Telling Language

An undecided voter asked me recently whether I know of any good reasons to vote no – whether someone with Scotland’s best interests at heart could know everything I know and still reasonably vote no in Thursday’s referendum.

It’s a question I’ve asked myself, wondering why some intelligent people do think that Scotland should not be an independent country, and having heard many very poor arguments as well as some I have a lot of sympathy with, my answer is still no, I genuinely can’t think of any good reasons why Scotland shouldn’t be an independent country.

I’d like to focus here on the very many poor arguments, and argue that the language in which they’re usually spoken suggest that those using them have depended on biased mainstream news outlets and No campaign leaflets (which have been shown to be full of misinformation and empty of actual relevant information) to make up their minds, and state why that is a problem for democracy.

Yesterday, thousands gathered outside the offices of BBC Scotland in yet another peaceful protest against the worsening bias of the supposedly impartial BBC during the campaign leading up to a referendum which asks citizens of Scotland: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’. Earlier in the year, John Robertson, a Professor in Media Politics at the University of the West of Scotland published a report entitled ‘Fairness in the First Year’, a purely data-based examination into the content of messages put out by the main evening news on BBC and STV.

The research by Professor Robertson and his team found that television news was in fact significantly biased against Scottish Independence in several ways, including the ordering of news items, the use of unchallenged ‘expert’ sources and the number of politicians representing each side allowed to present their views. The one that I find the effects of most easily visible when debating with or listening to No voters is a media tendency to personalise the views of the Yes campaign as those of Alex Salmond. This, the report points out, is ‘a long-established strategy to weaken arguments [by] shifting focus from collective reasoning or shared values to supposed personal desires and personality traits’, and has been historically used to undermine or demonise many UK political figures, including Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.

According to the UWS study, this strategy, or tendency, occurred repeatedly in one direction – Better Together arguments were never conflated with the desires of any single individual. It also notes that personally insulting comments by anti-independence figures against Alex Salmond were very prominent and were frequently echoed in the tone of news presenters. In my own experience, this is so prevalent within this debate that it’s probably not visible to many people, it is now just the norm.

In the mainstream news, the Yes campaign are also consistently described as ‘nationalists’, even though many within the campaign would not describe themselves in this way. This and the also common use of ‘separatists’ allows people to conflate Yes campaigners and voters with those from troubled world regions in other news items, or in the worst cases, with ethnic nationalists who want independence because of a belief that we are racially superior to those of other nations, or even because we hate the English.

In my own debates with those friends or acquaintances on facebook who unthinkingly post No campaign propaganda which I know is untrue (and while they themselves are unlikely to change their minds, I reason that they might have undecided friends who might benefit from seeing a polite Yes voter point out the flaws in some of these incorrect assertions), I have found that I am commonly referred to as a ‘Nat’, or told that I have been duped by Alex Salmond. No matter how much I explain my reasonings or post links to information stating the untruth of the original post, in the minds of some I represent either a deluded fool or the bogeyman, and in either case nothing I say should be listened to.

I read recently too about the psychology of rumours, how during World War II, rumours would pop up in the US population and sap morale (one bizarre example was: ‘the Russians get most of our butter and just use it for greasing their guns’ ), but that the government found it very difficult to dispel these rumours, for many reasons, but one relevant to the current situation in Scotland is that it has been shown that rumours which play upon our emotions are especially difficult to dispel with rational arguments. This means that even when we show that the NHS Blood and Transplant service (NHSBT) have flatly denied Gordon Brown’s claim that an independent Scotland would lose access to these services, or show that pensions will be safe in an independent Scotland, it is difficult for people not to keep feeling the initial fear or panic that they felt on hearing the rumour/misinformation, even if they do believe that they were lied to in the first place (lies often compounded by trusted media sources, which have consistently repeated these untrue assertions rather than challenging them). In fact, the feelings which have been provoked in the population over this peaceful democratic decision have been more akin to those produced by wartime propaganda.

I have a gut feeling too, that the more far out and incorrect the scare story, the more difficult it is to correct it without sounding crazy – especially when corrections never seem to be published by guilty sources. I’m often left feeling that the original claim is so far from the truth that to explain this would take longer than the other person would be prepared to listen to. And this worries me because an awful lot of people seem to be making this huge decision based on false information, not just biased, or overly optimistic or pessimistic, but incorrect. How can a result now be considered democratic after such a flawed information base has been set up? How can we let the misinformed hear the truth and convince them to believe it?

But it comes back to this in the end – this is another trick. All of the No campaign’s fallacious arguments and misinformation, all of the demonization and undermining of Yes voters as a group that nice people wouldn’t want to belong to, all are just deliberate distraction from the fundamental arguments for Scottish independence, because there is no genuinely good counterargument which justifies the risks and uncertainties brought about by a No vote.

Scotland is already a separate country, whose needs could be better met by a government voted for by the people who live here. Scotland should be an independent country and the Edinburgh agreement signed by the leaders of Scotland and the UK guarantees that any negotiations afterwards must be in the interests of both parties. There is no certainty either way, but Scotland could and should be an independent country in a mature and respectful relationship with other countries. This is the rational starting point towards a better future; not utopia, but the best possibility of working towards something better.

I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument otherwise.

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One thought on “Telling Language

  1. Basic rule of propaganda : If you’re going to tell a lie, make sure you tell a real whopper. And if, like the BBC (at one time at least) you first build up a track record for unbiased honesty, i.e. avoid trivial untruths, then when the time comes that Big Lie will be all the more effective. In fact this is a version of “bait and switch”.

    The other rule of course is that simply by repeating a baseless assertion over and over people will come to believe it.

    I just wonder what other nasty tricks they might still have up their sleeves — Watch out!

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