Were you aware that, among others, Karl Turner MP (Labour, Kingston upon Hull East) and Justin Tomlinson MP (Conservative, North Swindon) are currently under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (according to their website)? No? That’s hardly surprising as there is barely a word about either case in the British media. Tomlinson’s case gets a mention in the local press and an obscure corner of the BBC News website. Mainly, one suspects, because it involves a high-profile name – Wonga. Turner is alleged to have breached rules on declaration of interests, much like Phil Boswell. But there are no front page splashes about his alleged offence.
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards (PCS) receives hundreds of referrals every year. Most go unnoticed in the world outside the Westminster bubble. Which is unsurprising as the vast majority of these are dismissed. Of the 464 referrals in 2014-15 only 17 were accepted. How many of those do you know about?
Bungling smear-merchant and smirking liar, Alistair Carmichael MP, inevitably got a lot of media attention. But it is likely that the only other names which will be familiar from the list of referrals accepted by the PCS are Michelle Thomson and Natalie McGarry. What they and Phil Boswell have in common is that they were elected as SNP candidates.
Obviously, the PCS has to deal appropriately with any matter that is deemed worthy of investigation. But we are entitled to wonder why the media coverage of these cases is so skewed. Apologist for the British media will doubtless refer to the concept of “news values”. But, just as “terrorists” or “insurgents” tend to be defined as “anybody we have killed”, so that which has value as news tends to be whatever the media choose to report. And those choices are never dispassionate or impartial.
The media have a political agenda. With newspapers, this is generally quite explicit. Nobody is under any illusions that the Daily Record is anything other than the house organ of British Labour in Scotland. The Telegraph is not nicknamed “Torygraph” for no reason. The broadcast media are more tightly regulated and so have to be more circumspect. But the political agenda is there, nonetheless.
We are not talking here about any kind of formal conspiracy. The people who write the stuff you read in newspapers are mere employees like any other. To the extent that they have any talent at all it is the ability to frame a story in whatever way is required by their bosses. That’s their job. It has always been part of their job. All that has changed is that it is now pretty much the whole of their job.
The stuff we are, perhaps naively, nostalgic for – comprehensive and accurate reporting, informed analysis, insightful commentary – all come at a cost which profit-sucking corporations are not prepared to bear. With all of that stripped away, the underlying political agenda becomes a much larger proportion of what is left. It’s not that there is more political spin in newspapers these days, it is merely that the spin is less diluted by what we might call “proper journalism”.
All that is required for the appearance of a conspiracy is that there should be enough people, with enough influence, and a sufficient commonality of interest. Their doesn’t have to be meetings at which plots are hatched or instructions handed down from some “evil mastermind”. There need only be an environment in which that commonality of interest becomes the effective directing force. Invariably as a consequence of weak and incompetent management. In broadcasting, a vacuum tends to be filled by the vacuous.
The common interest effectively driving by far the greater part of the mainstream print and broadcast media in the UK is preservation of the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state. The British media is the voice of the British establishment. The British establishment is threatened by the wave of democratic dissent that has risen in Scotland. The SNP represents that dissent within the British political system. Therefore, the SNP is a threat. The British establishment is reacting to that perceived threat. Nobody really needs to initiate or direct this reaction. It is as instinctive as you or I swatting at an insect which flies in our face.
All of which explains why SNP MPs being referred to the PCS has a high news value relative to the likes of Karl Turner or Justin Tomlinson. The cases involving Michelle Thomson, Natalie McGarry and now Phil Boswell are not the focus of media attention because they are more serious. They are latched onto by the media solely because they concern the SNP – the enemy.
It is, unfortunately, necessary to emphasise here that there is no suggestion that SNP MPs are being unfairly treated by the parliamentary authorities. Kathryn Hudson is simply doing her job. To the best of my knowledge she and her staff are competent and beyond reproach. Other than that, however, there can be no doubt that SNP MPs are being “targeted” in all manner of ways.
Whatever else one may think of the way our democratically elected representatives are being treated, only the most blinkered of hard-line unionists can be blind to the double standards and the hypocrisy. The British establishment is at pains to persuade us that we are all part of “One Nation Britain”. Any suggestion of a distinctive political culture in Scotland is pompously derided or vehemently denounced. But the “all-in-it-together” rhetoric is contradicted by the reality.
From the constant denigration of Scotland’s institutions, to the efforts to exclude our MPs from the democratic process. From the often highly personalised attacks on Scotland’s political leaders, to the far from subtle pro-Union propaganda that pervades our lives.
From the way devolution is being used as a political weapon against the Scottish Government, to the way our politics is covered by the media. In every way, and to an increasing degree, Scotland is already being treated by the British state as an unfriendly foreign power.