It seems somehow fitting that there was a political battle in Stirling yesterday. The city was host to two sets of military-themed festivities, with the UK government having decided to hold Armed Forces Day there in a move transparently aimed at wrecking the commemorations of the 700th anniversary of the Battle Of Bannockburn.
The anniversary was obviously on an immovable date and location, but the Labour-Tory coalition that runs Stirling Council, and which last year attempted to replace a Saltire which flies over the statues of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce with a Union Jack – a plan it abandoned after it was highlighted by this site – agreed to host the competing festival on the same weekend.
Armed Forces Day had free admission to undermine the relatively pricey Bannockburn event. Labour even went so far as to actively try to put people off attending the latter, with Glasgow MP Ian Davidson suggesting that the commemoration was nothing more than a glorification of “the murder of hundreds of thousands of English people”. (These particular “people” being an invading army, actual English casualties around 10,000.)
The press covered the subsequent downsizing of the historical recreation with glee, with numerous articles reporting low ticket sales and other problems right up to the eve of the show, which appeared about to be a major flop.
But then something odd happened.
All of a sudden, Bannockburn Live was a sellout. It wasn’t thanks to the BBC, which had TV and radio location crews in Stirling reporting on Armed Forces Day every 15 minutes on the BBC News channel, but without mentioning Bannockburn Live at all.
There were occasional passing references to “other events”, but we had the channel on for five hours and the word “Bannockburn” was never used. It was rather like having three broadcast teams covering the Glastonbury Village Church Fayre during the Glastonbury Festival weekend, and vaguely acknowledging that there were competing attractions to the bric-a-brac stall and the vicar’s tombola but never saying what they actually were.
In fairness, the BBC eventually reported from Bannockburn this morning. But it did so in the context of some rather striking media coverage.
Most papers described attendances of “over 10,000” at Bannockburn on Saturday, a figure which ought to be correct as it’s easily verifiable from paid ticket sales. Indeed, there were reports in several papers of long queues and dissatisfied customers being unable to get into the battle recreations, which raised questions about how the event would have coped with the higher capacity originally planned.
Meanwhile, the media uniformly quoted numbers of “more than 35,000” for Armed Forces Day, but those seem rather harder to back up. The BBC website, for example, ran an extensive gallery of pictures, but crowds were conspicuous by their absence.
The pics showed a plentiful supply of current and former members of the armed forces themselves, but the marching ranks appeared to considerably outnumber those watching them, where there were any spectators visible at all. The only shot of a sizeable turnout of members of the public was one depicting what the BBC called “explosive military demonstrations”.
We’re no experts, but it’s hard to reasonably place more than 2000 to 2500 people in that picture. It’s cut off at the left, but as it appears to be people standing in a flat field rather than in any sort of grandstand, it seems unlikely that there would be many more out of shot, as they wouldn’t be able to see anything.
[EDIT 3.26pm: full uncropped pictures of the area here, which to our eyes suggest a total crowd of somewhere in the vicinity of 3000 at the busiest point.]
It’s hard to work out what the criteria are for the media documenting large gatherings of people. Last year’s independence rally on Calton Hill, at which the police gave an estimated 20,000 attendance figure, got less than a minute’s coverage on the BBC, balanced by almost as much airtime given to a deeply suspect “Better Together” leafleting event which involved a total of five No campaigners.
More recently, the state broadcaster drew thousands of complaints for almost completely ignoring an anti-austerity protest in London with 50,000 marchers, having given considerably more coverage to a pro-cuts demo which attracted just 350 people.
We weren’t in Stirling yesterday, so we don’t know how many people turned out for Armed Forces Day, but there seems to be no evidence available anywhere which would lead to any reasonable interpretation that it was even remotely close to 35,000. (The population of the entire city is only 41,000.)
Stills and video footage alike show scattered handfuls of spectators, even at the start and end points where you’d logically expect the biggest concentrations, and with multiple crews in place and dozens of reports throughout the day you’d have thought the BBC would make sure to get some good crowd shots were there any to be had.
Armed Forces Day has been explicitly used as an anti-independence political tool since the beginning, and the Prime Minister continued the process yesterday. But even backed by £400,000 of public money and free to attend, it seems to have been something of a damp squib, while Bannockburn Live – attacked by the Scottish press for months on end – was packed out on both days.
The media seems to be engaged in a frantic attempt to cover those facts up. But it’s hard to get pictures to tell lies.