When we’ve been asked on a couple of different occasions why we started Wings Over Scotland, we’ve always given the same reply – to ask (and thereby try to answer) the questions that the Scottish media was dismally failing to ask on our behalf. It would be hard to illustrate that failure with a better example than what happened yesterday.
We’re not even talking about the bog-standard factory-default Unionist bias that’s seen not a single newspaper today depicting the launch of “United With Labour” as a “split” in the anti-independence movement – after a year of leaping on every single policy difference or minor spat between members of the Yes campaign as evidence of “chaos” and “turmoil” – despite the news/comedy value of an organisation devoted to “unity” and “togetherness” breaking into splinter groups just months into its existence.
We refer to something much more fundamental – basic journalistic competence.
Every newspaper and online news site covered the launch in some depth. Scotland Tonight devoted most of last night’s edition to the event, including an interview with UWL’s (apparent) figurehead Gordon Brown by an uncharacteristically toothless Bernard Ponsonby. But none of them asked a single one of the questions that would have been scrawled right at the top of any modestly capable 20-year-old media-studies graduate’s clipboard. Staggeringly obvious questions like these:
1. Is Labour still part of the “Better Together” campaign?
2. If so, which personnel are attached to which campaign? Which one is Johann Lamont, say, in? Why wasn’t Alistair Darling, high-profile chairman of the No camp, present yesterday when every other senior Scottish Labour figure was?
(If everyone in Labour is working with both campaigns, what purpose does “United With Labour” serve? How can it disassociate the party from its “Better Together” allies if everyone in UWL is also working for BT?)
3. Is “United With Labour” a separate political body registered with the Electoral Commission? If so, who are its officers, and why doesn’t it have a web page, Facebook page or Twitter account? How can it be contacted?
(Readers can fill in their own “cost of a stamp”/”dialling code” joke here.)
4. Assuming the answer to (3) is “yes”, what is UWL’s legal status with regard to campaign expenditure? Will it be subject to the £834,000 limit for Labour, or the £150,000 limit for “other registered campaigners”?
5. How is any such expenditure by UWL to be funded? Will it receive money from “Better Together”, or are its costs being borne solely by the Labour Party? Is it accepting contributions from the public, and if so what address should they be sent to? Will any such donations be publicly declared?
We’ll spare you the other 495 questions. You get the idea. But every professional news journalist in Scotland should be hanging their head in shame this morning.
(We’ve asked some of these questions ourselves to the likes of Johann Lamont and Margaret Curran, but have received no response, nor do we expect to. Unlike the BBC, STV, Scotsman, Herald, Record, Sun et al, we didn’t have the opportunity of a face-to-face meeting with the participants at the event.)
The failure to treat the Yes and No sides with any sort of equality or balance is one we’re used to by now. But the absence of even a token pretence of proper scrutiny is an embarrassment not just to the journalism trade, but to Scotland as a country. If this is the best the nation’s proud fourth estate can offer, they should follow the apparent example of the “Better Together” chairman and step aside.