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Wings Over Scotland

The assault on reason

Posted on August 17, 2012 by

We live, perhaps more than at any time in history, in a world characterised by open lies. Only this week, the coalition government was caught red-handed understating the number of school playing-field closures under its administration by 50%. A punk band in Russia singing a protest song about the President’s attacks on human rights are accused of religious hatred, in a show trial every bit as transparently corrupt as anything Stalin or Hitler would have ordered.

Meanwhile in the West, a man dedicated to exposing truth and criminal activities is wanted by the USA to put on trial for espionage. Democratically elected politicians in the “home of the free” call for him to be executed or extra-judicially assassinated as a terrorist. Conversely, the same man portrays as political persecution attempts to have him extradited to another country to face allegations of rape and sexual assault.

(We’re surprised that the UK authorities don’t solve the problem at a stroke by simply getting Kenny Farquharson of the Scotsman to determine whether Assange is guilty or innocent while he’s still in the Ecuadorian embassy. After all, Kenny is apparently able to judge these things without all the tedious and time-consuming business of presenting evidence, hearing a defence and establishing or corroborating facts. So long as the accused doesn’t have access to highly-paid lawyers, of course.)

Here in Scotland things are no different. In the last week alone, two senior Unionist politicians have perpetrated enormous and deliberate lies cynically calculated to poison and undermine discourse. Ian Davidson and Willie Rennie have made inflammatory statements no intelligent human being could possibly believe to be true (we’ll pass tactfully over the issue over whether such a definition in fact includes either man), and angrily reasserted them when challenged.

There is only one purpose for actions like these. They are knowingly designed to create an intimidatory atmosphere where journalists are cowed into following the agenda desired by the culprits, and deflected from areas that said culprits don’t wish reported on. The wider intent is to control the media by recalibrating the centre ground of “impartiality”, and thereby achieve a strategic shift of coverage in their favour.

Here’s how it works.

Davidson and Rennie both made attacks on neutral parties – the BBC and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations respectively – which are by any reasonable measure groundless and far beyond the bounds of normal political comment. Davidson’s extraordinary playground outburst, in which one of BBC Scotland’s most respected broadcasters was harangued and accused of being an undercover SNP agent who should go and stand for election as such, drove a coach and horses through every imaginable convention of decency.

(We can’t even recall the last time a political interviewer anywhere in Britain was so incensed at their subject’s behaviour as to request an apology mid-interview.)

Rennie, meanwhile, demanded the resignation of a man for the heinous crime of receiving an unsolicited email. Alex Bell, an adviser to Alex Salmond, sent Martin Sime of the SCVO a two-word message accompanied by a link he felt Sime might be interested in. That’s the entire extent of the story. There is no record of Sime asking for the link to be sent, of his replying to the email, or of taking any sort of action as a result of receiving it.

(Indeed, even if he had he wouldn’t have been doing anything wrong. SCVO’s position with regard to the referendum is that it wants more choice to be made available to the Scottish people. It has not endorsed any position with regard to that choice, only that it should exist, and it is perfectly entitled to comment on any issues surrounding that debate, including the one highlighted by Mr Bell.)

When Rennie’s demands were rebuffed in the most uncompromising terms with an eloquent and cutting response from the SCVO’s convenor, he didn’t do what any rational human being would do in the same circumstances – slink off with his tail between his legs while mumbling an insincere apology. Instead, he adopted the exact same petulant approach and tone Davidson had done, redoubling his accusations rather than retracting them.

Where Davidson had hysterically accused the BBC of a “conspiracy” in allowing someone who opposed his views airtime alongside him (albeit a small fraction of the airtime than he was granted), Rennie’s schoolyard retort was to claim that the fact his outrageous and ludicrous allegations had attracted an angry response proved that they must be correct. (We’re tempted to apply that logic to Mr Rennie’s own intemperate comments of the recent past.)

In isolation, both of these incidents are noteworthy only for their absurd, almost comical extremity. However, when taken as part of a co-ordinated campaign they take on a whole different complexion. Davidson’s diatribe was quickly backed up in the Scottish “serious” press, while Rennie’s bout of insanity was stoutly defended all over the blogosphere by a prominent Scottish Lib Dem activist.

In both cases, the interesting aspect is that the supporting pieces didn’t attempt damage limitation, but actually intensified the attacks. Michael Kelly’s piece in the Scotsman sowed vague smears against Newsnight’s Isabel Fraser, muttering darkly about her “having form” for SNP bias. Caron Lindsay employed a stream of evasion and ad-hominem to portray Alison Elliot as “hostile” and “unprofessional”, and made the mind-boggling assertion that there was “no excuse” for Elliot having publicly defended her colleague against a libellous and despicable assault.

(Frankly, in Elliot and Sime’s position this blog would have considered anything up to and including kicking Willie Rennie’s teeth in as a fair and proportionate response.)

The final piece of the jigsaw duly arrived in today’s Scotsman. A piece by Eddie Barnes ostensibly bemoaned the behaviour of those in both camps, seeking to drag the nationalists down into the same fetid swamp in which Davidson and Rennie were wallowing. It cited as evidence Alex Salmond’s use of the term “gauleiter” in February this year, and the description of Telegraph columnist Alan Cochrane as a “fascist Tory git” during a radio interview, by what the Scotsman termed an “independence-supporting journalist” called Martin Hannan.

These situations are, on even the most cursory analysis, not remotely comparable to what Davidson and Rennie did. Alex Salmond made no allegations of bias on the part of the BBC with regard to his de-invitation from a rugby discussion, suggesting only that the producer in question had acted in an overly officious manner (that being the most commonly-used definition of the word in question).

Hannan, meanwhile, is not an elected representative, does not speak for the SNP (we have no idea if he’s even a member of the party), and abused Cochrane without impugning him – unlike the BBC or SCVO, Cochrane is under no obligation to be impartial and makes no pretence at being so, therefore saying he isn’t is in no way defamatory. (One might also passingly note that as Cochrane regularly compares Alex Salmond to various fascist dictators including Mussolini and Kim Jong-Il, he was on rather thin ice storming off in the huff when someone did the same to him anyway.)

The attempt to drag the nationalist side into the Unionists’ swamp reveals the intended effect of the co-ordinated strategy. Despite having done absolutely nothing wrong, the SNP are tarred with the same brush as Davidson and Rennie, who have behaved disgracefully. Barnes ostensibly places himself in the “middle” of two equally-sinning fighters, and in doing so surreptitiously redefines the centre ground.

Think of it as a football match where one side has Lionel Messi playing in midfield. The opposition might send out its centre-half pairing of limited cloggers out with instructions to foul, kick, niggle and generally abuse him in the hope of provoking a response. They might pressure (or even bribe) the referee to give Messi a yellow card if he tries to shake himself out of a wrestling-hold “tackle” and one of the centre-halves goes down clutching his face, writhing on the turf in fake agony.

The purpose, of course, would be to intimidate Messi into not playing to his full ability through fear of either injury or sending off, and the political game being played here is no different. Davidson and Rennie have spent 45 minutes scything the BBC and SCVO down and spitting on them behind the referee’s back, and then taken spectacular dives at the first hint of retaliation. Their team-mates (Kelly, Lindsay, Foulkes) have duly clustered around the ref in a baying mob, at which point – out of either incompetence or corruption – he’s cautioned both sides, thereby justifying and rewarding the tactics while affecting impartiality.

The ploy is as transparent as the average American wrestling match, and indeed is a variant of one that’s infected US politics since the Bush era. It’s proved fairly successful over the Atlantic – even when it couldn’t prevent the election of Barack Obama, it’s managed to effectively hamper much of his administration’s policy programme – so we shouldn’t be surprised to see the Unionist parties adopt it here.

It’s a gameplan that tends to be adopted when all else is failing. When your arguments are strong, a positive approach usually pays better dividends than dirty tricks – a lesson the SNP have learned to powerful effect in the 21st century. The only danger for the nationalists is in allowing themselves to be drawn into a kicking match. As the old saying goes: if you have a mudfight with a pig, you’ll both get filthy but he’ll like it.

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31 to “The assault on reason”

  1. Doug Daniel says:

    It’s very tedious. This seems to be the next step on from trying to make out that all nationalists are knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who spend every waking moment on the internet, calling poor, defenceless unionists “("Tractor" - Ed)” and “Quisling”. And it works, because I find myself, as a nationalist, feeling more wary of accusing people of pro-union bias, because you feel like you’re stooping to their level.

    I found out about Barnes’ article on Twitter, where he’s glorying over the fact that some twit has spammed the comments thread, thus providing an “irony overload”. 

  2. Dave says:

    That’s the first time I’ve heard the radio interview – cheers for the link.  It sounds like there might be a wee bit of history between the 2 protagonists!  It’s incredible that Cochrane believes the SNP don’t actually want a referendum at all.  Maybe he thinks if he says it enough times it’ll come true.

  3. Macart says:

    I agree. I don’t think these attacks are unrelated. They appear to be targeted at those rarest of creatures in the debate, true neutrals. The tactics in both instances appear too similar. Watch this space for Canon Kenyon Wright being on this list in the near future.

    The main tactic appears to be, if you can’t win the debate, trash it. 

  4. Theuniondivvie says:

    What’s amazing to me is, despite changing personnel and shifting narratives, the absolute consistency of the Unionists’ position and tactics – I’m still unsure if they have a strategy. I wonder if we’re reaching a point where an historical perspective is beginning to form about the period leading up to the referendum (probably beginning when the SNP took power in 2007). Are we going to look back at the end of 2014 at the last hurrah of an atrophied Unionism, unable to change or evolve? Will the referendum be as much lost by their negativity as won by a positive ‘Yes’ campaign?

  5. John White says:

    Outstanding analysis. I fear it will get worse before the referendum – the YES campaign have to remain positive as fighting dirty will be amplified out of all proportion by the Unionists.

  6. Peter A Bell says:

    As a perhaps wryly amusing aside, I recently noticed the following tweet from Eddie Barnes:

    “EddieBarnes23 Leader in @scotsmanpaper on the slurring of Ye Shiwen. When did we forget principle of innocent until proven guilty?
    9:17 AM Aug 1th from web”

    I replied suggesting he might well address this question to his colleague, Kenny Farquharson, attaching a screen-shot of another of the latter’s tweets in similar vein to that reproduced above.

  7. Prophet_Peden says:

    I don’t think it can credibly be argued that the SNP or Alex Salmond are above this kind of thing. Not quite sure when this clip is from (pre 2011 Holyrood victory though)

    Not as belligerent as Davidson but still certainly as partisan as the attack on ‘Newsnat’ and it’s impartiality.

    Unless of course the phrase “British Brainwashing Corporation” isn’t mudfighting with a pig.

    Don’t get me wrong, the contempt that the likes of Paxman holds the First Minister in is contemptible, but maybe phrases like “Brainwashing Corporation” part explain it.    

    Just a thought. 

  8. UkFacepalm says:

    This subtrefuge is transparent to anyone who tracks it. But most Scots punters aren’t political anoraks like wot we are … and as the article spells out, the centre of gravity of “balanced reporting” is moved by the MSM covertly under peoples feet. Many will continue to form their opinion not by questioning the BBC, STV,  The Scotsman, The Daily Record etc … but by unthinkingly absorbing and regurgitating the reportage that goes into their eyes and ears. Eddie Barnes is a classic example of one of the journo’s who regularly and deliberately skews and shifts the middle ground of balanced reporting, to an (ahem) position where if Labour are attacked, then the SNP must also be attacked in the same breath. Ian Davidson unmasked as a bully ? Then dredge up something Eck said. Willie Rennie makes a tit of himself ? Then concoct something that somehow drags Eck/SNP into the story.

    It’s no wonder the Scottish MSM have it in for the “cybernats … who are the only group of people who are real-time watching and recording the activities of all these outright liars, spinners and propagandists.

  9. Rev. Stuart Campbell says:

    A fair enough point, but I think the tone of Salmond’s response there is one of gentle jocular mockery rather than Davidson’s persistent and plainly serious accusation.

  10. DougtheDug says:


    Eddie Barnes @EddieBarnes23 
    my column on calls for intelligent #indyref debate, followed by a spammer blocking the comment thread. Irony overload

    It just shows Eddie Barnes never reads Scotsman articles on-line. That spammer has been hitting the Scotsman comments for weeks if not months and the Scotsman neither blocks him nor removes his comments. The spammer does have a sense of humour though. He’s got “Freedom” written in morse code at the bottom of each spam comment. It used to be something in Chinese.

    Eddie must think he’s important enough for the spammer to be targeting him personally.

  11. UkFacepalm says:

    The “hi-tech digital future” Scotsman is still incapable of preventing username impersonation in its comments, and most hilariously of all, the recent spammer who has learned how to hit the comments section with a web-bot creating several thousand identical posts. Childish perhaps, but The Scotsman web-site techies have been shown up as incompetent. The digital Scotsman will be toast.

  12. Cuphook says:

    I wouldn’t credit this with being a ‘co-ordinated campaign ‘. It just appears to be arrogant politicians making fools of themselves and the ever dutiful Unionist press fangirling to divert us from the initial event.
    There are a lot of journalistic reputations riding on the coattails of inept politicians. Is it any wonder that they make a lot of noise defending them?

  13. James Morton says:

    It’s clear from the polls that there is appetite for change, not necessarly for Independence as yet, but definitely for more powers. The SNP are refusing to be rushed or bullied and are keeping their powder dry – the Unionist camp has driven itself to utter distraction. They veer from faoming at the mouth outrage to belligerent imbicility. You only have to look at these individuals with their almost daily and relentless attacks on the Scottish Government, or the increasingly personal attacks on Salmond himself. The way the press and the other parties portray him, you’d think he was a tartan Blofeld, in a tartan Nehru suit, sitting in a highbacked chair (charles rennie macintosh of course) while stroking a tartan cat.
    Thing is most Scots might not be political anoraks as Ukfacepalm suggests, but they know sh*t when they smell it. Each brainfart from the unionist camp reminds me of a profound statement used by my gran – “That man is a bigger bum than 10 arses” Just sort of sums up certain characters in the Unionist camp…don’t it?

  14. Peter A Bell says:

    “I wouldn’t credit this with being a ‘co-ordinated campaign ‘.”

    It is coordinated at least to the extent that all the anti-independence parties, and much of the media, are motivated by precisely the same imperative. The imperative to smear the SNP and/or the independence campaign.

    Having said that, there is certainly evidence that the coordination is frequently much more formal than mere coincidence of devious purpose. It is remarkable how often spokespersons for the old parties use very similar if not identical language in their attacks on the SNP or the Scottish Government. For example, we recently had Jim Murphy and Ruth Davidson both asserting that the SNP “just don’t get defence”.

    And surely nobody who has witnessed FMQ can believe that there is no collusion between Ruth Davidson and Johann Lamont.

  15. Doug Daniel says:

    UKFacepalm – “It’s no wonder the Scottish MSM have it in for the “cybernats … who are the only group of people who are real-time watching and recording the activities of all these outright liars, spinners and propagandists.”

    Journalists don’t like having their opinions challenged. See also how they have pounced on the term “troll” and gleefully used it to pretty much describe anyone who disagrees with them. The real meaning of the word (in terms of the internet) is someone who posts something deliberately provocative for the sole purpose of getting a rise out of people – like going on an Oasis forum and saying “Oasis r shit LOLZ”. But journalists use it to describe people who challenge them (sometimes in admittedly overly-strong terms).

    Journalists used to be able to write what they liked in newspaper articles, without any fear of reprisal. The internet removes that power from them. They’re reduced to being no more relevant than any other random person on the internet with a blog, and people treat them accordingly, giving them “instant feedback” in the form of critical comments in comments sections and direct criticism on Twitter. They think this is bullying or “trolling”, but in reality it’s just part of the job. If you don’t want people criticising your opinions, then don’t make them public, and certainly don’t expect to be paid for doing so.

  16. Cuphook says:

    Sorry Peter. I was talking about the actions of Davidson and Rennie. If their actions had been part of a ‘co-ordinated campaign’ to move the ground a PR juggernaut would have been ready to roll and crush all before it. Initially, the press was largely silent (the usual sign that the actions of Unionists have crossed the line) apart from deranged sycophants who demanded more of what they claimed was honest and forthright revelation of a Nationalist conspiracy to infiltrate the media and civic Scotland. This is glaringly mad and I don’t think we should follow them down the road to Bedlam.
    On the wider argument, I agree with you that there is cooperation among the Unionist parties and their lackeys. This is highlighted by the fact that they are all in members of the NO campaign. Would we expect anything else from them? Their resources, financially and intellectually, are depleted and they must combine what is left to fight the common enemy.
    The press, we know, is largely Unionist in nature and happily regurgitates Unionist press releases as fact, but the fact is that the press has already lost it’s power of persuasion. This is proven by the majority SNP government.
    Why ascribe special powers to incompetents like Davidson and Rennie? I don’t think they would have given Machiavelli’s dog a restless night.

  17. Andrew says:

    At the rate they’re going, there’ll be no unionist press left by 2014.

  18. Rev. Stuart Campbell says:

    To clarify: I think the “co-ordinated campaign” is what happened AFTER Davidson’s initial actions.

  19. megabreath says:

    “journalists dont like having their opinions challenged”
    yup.In a nutshell mate.for many years they held the right to speak as theirs alone.Sure we could all debate,within the parameters of whatever they had written,and that was acceptable because the right to respond was very limited indeed.Nowdays?Response is immediate and,whats more,often better informed than the journalist themselves.Hard cheese eh? 🙂

  20. Doug Daniel says:

    “Response is immediate and,whats more,often better informed than the journalist themselves.Hard cheese eh?”

    The ridiculous thing is they refuse to accept it a lot of the time. Look at the difference between Newsnicht and Scotland Tonight. Both got lambasted on Monday for all-male panels, particularly as it was launch day of Women For Independence. Scotland Tonight’s reaction? An all-female show the next day, discussing why the media continues to ignore women. Newsnicht’s response? Ignore it and carry on.

    As a result, people look at Scotland Tonight as actually engaging with their audience, whereas Newsnicht just looks out of date. It’s the same with “usual suspect” guests – Scotland Tonight responds when people criticise it, and try to do better or at least explain why they have the same folk all the time. Newsnicht don’t give a toss.

  21. Kenny Campbell says:

    Its just a pity that back 4 never played for Rangers or you’d have had a full house with this one. Don’t forget that Brown was also sticking his oar in this week with another round of too wee, too poor and this was lapped up by MSM. Just look at size of the comments thread on It in the Herald…..

    I do also think that the Unionists have a good size of mobile troops on the internet who regularly “Troll.”…. One secifically from West Midlands who seems to be about as difficult to get rid of as a this current constitutional situation.

  22. Cuphook says:

    I would agree that there was a face saving exercise (I did mean to mention it my first post) but even to describe that as a ‘co-ordinated campaign’ seems to imbue it with attributes it lacked. It struck me as being unfocussed and without heart. I also took it as encouragement that the Unionists will wear themselves out before 2014.
    As Megabreath points out, journalists are now challenged in real time and the contrived arguments of political hacks are soon unpicked. Most of our politicians are unexceptional, a lot of them are fools, and require the media to protect them from the consequences of their own utterances. I don’t think that the formula works anymore and the stupidity of politicians is compounded by the support of the loyal press.

  23. Rev. Stuart Campbell says:

    “Its just a pity that back 4 never played for Rangers or you’d have had a full house with this one”

    Hey, be fair, I did get Kyle Lafferty in…


    (In my defence I’d have used the example from the first week of the SFL season where someone else collapsed in the box clutching his face after someone’s sleeve brushed his chest, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember which players/teams were involved.)

  24. H Scott says:


    The media create these people as well as protect them. Because the unionist parties and politicians come under very little scrutiny there is nothing to encourage them to up their game. That’s why, in part, they are so mediocre. The opposite applies to the SNP. Of course, the media can only do so much and the public see where the quality lies, hence SNP government. 

  25. Gabe Neil says:

    Oh damn, Rev, why’d you have to wait till today to post this? I’ve been writing my journalism masters dissertation on pretty much this subject (except with more Foucault), and this would be been an absolute quotemine for me! Just handed it in today as well. Never mind, though, I still need to thank you for making it so that I can put wonderful phrases like “galactic-class halfwit” into a masters thesis (if only Bella Caledonia and Newsnet Scotland were so interesting to quote). Excellent analysis and very close to the conclusions I came to as well, which is always nice. 

    So if you like you can now say that your blog has been used (among others) heavily in a journalism dissertation about democratising the Scottish news media. The fact that the essay is almost unbearably dull to read is just par for the course though, so don’t say I didn’t warn you if it even becomes available online.

  26. Al Ghaf says:

    “We live, perhaps more than at any time in history, in a world characterised by open lies”

    In general, no, I doubt today’s lies are any more important than yesterdays or tomorrows lies. Only they are important today.


  27. uilleam_beag says:

    Hi Gabe Neil. Congratulations on finishing your master’s dissertation. It sounds timely and engaging in its subject matter. I don’t care how “unbearably dull” you think it may be, I’d still like to read it and I’m sure many others would too.

  28. Gabe Neil says:

    Thanks very much uilliam_beag! I suppose you live with a piece of work long enough you start to hate the very sight of it. I was thinking of perhaps trying to re-work it so its less academic and more readable.

  29. uilleam_beag says:

    I know exactly what you mean. I just finished a (very simple unimaginative) kids’ novel, and you do get to the point of wondering why anyone in their right minds would be interested in reading the rambling haverings that come out of your own!

  30. Cuphook says:

    H Scott
    I agree with you. Everyone complains about the churnalism that is prevalent in today’s media and it shows that the internet and other social media are two edged swords. So much ‘opinion’ is picked up on and regurgitated by journalists without a second thought that it becomes meaningless cliché.
    Take the example of Michael Forsyth proclaiming that the date of the referendum was chosen to coincide with the anniversary of Bannockburn. That ‘fact’ has been repeated so often in the media that all it does is remind people of the stupidity of its invention.
    A couple of articles appeared in the press defending Davidson’s outburst and, slowly, other Unionists picked up on the line of defence. It’s not a conspiracy; it’s not co-ordinated; it’s not effective, and like all churnalism it exposes itself as it is regurgitated.
    The independence side does have to work harder which makes it’s reasoned arguments more effective. A good example of this was when, earlier this year, the Guardian ran a series of articles on the implications of Scottish independence, written by journalists seemingly not up to the task of investigating and evaluating simple facts. In the comments section people like Sneekyboy made the pro-independence case on a number of issues and they were obviously more informed than the journalists. People do read these responses and take them on-board.
    I was fascinated in 2007 when the SNP won despite the hostility of the media and 2011 confirmed, to me, that by using social media, a political party giving the people what they want can get their case across.
    I think that the Scottish independence movement is post-nationalist by nature and this is made more obvious by the jingoistic outpourings of the Unionist side who are forever drawing on history, the trappings of state and ethnicity among other outdated concepts. If the SNP (and wider independence movement) were flag waving, kilt wearing nationalists we wouldn’t be in the position that we are today – and the media makes the choice easier.

  31. charlie says:

     The headline particular lie from The Currant Bun was the ‘17% rise in 20 mile per hour limit roads’. The truth is seven people died rather than six in 20 mile zones which are more widespread these days

    I look forward to davidson understaning a bit better the uses of statistics


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