Propaganda cues

Picture courtesy of Wings Over Scotland

It is not at all surprising to find British Nationalists organised enough to mount an ongoing coordinated letter-writing campaign, as uncovered by Wings Over Scotland. But it may be worth exploring why the Yes movement has, arguably, been less effective in using the letters pages of national and local newspapers to convey its message.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2014 referendum, after I had recovered sufficiently from the disappointment of the result – but while still fired by anger at the methods used to secure the No vote – I sat down to reflect on that result and how it had come about. At that time – and to this day – much of the Yes movement’s ‘post mortem’ on the first independence referendum campaign involved endless circling around the question of what we did wrong. There was – and still is – a lot of finger-pointing. And lots of woefully simplistic analysis.

It was Alex Salmond’s fault. It was the SNP’s fault. We didn’t have enough answers. We didn’t have the right answers. We gave totally the wrong answers. Much of the criticism amounted to no more than a rehashing of the all-too-familiar refrain heard from certain individuals in the Yes movement throughout the campaign. The incessant background whine telling us that we were talking to the wrong people about the wrong things at the wrong time in the wrong places and in the wrong way. It didn’t matter who we were talking to or what we were talking to them about or when or where we were doing it or what ‘tone’ we adopted it was, these carping voices assured us, all wrong.

It was a truly facile critique. Not least because it was such a scatter-gun attack it was bound to hit a valid target, even if only incidentally. The Yes movement was then, and still remains, so large and diverse that there were always lots of different campaigners talking to lots of different people about lots of different things at every opportunity and in diverse locations and with myriad different voices. It was pretty much inevitable that, at any given time, some part of this might reasonably have been labelled ‘wrong’ in some sense.

I very quickly concluded that this kind of analysis was less than helpful. It was superficial and too concerned with recrimination and blame-shifting to be of any great use as a guide to where – or even whether – the Yes campaign had failed. It soon occurred to me that, if we wanted guidance on how to win a future independence referendum, we should be looking at the winners of such a campaign, rather than the losers.

Doing this, while also stripping out emotion and prejudice as far as possible by the simple expedient of treating the whole exercise like a review of a marketing campaign, several things soon became apparent. Not the least of these was the advantage that British Nationalists gained from the stark simplicity of their message. Not only is a very basic message easy to understand, it is also easy to promulgate. The No message was/is clear, comprehensible and, most importantly, consistent. That was its strength.

The Yes message hit none of these marks. But that’s not something I want to deal with here. What concerns us here is the implications for a coordinated letter-writing campaign of having a core message that is as simple and pointed as possible.

One of the most significant advantages relates to propaganda cues. Basically, what happened during the first referendum campaign was that Better Together/Project Fear would choose a topic – say, defence. They would latch onto some ‘independent report’ or comments elicited from some retired senior military figure, distil this down to a one line message and push it through the media. This is the propaganda cue that is picked up by those writing letters and posting below-the-line comments and engaging in social media ‘debate’. They are never off-message, because the message is too tight to leave any scope for going off-message. That message may be nonsense or lies or both, but it has power and gains traction because of its endless and unvarying repetition.

A coordinated letter-writing campaign is easy for British Nationalists. It would have to be. Generally speaking, these are not clever people. But it’s not necessary that they be clever. The propaganda cues are so obvious and the message so simple that they need only be able to read a headline and parrot a phrase fed to them by the media in order to make an effective contribution to the anti-independence effort.

The Yes campaign needs to learn some lessons from this.

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About Peter A Bell

Thinker. Listener. Talker. Reader. Writer. None of my attitudes is immutable. None of my conclusions is final. None of my opinions is humble.
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7 Responses to Propaganda cues

  1. TSD says:

    Agreed. But will the press print letters from the Yes movement? That’s a big stumbling block.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Peter A Bell says:

      The press will print them if the letters do what the papers want them to do – attract more readers and/or prompt more clicks. The print media, in particular, is first and foremost a commercial enterprise. We can exploit their venality.


  2. Clarinda says:

    I understand all you have said as it compares with an ‘oz. of ill health being more significantly felt than a cwt. of good health’. However more successful, resourceful and ambitious Scotland will be pales in the malicious effectiveness of a negative remark. This cloak of victimhood that seems to snuff out any hope of betterment or even political, social, cultural or historical interest for too many, needs wrenched off – but in the face of such bigoted MSM it will take some determined strength. Reliance on some brilliant and candid blogs is excellent but inadequate to reach those wrapped in the patronising tartan shawl of subservient pessimism.


    • Peter A Bell says:

      I’m going to take this as agreeing with my own contention that the Yes campaign must develop its own strand of ‘negativity’. It must become as much a campaign against the Union and the British state as for independence.


  3. I have espoused the same line since the last fortnight of the IndyRef campaign. BT was able to strip single issues out of the White Paper and attack them in splendid isolation from all other facts. It’s a tried and tested method that has worked before and will work again. The very honesty of the White Paper in many ways led to the downfall of its aims.


  4. Alan J. Magnus-Bennett says:

    But will a negative campaign against the Union and British State be acceptable by the British Press? It is the same question as TSD poses above. We are led to believe that the British press can well be influential but only when it stands by Westminster government policy regardless of which party is in power. If we are to have a negative campaign against one government by another then surely the press will print to serve the that which has the most power. Could Holyrood and the SNP government really produce a positive headline for itself in the Daily Mirror? (I did type the Mail here as an example then thought better of it).


    • Peter A Bell says:

      We might as well give up on the mainstream British media. They are part of the British establishment. They are deeply embedded in and utterly the structures of power,privilege and patronage which define the British state. They are never going to give the Yes case a fair hearing or honest airing. They will never provide more than token coverage of the Scottish side of the constitutional question. They will always favour the British side.

      What this means is that we have to make the best of what we have in terms of media. Obviously, we have to support The National and, to a lesser extent, the Sunday Herald. Buy two copies of The National and leave one, or both, in the pub or on the bus.

      We must find ways to make better use of the access we do have to mainstream media. Below-the-line comments; letters to the editor; radio phone-ins; TV vox pop pieces and staged events all have unrealised potential. We need to push our way in. No point waiting to be invited. It’s never going to happen.

      In addition, we must develop our own alternative media. If you can’t write blog articles, find, like and share the stuff being written by others. New technologies, like live streaming on Facebook offer excellent opportunities to create our own media. Look at the stuff being produced by the likes of Phantom Power.

      Take your cues from this material. Look for the message in a blog or video and repeat it wherever and whenever you can.

      Do it every day. Whatever it is that you decide to do, do it relentlessly. Never let up. Create a volume of activity which cannot be denied or disregarded. Generate a wave of information that cannot be resisted or countered. Be big. Be loud. Be everywhere.

      Be an active consumer of media messages. Don’t just passively absorb what is fed to you by the mainstream media. The propaganda is insidious. It can influence you without you even being aware. Know that the headline is not an indication of what the story is about, but an indication of what the author wants you to think it’s about. Together with the opening paragraphs, the headline is designed to lead you to a certain conclusion and to colour your appreciation of whatever factual content there maybe.

      Always read the final paragraphs first. You will be amazed by how different the story seems when you read it equipped with awareness of the stuff you’re not expected to ever get to.

      Question everything the mainstream media tells you. Challenge it. Undermine it. Sap its power by encouraging others to question and challenge everything. By simultaneously limiting the power of the mainstream media and boosting the alternative media we narrow the differential and reduce the advantage enjoyed by Unionists.


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