No coverage – again. Fifteen thousand independence supporters marched through Perth on Saturday, led by the deputy First Minister John Swinney, and local SNP MP Pete Wishart. I’ve lived near Perth for 25 years, and can’t remember a bigger gathering on the streets of the slightly douce Fair City. But the chances are that none bar the marchers and those affected by road closures will have any idea a march took place.
Ditto the other All Under One Banner (AUOB) marches held this summer in Oban, Ayr, Aberdeen, Dunfermline and Glasgow - or the Outer Hebrides for Independence march held in Stornoway.
Despite the near certainty that more than 100 thousand folk will turn out for the final scheduled march in Edinburgh next month, and even though it’s a perfectly-timed gift for news producers seeking visual ways to represent the Brexit-induced shift in Scottish public opinion - the same news blackout will probably occur. Yet a small Glasgow march did get front page treatment this weekend - likewise a smaller Brexit demonstration in London. Mind you, they both had something the AUOB march did not - violence, confrontation and arrests. Let’s not be naive. Punch-ups and sectarianism on the streets of Glasgow certainly sells papers. But what does that tell peaceful independence marchers - exercise your democratic rights peacefully and you’ll be completely ignored?
It’s a moral dilemma that may not unduly bother editors and owners since newspapers are expected to be partisan. But BBC Scotland is a public broadcaster, funded (mostly) by licence fee payers, so there’s particular annoyance amongst marchers over its profoundly deaf ear. What’s the problem - wrong democratic leaves on the line?
One frustrated Yesser observed on twitter; “It’s almost like a point of principle for [BBC Scotland] now. If the whole population of Scotland marched at the same time on the same day in every town & city in the country, they would still not report it.
Another observed: “No violence, no thuggery, no mess, just happy, hopeful people looking to the future. [We] need to stop expecting the BBC to care.”
Aunty is stoking the alienation of independence-supporters from public service broadcasting and has only itself to blame if they switch off, or switch over - and recent statistics suggest thousands of viewers have been doing both. But denying air-time to the peaceful Yes movement could have more serious consequences. People who aren’t heard, tend to shout louder. People who are effectively punished for following rules, often feel tempted to break them. The fact AUOB marches remain ignored, yet completely peaceful, is testimony to excellent stewarding and an in-built Jimmy-Reid-like understanding about the need for discipline. Over time though, faith in democracy, and civic institutions is bound to be eroded if the peaceful exercise of democratic rights is consistently regarded as too boring or small beer to warrant attention. To be crystal clear, I’m not suggesting there’s the slightest chance the precious combination of restraint, fun and respectful behaviour developed on these marches will ever be jettisoned. But activists representing the will of half the voting population cannot go on being ignored by the great and good, without denting Scotland’s conceit of itself as a properly responsive democracy.
So, what’s un-newsworthy about the AUOB marches? Is that old problem of balance partly to blame? Has Aunty decided it can’t cover Yes demonstrations, till tens of thousands of “No Thanks” campaigners hire buses to cross Scotland on their only real day off (whatever the weather) to demonstrate their enduring belief in the strength of the Union? Cos, that will probably never happen.
Defensive nationalism - of the kind typified by Better Together - doesn’t rely on street action for impact. Its strength comes from control of the establishment, the great and good, institutions like banks, newspapers and governments, and therefore pensions and public spending. Aspiring nationalism - of the kind typified by the Yes movement - has little institutional underpinning (even from the Scottish Government) and relies on song, slogan, culture, social media and street protest to express itself.
The Yes and No campaigns are very different beasts and there will never be “balance” in their activities.
So, what must change for marches to get news coverage?
Nicola Sturgeon at the helm, perhaps? If so, what does that say about the status of the self-organising Yes movement - does it really need party-political endorsement to make “real” news? Do fifteen or even one hundred thousand people on the streets without a First Minister, really constitute no more than a pointless gathering or a rabble in the mind of news producers? If so, that’s shameful.
Demonstrations are the preserve of those without institutional clout and so the streets are essentially a working-class domain. Middle class society usually has other, more discreet ways to influence events - networks, contacts, societies, powerful neighbours and golfing companions. So, it’s not surprising the middle-class professionals who run Scotland find the resort to public demonstrations a bit - vulgar, desperate and last season. And a bit hard to pigeon-hole. Law-abiding, peaceful, working-class marchers don’t fit a pre-prepared stereotype. Violent, angry Old Firm supporters do. Road blocks produced by a couple of hundred Extinction Rebellion protesters also look sufficiently confrontational to be newsworthy. But tens of thousands of folk marching peacefully about independence in towns and cities without any experience of large demonstrations for a century? What is that really? It’s not new, it’s not surprising anymore, it doesn’t pose an immediate threat to the status quo or change anything overnight. And that’s what news has become.
Coupled with the pervasive belief that “proper” democracy happens only in buildings like parliaments, and it’s not surprising broadcasters feel uncomfortable about street protest. Fling in the banal difficulty that staffing is low at weekends, TV news bulletins are shorter than usual, and Perth is not Glasgow and you have a neat stack of excuses for not sending a camera along.
But what do we get instead? Bulletins littered with the antics, outrages, disruptions, preoccupations and entitled social behaviour of the English upper-class.
Home-grown demonstrations may be hard to slot in, but their persistent absence from news bulletins just exacerbates feelings of bias and distances BBC Scotland further from half its viewing public.
Fortunately, in October, there’s one final chance to get it right.