Joan McAlpine: Media playing catch-up on the democratic debate

While skinny students with trousers round their ankles distribute comedy fliers on the High Street, and international art lovers swoon over Chinese ballet, a very different festival pulls the crowds at the more sedate end of the Royal Mile. It’s the Festival of Politics in Holyrood. Not that Holyrood fails to offer a feast of politics the rest of the year. But August allows the public to quiz elected members and professional pundits at close quarters – and, more often than not, lead the debate.

This year they considered, among other things, how children could shape policy, where the Arab Spring will lead and has Twitter changed the world? (Not in Egypt apparently, it was Facebook that sparked that revolution.)

If the latter exchange between myself, Labour MSPs Kezia Dugdale and Malcolm Chisholm and SNP social media expert Kirk Torrance, sets the tone for Scotland’s future, we’ll have to rechristen the country Harmony. I complimented Kezia’s cultured tweets about her visits to theatrical events, she thanked me for alerting her to Steve Jobs’s resignation. Everyone raved about Kirk’s web strategy, while Kirk declared Malcolm a man of principle he had always admired.

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There was, however, nothing harmonious about the next debate in which I was a panellist: Reporting the Independence Referendum. Blair Jenkins, former head of news and current affairs with BBC Scotland and the man who led the independent Scottish Broadcasting Commission, was chair of this pioneering event. “To my knowledge, this is the first public discussion of how the referendum will be covered in the media,” he said.

Is this surprising, when you consider that the media has yet to come to terms even with devolution? Last Friday Eric Schmidt, head of Google, addressed the Edinburgh Television Festival. He gave a stimulating lecture that accused “UK education” of failing to put enough emphasise on technology and dividing children into arts and sciences – worlds destined never to collide. The future needs both sets of skills: creative engineers.

Schmidt should have googled the country he was speaking in. Not only does Scotland have a separate education system from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it also has technology as one of the eight subject areas of the Curriculum for Excellence. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect Schmidt to know this, but no Scottish or UK media outlet made the distinction either. It was left to Ewan McIntosh, the education and technology blogger, to point out that Schmidt was only partly correct. Michael Gove had sidelined technology in England, McIntosh explained to his international readership of geeks and educators, but it is considered essential in Scotland. His own daughter learned simple programming in nursery school.

Such examples are common in the devolution era. Will the reporting get better when thoughts turn to further powers? One thing that struck me about the Reporting Independence debate, was the failure of some journalists to move beyond the language and framework created by the unionist political parties. Instead of addressing the aspirations of voters – a clear message from 5 May – there is an obsession with process.

Perhaps this is to be expected in the case of the man from the Daily Mail, a paper with a strong emotional loyalty to the concept of Britain as a centralised political entity. What was perhaps more surprising was that John Boothman, new head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, took a similar process-focused approach, demanding to know the wording/timing/detail of any future referendum and outlining his plans to highlight case studies of individuals currently dependent on, say, pensions. There is more than one way to look at the future, and categorising change as cataclysmic assumes an ideological position. One could easily look at democratic development as a natural and logical process – for example the Scottish Parliament is responsible for the NHS, so let us rationally extend that to benefits and pensions. How do we make Scotland fairer, more in control of its destiny? How could independence make life in Scotland better?

All this is also predicated on an ideological assumption – but it is no more partial than the apocalyptic script so many journalists borrow from unionists. Do they use that script because they believe in it, or because they are unsure, lazy, or just too busy? One thing is certain, it’s not the movie the people want to watch.

Those staunchly opposed to change are very small in number but over-represented in public discourse. Far more numerous are those who are undecided, who want trustworthy information. This rather suggests they do not trust what they have heard so far – the longstanding unionist position that this country is too small and poor to support itself.

They are looking for different narratives, that will guide them to a better place. Will they get these from traditional sources? Or will they be more dependent on word of mouth and the internet? Blogs and user-generated online content is growing, but is nowhere near replacing “legacy media” as the main source of information. That could change in the next three years, and the impact will be fascinating.

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In the short term, the media have put little pressure on the Westminster government’s failure to respond in any meaningful way to May’s result. The outcome of the Scotland Bill discussions, such as they are, will set the scene for the referendum debate. Why, then, has the bill’s progress through parliament received so little attention, and the coalition been allowed to ignore – so far at least – suggested improvements from the first majority Scottish Government? The best information on the bill’s detail comes from bloggers such as constitutional academic Alan Trench. In the decades leading up to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the media led the debate, now it – with some notable exceptions – tags along behind the losing side.

l Joan McAlpine is an SNP MSP for the South of Scotland