Peter Jones: Times still a changing for journalism

IN HIS last column Peter Jones hails the power of negative thinking and the ins and outs of referendum politics

Chris Hadfield says an essential part of an astronauts training is to think of everything that could go wrong. Picture: Getty Images
Chris Hadfield says an essential part of an astronauts training is to think of everything that could go wrong. Picture: Getty Images

When the telephone rang and I saw the editor was calling, I somehow instinctively knew the bell was tolling for me. This is my last column. It’s been sometimes hard work, but always enjoyable. Although I’m biased, I think I have fulfilled a valuable public service which, at the end of the day, is what journalism should be all about.

Sadly, it is increasingly hard to provide that service. News and advertising revenue competition from internet providers mean that old school mainstream media types like me have been living on an iceberg, crowding together as it drifts south and shrinks. Occasionally, pressures push some of us off into the cold ocean, as now with me.

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Floating away, my thoughts are about the drastically changed nature of journalism. The advent of the internet, some of us thought rather naively, would be an opportunity to communicate directly with readers, to exchange facts and opinions and to have intelligent discussions.

That does happen, as with the estimable Steuart Campbell (many thanks), known to most readers for his indefatigable letter-writing and correction of errors. But mostly it doesn’t. Instead, a rational argument is routinely subject to abuse, ranging from primary playground name-calling through to nasty intimidation, all bravely hurled from behind a curtain of anonymity. To all those pathetic posters, frankly, you never had any effect save possibly to convince any neutral reader of your nastiness and the hollowness of your cause.

Politics generates the most heat. Much of my career has been reporting and opining on politics. An iron reporting rule of mine has been that I present the relevant for and against facts and opinions and leave readers to form their own conclusions. And when opining, as in this space, I still produce what I think is the relevant evidence, the difference being that I write what my conclusion is.

Fortunately, throughout my career, I have been able to do that. I have never been instructed what to write by anyone. Occasionally, I have had to convince editors that I am right, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But everything published under my name has met my own personal acid test – that I should be able to sleep with a clear conscience knowing that I have done an honest job. No evidence has been twisted and no dishonest conclusion reached. That is how it should be. I am pleased to say that throughout my career I have irritated political leaders of all parties. My job has been to inspect what they say and propose, and to expose the flaws, as there invariably are. A very few understand and respect that, most don’t.

Unfortunately, many modern readers, particularly the online variety, don’t get that either. They seem to think that it is the job of a journalist to support a particular cause and argue for it unceasingly, even when the facts don’t support it. That’s for polemicists; journalists should go where the evidence leads.

Too many inhabit a binary world – if you are not for them, you must be against them for ideological reasons. Sorry, but that doesn’t follow either. My default political position is to be against all political ideologies. Blind faith that one ideology is right and all others are wrong has disastrous consequences for people as history has shown time and time again. My political beliefs are strictly utilitarian – I’ll support what works until something comes along that works better.

Meantime, I’ll test and test again all political propositions. This is sometimes sneeringly dismissed as negativity. One of the columns of which I am most proud was based on a chapter titled The Power of Negative Thinking in a book by astronaut Chris Hadfield.

He explained that an essential part of an astronaut’s training is to think of absolutely everything that could go wrong on a mission so that, when something does go wrong, your pool of negative thinking tells you how to fix it.

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That’s how I approached the independence referendum. The union has worked, after a fashion, and there is much wrong with it, but could independence do a better job for the people of Scotland? The evidence piled up that the form of independence Scotland was being presented with would not just go wrong, but would probably blow up on the launch pad. So I advised a No vote.

And history, though it gives me no great pleasure because of the grief it is causing to many dependent on the oil industry, has proved me right.

Re-reading the SNP’s Scotland’s Future prospectus, surely the biggest con trick ever to have been attempted on Scottish voters, I see that we were promised that in the first year of independence, tax revenues would have fallen short of public spending by between 1.6 to 3.2 per cent of GDP. Bad, but better than the union’s deficit of 3.4 per cent of GDP – fancy that.

But now, with the promised oil revenues not being between £6.8-7.9 billion, but perhaps only £0.2 billion, Scotland’s likely deficit on independence day, due in just 23 days, would have been between twice to three times worse than the union’s. The union’s austerity may be bad, but independence austerity would have been utterly appalling.

All the Scotland’s Future fantasies of lower taxes and higher spending would have turned into a horrible reality of higher taxes and lower spending (do cut out and keep this, John). A convincing counter-argument could only be made on the basis of improbably extreme generosity on the part of the rebuffed UK. In an odd echo, Brexit supporters claim similar EU open arms bearing gifts will be forthcoming after an Out vote. It is even more improbable.

So I am extremely proud of my indyref journalism; it served Scotland well. As to The Scotsman, I wish Ian Stewart and his staff all the very best. It’s been great working with you. I regret only that I won’t be commenting here on the Holyrood elections and the EUref. I will be elsewhere including at (to be up and running soon). Thanks to all readers, even the disagreeable ones (your contortions were often very funny). Here’s to better times soon.