already, I thought I’d try a punt with a reply.

It didn’t make it into today’s paper for the good reason that Iain AD Mann, a prolific and formidable contributor to The Herald Letters page, who has argued in an always erudite and informed way for Scotland and independence over many years, had offered his reply, as had another contributor, and the ratio was two to one on the SNP side of the argument, which was well covered.

The anti-SNP letter today from John Milne was interesting, not for its content, but for the fact that he had submitted a closely similar letter to The Scotsman yesterday. Insofar as there is an etiquette in these matters, it is not the done thing to submit essentially similar letter content to two papers at the same time. Of course, the newspaper has no way of knowing this has been done until after the event if the letters are published on the same day, but I would have thought that the Herald might have been aware of what The Scotsman Letters page carried yesterday.

Anyway, here is my unpublished reply to Alex Gallagher, for what it is worth …

UNPUBLISHED LETTER TO HERALD – sent 18th October 2011

Dear Sir,

Let me offer some help to Alex Gallagher (Letters 17 October 2011) with the definition of independence, and also UK unionist politicians who seem to be having trouble with a concept the rest of the world understands clearly, and has done so since time immemorial.

Independence, in the context of an individual or a nation, is freedom to run one's affairs - all of them, within a framework of freely entered into - and freely exited - relationships and agreements. Stewart Hosie, who speaks for the SNP, gave a concise and absolutely clear response to every question about independence put to him. So-called devo max is a colloquial term, meaning loosely full fiscal autonomy but without independence, within the state of the UK. George Kerevan made a dog's breakfast of trying to define devo max. Kerevan is a member of a political party and has been identified with it in the past - this would also describe most commentators and journalists in Scottish politics. He was on this programme in his commentator/journalist capacity, and is not a spokesperson for the SNP, anymore than say, Bernard Ponsonby of STV is, or I am ,or Lorraine Davidson of The Times (a former Labour spin doctor) is for Labour.

The SNP wants independence - that is the party's raison d'etre, and the First Minister is totally committed to that objective. He also realises that not every one of the voters who gave his party such a decisive majority last May want full independence. Some will undoubtedly wish to remain in the UK, and must be given that choice: some may want more autonomy for a devolved Parliament while remaining in the UK. The referendum is at least two, maybe three years or more away. A considered debate is taking place in the Scottish Government and in the SNP about what choices the Scottish people should be offered in the referendum. That debate is in marked contrast to the near-hysteria and increasingly contradictory demands emanating from the unionist parties.

What is abundantly clear is that the electorate do not want to be buried alive in the detail that necessarily will constitute the negotiating agenda after a YES vote to independence. Neither do I.

As a Scottish voter, what I want is crystal clear - to the opportunity to vote for a completely independent Scotland, free to do everything that any independent nation in the world is free to do, within a framework of cooperation with our near neighbours and long-term friends in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, including sensible sharing of resource and defence commitments, but with a firmly non-nuclear context for Scotland. Such agreements will extend to Europe, with Scotland as an independent member of the EU, and the world, with Scotland having a seat in the United Nations.

Like any independent nation, Scotland will be free to make agreements and treaties, and to terminate them under agreed terms when they no longer meet the needs of the people of Scotland. We made one such agreement in 1707, not entirely freely, not unanimously, but under threat, intimidation and bribery. Nevertheless, we made it and have honoured it, and paid a price in blood for 300 years. Now is the time to end it, in my view. I hope my fellow Scots agree.

yours faithfully,

Peter Curran


Monday, 3 October 2011

A letter to the Herald – in full

Ruth Marr is a regular contributor to the Letters pages of our Scottish newspapers. As someone who did a fair amount of that at a point in time, I accept the reality that editorial judgment must be exercised as to whether to print or not, and in editing content, for reasons of space and other considerations. I don’t believe that editors censor letters – if they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t publish at all. And I repeat my long-held view that, whatever my difference with the Herald’s news coverage on occasion, I regard its Letter Page as the glory of the newspaper, and in the highest traditions of free journalism, free debate and exchange of views. It is the voice of the Scottish people, in all their political diversity, and is unmatched in this context by any other Scottish or indeed UK newspaper.

Ruth had a letter in today’s Herald, and it made perfect sense as printed, at least to me, but since I know it was an edited version of the original, I think it is useful to reproduce the original here, and I have Ruth’s permission to do so. The topic is a vital one, and an area where the Coalition Government and David Cameron are playing with fire, but seem to be too obtuse to recognise this fact.

 

FULL TEXT OF EDITED LETTER IN TODAY’S Herald

During the Scottish Parliamentary election campaign Alex Salmond made clear to the electorate  his plans to hold a referendum on Scottish independence during the latter half of this parliamentary term, and on polling day was given a resounding endorsement by the voters. 

What part of that do opposition politicians not understand? Is it because they are so accustomed to saying one thing before an election and doing another after it that they find it hard to grasp the concept of a politician honouring his promises? Ever since the SNP victory, opposition politicians have been needling Mr Salmond to break his word and hold an early referendum, and now, ominously, the talk is that Westminster might step over the Scottish Government and hold its own referendum, under its own terms. ( 'Westminster weighs up holding Referendum first' The Herald, October 1st). 

David Cameron's threats that he will not allow the First Minister of Scotland to use his term in power to campaign for Scottish independence is an unwarranted and unpardonable interference in the devolved government of Scotland. Mr Cameron's assurance that he would show respect to Scotland has been revealed as an empty promise.  But a promise which will be kept was made to the voters by the Scottish Government on the timing of this referendum, and when it is held it should be the Scottish people and only the Scottish people who have the power to decide Scotland's destiny, whether Westminster likes it or not. 

Ruth Marrsubmitted 1st October 2011, edited version published today, 3rd October 2011

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The CBI and the Ipsos MORI poll - panic in the Union, silence in the Press

THE CBI

I thought of doing a piece on the C.B.I. today, but thanks to a Twitter link from Ewan Crawford, I find that Calum Cashley has already done all the heavy-lifting in his piece on 5th January 2011, an-in depth analysis that effectively demolishes the C.B.I. claim to be representative of anything significant in Scottish industry, except perhaps the personal political orientation of some if its senior officers, past and present. Calum Cashley also trenchantly makes the point that if the C.B.I. made the same sustained, quietly productive contribution to the economic debate as the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland, instead of acting as a cheerleader for the Union, it might actually claim to have a real role in Scottish life. I had thought than when Linda Urquhart replaced Iain McMillan things might change for the better. On this week’s showing, they haven’t

 

Ipsos MORI POLL – Scottish Public Opinion Monitor

Yesterday’s Ipsos MORI poll – the Scottish Public Opinion Monitor – was greeted with rapturous delight by nationalists, and to date, if not quite a deafening silence, a muted response by the Herald and the Scotsman, who give it minimal coverage. The superb graphical presentation of the damning statistics for the Union of the sampled will of the Scottish people, which would have been reproduced lovingly in double-paged spreads by both newspapers had they told a different story, have been ignored, and the figures made as dull as possible.

The Scottish public will have to access the original - Scottish Public Opinion Monitor – online, or buy a printed copy to feel the full impact of the statistics.

This is doubtless in sharp contrast to the panic-stricken quacking that will be taking place in various inner sanctums of the Union, as the deeply confused and deeply threatened Coalition demands explanations of its tame Scotsmen – Alexander, Moore, et al - as to why the natives of the northern province are refusing to recognise their Britishness, and that we are stronger together and weaker apart, etc.  The Colonial governor, the hapless Moore, will take most of the flak.

In the Labour Party, with even more to lose when Scotland says bye-bye to the UK , another Alexander, Douglas of that ilk, and other Scottish Labour MPs who lose no opportunity to pledge their undying allegiance to the regime that offered them the high road to England – Jim Sheridan, Ann McKechin, Tom Harris, Cathy Jamieson, etc. – are being asked what the hell is going on.

Jim Murphy will be exasperated that what he thought was his final escape from Scotland to safer pastures in the deep South - and a cosy niche as Shadow Defence Secretary - keeps being threatened by demands that he involve himself in the messy and confused processes of trying to revive the corpse of Scottish Labour.

And that strange, motley band, the Scottish Lords, will squirm on the leather benches and wonder what will become of them if the people of Scotland have their way.

Lord, Lord! We didnae ken … they cry. Aye, weel, ye ken noo! replies the Lord

Saturday, 6 August 2011

The future of journalism and the impact of new media - Scotland and UK

(A cautionary note - I am not a journalist, I have never worked for any media organisation in any capacity, and I have no insider knowledge of the operation of newspapers, print or television media. All of what I have to say represents the perceptions of a consumer of media channels, as viewer and reader and occasional contributor to letters pages and online comment. My views also reflect some limited experience of dealing directly with them in industry.)

Figures recently released by ABC reveal what must be alarming statistics for the owners and employers of our national newspapers - Every national loses print sales in March - and doubtless there will be much agonising over the factors that have contributed to this decline.

I have been reading UK national and Scottish newspapers for almost 70 years now - I came from a generation that regarded newspapers as an indispensable part of life, and lest anyone think this was a middle class or income related value, let me say that I was brought up in grinding poverty in an east end Glasgow tenement by a widowed mother on a tiny income (when she had one at all) who was dependent on state benefit in the pre-welfare state era. Despite this, we had one daily and one evening paper every day for six days, and at least three Sunday newspapers. We would almost have rather not eaten than be deprived of newspapers, and we had radio, which meant the BBC, and equally vital part of our life - free libraries and the cheap, fleapit cinemas.

Were we exceptional? No - we were typical, in our reading, radio and cinema-going habits, of at least a large minority of the working class, and perhaps even a majority.

By and large, I have maintained most of this media consumption: I am a cineaste, but the cinema going went to the wall a long time ago - after my courting days - to be replaced by television and much later by the video cassette, then the DVD and the computer.

Newspapers matter fundamentally to me, and television matters too, as a window on the world, in the way that cinema newsreels and documentaries mattered in the past.

But I have also become a creature of the electronic age that I have lived to see. I was going to say that it is something that was unimaginable to someone of my generation, but as a science fiction buff from the age of six or thereabouts, I did imagine it, and couldn’t wait for it to materialise. It has fulfilled my wildest dreams, but it also has delivered the potential to fulfil my worst nightmares.

One of those nightmares is the destruction of print journalism - of newspapers and magazines and periodicals devoted to current affairs and the exploration of ideas.

I have already written a fair amount about newspapers and journalism in my blog, but it was mainly in a political context - Journalism and standards - Moridura blog -but I want to revisit some of my core concerns, so bear with me if I am repeating themes and ideas …

CIRCULATION DECLINE

The concern of over circulation decline must have resulted in much analysis and soul-searching among newspaper proprietors and journalists over the causes of the decline, ranging from the hard bottom-line, commercial analysis to more high-minded introspection. The News International/News Corp earthquake has left many reeling at the scale and speed of the destruction of reputations and livelihoods, but may also have caused much self-delusion and denial about the causes, and where the future may lie.

The ABC March 2011 figures tell a bleak story, ranging from -27.51% to -0.71%. The average circulation decline percentage change, year on year are as follow.

(N.B. Check ABC source figures for any reuse, and for additional notes and qualifications: these are my abstracts, and may contain errors.)

15 National dailies - decline league table

Daily Star                     699,216  -15.45%

The Times                   446,109  -11.21%

Racing Post                    61,588   -9.87%

The Herald                    50,621   -8.92%

The Daily Telegraph   626,416  -8.78%

The Scotsman                41,806  -8.16%

The Guardian              261,116   -7.75%

Daily Mirror             1,155,895   -7.31%

Daily Express             620,616   -7.13%

The Sun                   2,817,857   -6.24%

Daily Record              312,655   -6.21%

Financial Times         381,658   -4.89%

Daily Mail               2,039,731    -2.05%

The Independent     181,934     -1.20%

The i                          171,415  n/a - new newspaper

14 National Sundays - decline league table

Sunday Herald                    31,123  -27.51%

Daily Star Sunday            293,489  -14.14%

The Observer                   296,023  -10.70%

The People                        477,815   -10.21%

News of the World        2,664,363    -8.27%

Sunday Mail                      365,923    -8.29%

Sunday Mirror               1,063,096   -7.3%

The Sunday Times        1,031,727    -7.19%

Sunday Express                533,192   -6.46%

Sunday Post                       312,188   -7.38%

The Sunday Telegraph     481,941   -5.46%

Scotland on Sunday            56,466   -3.57%

The Mail on Sunday      1,888,040   -3.31%

Independent on Sunday   153,183   -0.71%

These figures shock and surprise me to some degree. The population of Scotland is around 5.2m, of which I reckon about a quarter are under 16, leaving an adult population somewhere over 4.1m. The population per household has dropped in recent year, so taking as a very rough guess two adults per household reading the same paper, and leaving out the number of readers under 16, this gives a potential readership of around 2m.

(My figures are crude: doubtless the newspapers themselves have detailed demographic analyses to fuel their well-founded panic.)

This means that on the last circulation figures, the two ‘quality’ Scottish dailies between them are reaching (i.e. each edition read by two people) 50,621 + 41,806 = 92,427 x 2 = 184,854 readers. That represents just over 1 in 22 of the adult population, with the Herald reaching about 1 in 40 and the Scotsman about 1 in 49.

This does rather lead me to the question - Why the **** do I bother about what these two newspapers say about Scottish politics?

Of course, one can argue that they are reaching the top 2.0/2.5% of the population - the movers and shakers - but what evidence is there for this? And if they are, what does it matter, since it’s the opinions and perceptions of the majority of the voters that determine elections, and will determine the referendum outcome?

The statistics for the Sunday Herald (31,123) and Scotland on Sunday (56,466) give no comfort either. In fact, rather than just courting Rupert Murdoch, Alex Salmond should have been offering Oor Wullie a new bucket, and trying to get an invite from the Broons to Glebe Street and the but-and-ben, since the Sunday Post has a circulation of 312,188, although it has a very much wider reach than just Scotland.

THE CAUSES OF CIRCULATION DECLINE

The reasons for this catastrophic decline in newspaper circulation has some obvious contributory causes - television, new media, social media, the computer, the smartphone - but why then does The Independent buck the trend by a single figure decline?

The Independent 181,934 -1.20%

The i 171,415 - a completely new newspaper and format

Independent on Sunday 153,183 -0.71%

Well, the answer may have some relevance for Scotland,  (it certainly has relevance for all national newspapers)but since both The Independent and The i behave as if Scotland doesn’t exist most of the time (although they are occasionally catalysed by negative or trivial stories) they don’t appear to matter too much to Scottish politics.

But I think that for The Herald and The Scotsman, there is another significant contributory reason - lazy, derivative, cut-and-paste, CTRL-C journalism.

When did either of these newspapers last break a significant story that was not already in the public domain and had legs because of the work of better journalists?

Why has there been no coverage worth a light of what Glasgow City Council has done to the people and small businesses of Dalmarnock in the name of urban regeneration and the Commonwealth Games?

Why do the journalists of both papers think that hanging around the law courts, reading press releases and spin documents from political parties and municipal councils constitutes real journalism?

The way both papers treated the Souter knighthood story is utterly typical. They reacted to Cathy Jamieson’s story - and presumably a Scottish Labour press release - and regurgitated the blindingly obvious. but failed to ask any of the real questions that should be asked.

I have asked some of the relevant questions, and I have more, which the SNP - my party - may or may not welcome. Why can’t journalists ask them - or perhaps why won’t they ask them?

Would they call the whole rotten honours system and the very nature of our United Kingdom’s power structure and patronage into question?

As Private Eye might say - I think we should be told

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Inverclyde - UK and Scottish politics

Despite the inclusive blog title above on these topics today, I have virtually nothing to say, since Ian Bell has said everything I want to say in today’s Herald, and infinitely better than I could ever have said it.

Pyrrhic victory for Labour 

His piece illustrates the real difference between a truly professional political journalist and a blogger like me. Regrettably, his depth of analysis, prescience and perceptiveness is rarely matched by other Scottish political commentators, with one or two exceptions.

I take issue with Ian Bell only on his closing remarks on the death of the Scottish Labour Party, that “we (I take him to mean all Scots) do not yet own an alternative.”

If he means a party of the left that is internationalist in outlook and values, yet deeply committed to all the people of Scotland, especially to the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged, we do own such a party - it is the Scottish National Party, and he is wrong.

If  he means a party that is all of the above things, but that is also committed to the Union and hostile to the independence of the people of Scotland, then he is right.

And there will never again be such a party, because its time has irretrievably passed.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The UK Supreme Court–the debate polarises and takes on new dimensions

I wrote yesterday’s blog (see below) last night, prompted by an email from John Higgins, as a kind of rumination on the issues. But this morning, this debate takes on a new form, given extensive coverage on the front page of Sunday Herald leading to a five-page analysis on pages 10 to 14. The debate is not entirely balanced, but I am not a great fan of the concept of balance if it suggests equivalence where none exists. I would class the Sunday Herald as partisan on the side of the Union (I am partisan on the side of independence) and be in no doubt, in spite of much high-minded protestations to the contrary, this debate is about the Union and about the impending referendum that threatens it.

The battle lines are being drawn, and the professional classes of Scotland, including the legal profession, are deciding on which side of those lines they will stand. To say that they are not influenced by their party affiliations and their stake in the survival of the Union is disingenuous. The Scottish Parliamentary election result of 2007 was an unpleasant surprise to the UK Establishment, to Westminster, to unionism and to the Labour Party in particular: the 2011 election result has been a profound and unsettling shock to them.

In deciding where we, the people of Scotland stand in this debate, it is important not to confuse the concept of justice and the rule of law with the system of justice and those who administer it – the courts, the lawyers, the advocates, the judges. The justice system is just that – a system and a process that attempts to dispense justice, but often fails, as all processes sometimes do, because they are operated by fallible human beings, who have personal objectives, personal ideals, personal political orientations and affiliations, ambitions and careers.

The law, as a profession, is in substantial part, a commercial enterprise, one that seeks to uphold high ideals and principles within the context of making money and securing career advancement. The professional bodies that represent the lawyers are like any other professional body, e.g. the medical profession, the police, architects, accountants, estate agents(!) – part high-minded defenders of ethics and principles, part trade union, attempting to maximise, secure and defend the privileges and earnings of its members.

In this latter role, they have always been spectacularly successful, and that success is in no small part due to their influence on the political process through their dominance in the UK Parliament and the Lords, and their ability to accommodate themselves to the influence of the political process on them. The legal profession across the globe operates in this way. To the degree that they achieve a balance between these often competing roles, the society of which they are a part is a just one.

The Sunday Herald story and report – and a bit from Scotland on Sunday

In the first column of Tom Gordon’s report a grenade is thrown into the debate -

But the Sunday Herald can reveal the present row may be just a warm-up act for a far bigger constitutional battle. For while MSPs were getting in a lather over Salmond’s street fighting style, the Supreme Court was  last week being asked to kill off an entire act of the Scottish Parliament.

Over three days, QCs acting for Britain’s biggest insurers argued a 2009 Act allowing people to sue for asbestos exposure should be struck down.

No high-minded defence of human rights here – this is a defence of commercial profits at the expenses of human rights.

And if we jump across to Scotland on Sunday, we get this little nugget from Eddie Barnes -

UK Ministers have warned Alex Salmond he must seek their support on the wording of his independence referendum or face the possibility of a legal challenge that could end up in the Supreme Court.

Scotland Office Minister David Mundell said a dispute over the crucial wording of the question could end up in the courts, as Unionist supporters would probably challenge it.

It looks like Alex Salmond is going to need what Tom Gordon (above) calls his “street fighting style”. In fact, if the unionists keep this line up, a “street fighting style” may be called for on a wider front than just Holyrood.

Back to the Herald, and on pages 12 and 13, the combatants line up, or rather, they are lined up in the way the Sunday Herald sees as most advantageous to the union case. Tom Gordon has a whole page described as “Analysis”, a label that requires scrutiny in the light of the content.

The first part is effectively an attempt to suggest that Kenny MacAskill’s reputation in the legal profession is threatened by his stated position on the UK Supreme Court. (Kenny Mac Askill also has a street fighting style, and I for one am glad of it – Scotland is going to need it in the years ahead of us.).

There is a very sour grapes reference to the Megrahi release – a belated recognition by the Herald that the best efforts of unionists to besmirch the Justice Secretary’s reputation on that issue had miserably failed, quoting Solicitor Advocate John Scott as saying that

… Salmond and MacAskill had squandered a huge amount of goodwill built up by the SNP government in a remarkably short period of time with their “cheap” personal attacks.

“I think the Megrahi decision played well with the legal profession, as did trying to scrap short-term sentences …”

“ … Uniting the legal profession against them is something that has happened remarkably quickly. The only way to draw a line under it is to apologise.”

Ian Smart, a past president of the Law Society, joins the chorus against Salmond and MacAskill, but revealingly refers to “the micro-politics of the legal profession”.

They don’t look so micro from where I’m sitting …

Later in the Analysis piece, we discover that Ian Smart helped found the Labour Action movement in the 1980s.  Nae politics there, then …

Paul McBride, QC gets a reference and is quoted here (and also gets a few column inches on the next page) as a defender of the First Minister’s position, but is described by Tom Gordon as “an isolated voice.” (He is not, except in the pages of the Herald and in the minds of the unionist opposition in Holyrood.)

Page 13 is headed Legal Opinion, and Colin Boyd, a former Solicitor General for Scotland (1997-2000)  and former Lord Advocate (2000-2006) gets more than three quarters of the column inches. He is now a Labour Life Peer in the House of Lords. Nae politics there, then …

Colin Boyd is very high-minded in his opening statements, as befits an eminent lawyer who has held two of the highest legal offices in Scotland and is now a peer of the realm, the realm being the United Kingdom.

It’s about “the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law”. Aye, so it is …

But it is more than that. It is a debate about our values and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms.

So it is. It’s about my values as a Scot, and my fundamental rights and freedoms as a Scot, under the law of Scotland, under the Act of Union, and under the Declaration of Arbroath. So far so good, Lord Boyd of Duncansby – ye’ll get nae argument frae me there, so long as whoever you mean by “our” doesn’t refer to some concept of Britishness, or British identity, a concept I don’t subscribe to.

Lord Boyd goes on to say that “Judges are not above criticism and in a free society, the idea that they can be immune from criticism is clearly wrong.”

Wait for the but, as my old boss used to say in negotiations when someone on the other side said something I agreed with – wait for the disjunctive coordinating conjunction.

And the but arrives, right on cue …

But a free society is one underpinned and guaranteed by the rule of law and the independent judiciary. Judges must be able to take decisions free from outside influence.

Well, I agree with that too, as a democrat must. But I have a but too, Lord Boyd. Without wishing to fall into the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, I ask the following question – why was the UK Supreme Court set up in the first place and who exactly who made the decision to set it up in 2009?

The simple answer to that, which tells us little about the political processes behind the scenes is that The Supreme Court was established by Part 3 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 and started work on 1 October 2009.

WHAT THE UK SUPREME COURT SAYS ABOUT ITSELF ON ITS WEBSITE

The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in the UK for civil cases. It hears appeals in criminal cases from England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population.

The Court was not set up to be the final court of appeal for criminal cases in Scotland, but it has now used the Human Rights Act to question key judgements of the Scottish High Court, to open cell doors, and to lay the Scottish Government open to huge financial liabilities. And its express right to be the final court of appeal for civil cases in the UK, including Scotland, now looks likely to be significant too, in the light of today’s asbestos report.

There is no UK law, but this sure as hell is beginning to look like it …

But it’s that bit highlighted in red that worries me - It hears cases of the greatest public or constitutional importance affecting the whole population.

What is the referendum on Scottish independence but a question of the greatest public and constitutional importance? And what is the definition of ‘the whole population’ going to be? I define it as the electorate of Scotland, and their absolute right to bring to an end the Union, but ‘the whole population’ in the minds of the Colonial Office – sorry, the Scottish Office, and in the minds of the Colonial Governor – sorry, Secretary of state for Scotland, Michael Moore and his assistant, David Mundel seems to be the population and the electorate of the UK.

Lord Boyd now goes on to a number of very revealing statements. He quotes Brian Taylor, the BBC’s Scottish political editor – “He said it seems probable that Mr. Salmond’s rhetoric will encourage the Supreme Court to be yet more minimalistic in the scope of its involvement in Scottish criminal law”.

Lord Boyd sees this as “the danger” – I see it as the highly desirable outcome, not of “rhetoric”, but of the legitimate call of the First Minister of Scotland, with  a renewed and enhanced mandate from the people of Scotland to the UK to be very careful about how they act in relation to the Scottish legal system and Scots law.

Lord Boyd gives passing reference to Lord McCluskey’s opposition to the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, i.e. in my words, UK law – for it is hard to see it as anything else.

Lord Boyd quotes Lord McCluskey’s description of the European Convention on Human Rights as “offering a field day for crackpots, a pain in the neck for judges and legislators, and a gold mine for lawyers.”

Gaun yersel, Lord McCluskey! Alex Salmond now faces a threat of legal action for saying much the same thing about gold mines and lawyers.

Lord Boyd then goes on to say many things about the Scottish legal system, and its role in preserving Scottish identity “during nearly three centuries of Union with England.” Of course, I applaud that, although I thought it was just over three centuries, but I bow to Lord Boyd's superior knowledge of these things.

But he then goes on to the now familiar unionist argument that Strasbourg is overburdened and the UK Supreme Court is simply helping them out to speed up the justice system.  I think I may safely describe this as a unionist argument, although Lord Boyd clearly advances it as a legal argument, and of course can maintain an absolute distinction between the political and the legal arguments. (Lord Boyd sits as a Labour peer in the House of Lords and Labour is a unionist party.)

Lord Boyd closes his Herald piece by saying that “It matters not whether one believes in an independent Scotland or Scotland within a Union”.

Oh, aye, it does, Lord Boyd – it matters to me, because I believe in an independent Scotland, and I would have thought it matters to you, as a Labour Lord and a member of a Unionist political party. I don’t think the great debate will be served by claims from either camp that they are heroically objective about these fundamental constitutional issues. And I believe, as I hope you believe, that it is harmful to the very ideals and values you and I do share to obscure this stark political reality.

You say “This debate is about who we are and what we stand for.” I agree – but we must be clear about that ‘we’, and whether it is we, the Scottish people in favour of independence, or we, the Scottish people who favour the Union, or we, the population of the UK, who may well have even more complex and contradictory stances on the matter.

I am a Scot and I stand for the independence of Scotland, and the elected Scottish Government’s right to put that fundamental choice to the Scottish electorate without interference from the UK in any of its many manifestations, from Westminster to the Supreme Court.

You ask three other fundamental question, Lord Boyd -

Do we aspire to be a society which is governed by the rule of law, upholding fundamental rights and freedoms?

Are we prepared to test our laws against international standards and conventions?

Do we respect the independence of the judiciary in upholding the rule of law and protecting our rights and freedoms?

To all three, I answer Yes, as a Scot, under Scottish and European law and the International Convention on Human Rights, as represented by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The judiciary I respect  is the Scottish Judiciary, operating under the law of Scotland, and the European judiciary in Strasbourg.

I did not wish the UK Supreme Court to be set up, but while it exists as a reality so long as the UK exists, I will respect its rulings, but feel entirely free to question their relevance, validity, and their wisdom.

If I feel as a citizen, that the UK Supreme Court is being politicised by those attempting to preserve the Union and the UK at all costs, I will defend its right to resist such an insidious process. If it seems to be yielding to such political pressures, I will not respect its independence, nor will I respect the judiciary who are part of such a perversion of The Act of Union and of democracy.