Isn’t Scotland awful?

Scottish newspapers are suckers for the ‘Isn’t Scotland awful!’ genre of stories. Mainly because they know that a large number of their readers are suckers for ‘Isn’t Scotland awful!’ stories. Since that’s what the papers want to buy, that’s what journalists write. This means that journalists will tend to look into a story only to the extent required to provide them with material for an ‘Isn’t Scotland awful!’ story.

Doing thorough, scrupulous research in the manner of a journalist with some sense of professional standards and responsibilities not only risks turning up facts which might be inconvenient to the ‘Isn’t Scotland awful!’ tenor of the story – thereby jeopardising its ‘market appeal’ – it also requires more effort on the part of the journalist. Effort which said journalist is likely to be unwilling to expend for reasons of incompetence, indolence, ennui, a pressing lunch engagement or, to be fair, the fact that newspapers are extremely reluctant to reward journalists for such ‘extra’ effort. Especially when there is the distinct possibility that the additional work might result in a product which is, by the execrable criteria of the modern media, inferior.

All of which represents a reasonable summary of the forces driving the spiralling decline of journalistic standards and the plummeting fortunes of the traditional ‘dead tree’ press.

I have questions. Questions which are raised by Kevin McKenna’s recent article in The Herald, but neither answered nor addressed. The first of these questions concerns Kevin McKenna himself. Has he, of late, undergone irony bypass surgery? Only this could explain how he is able to complain, in a newspaper of all places, about the “infantilising of language” without melting in the heat of his own embarrassment. Next to “lying bastards”, the phrase most associated with the mainstream press is “dumbing down”.

As if serving up an appetiser to get the juices of popular prejudice flowing before the main course, McKenna opens with a whine about how vacuous political slogans are when taken out of context. There’s a simple answer, Kevin. Don’t take them out of context! They’re political slogans, for f*** sake! They are only meant to be understood in the context of a political ideology or campaign.

Take the particular phrase singled for condemnation as the “most dismal” of political slogans, ‘Standing up for Scotland”. Of course it is “shallow and insipid” when taken in isolation – abstracted from the issues to which it relates. Add the context of democratic deficit

implicit in Scotland’s subordinate status in a grotesquely asymmetric political union and the slogan takes on a wealth of meaning.

But “lack of context” is another of those expressions which tend to immediately spring to mind when one considers mainstream political commentary.

It’s all about the questions. Effective analysis is less concerned with definitive answers than with probing questions. If not the most searching ones, then at least the most obvious. While Kevin McKenna prompts outrage at the fact Glasgow City Council (GCC) has awarded a massive digital and ICT services contract to a firm with a “patchy trading history of delivering big-ticket projects on time and to budget”, a very obvious question goes unasked. Is there such a thing as a company in this sector which doesn’t have a “patchy” record? Ask that question, and it immediately becomes at least possible that CGI might be the best of a bad bunch.

In the context of “big-ticket” IT projects which are so consistently dogged by failure, the awarding of a contract to a firm with a less than unblemished record becomes quite unremarkable.

Kevin McKenna appears to take issue with the awarding of the contract to CGI on grounds other than its past performance. Principally, he is exercised by the manner in which this was done, and by the apparent detriment to the indigenous IT services industry from giving the job to a Canadian company.

He works very hard at creating the impression of something underhand about the whole process, first seasoning his tale with rumours of dubious behaviour on the part of demoted Labour Councillors as the administration changes hands, then making much of the deal having been signed on the very last day of Labour’s reign, and without going through the strict procurement process stipulated by he Scottish Government.

Ask the questions, however, and it transpires that there is nothing obviously significant about the deal being signed on that day as opposed to any other. The impression given is that this was highly suspect. But no actual grounds for suspicion are given. I’m hardly one to leap to the defence of the old Labour regime in Glasgow. But, for all the factual information we have which might justify doubt, it could simply have been the outgoing administration tidying up some loose ends.

Neither is the lack of normal procedures as suspect as Kevin McKenna would have us believe. He refers to the Glasgow deal avoiding a public tender process by “piggy-backing on CGI’s deal with City of Edinburgh Council”. A deal which he refers to as having been “pushed through by both Labour and SNP councillors”, thus triggering the pejorative language alarms with which active consumers of media messages are equipped.

If this Edinburgh deal is so important, shouldn’t we know more about it? If the Glasgow deal is based on the same contract as was negotiated by Edinburgh Council, isn’t that where we should look for information? The article raises questions about the impact of the contract on local SMEs as well as compliance with Scottish Government procurement rules. But we’re left hanging. Uncertainty has been created which suffices for the purposes of an ‘Isn’t Scotland awful!’ story. So why probe further?

A little more research reveals that Glasgow City Council isn’t just “piggy-backing” on another Council’s contract, it was actively involved in negotiating that contract. Along with numerous other Councils and NHS authorities as well as the likes of Scottish Natural Heritage, Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Ambulance Service and the Scottish Police Authority, GCC was designated a Collaborating Buyer on the contract.

The suggestion of due process having somehow been circumvented suddenly looks rather less persuasive.

And what of the contract itself? Having established that GGC was, in fact, actively involved in negotiating the terms, surely it is relevant to know something about those terms. Surely we should at least be asking the question.

Having taken the trouble to ask, we find that, in the case of Edinburgh’s £186m contract, savings of at least £45m are anticipated over the 7 year term. If the Glasgow deal allows a similar level of saving on its £800m contract, we’re talking about significant economies.

Other aspects of the Edinburgh contract which may be relevant include massively improved bandwidth for schools; over 200 jobs; 60 Modern Apprenticeships; and ‘bonus’ services provided at no additional cost. All of which is in addition to the likely considerable economy of scale in having over 50 organisations involved in negotiating a contract which they can then use without the expense of a plethora of separate procurement procedures.

And, in at least partial answer to one of Kevin McKenna’s concerns, work worth 25% of the contract value is to be placed with local businesses.

Maybe Scotland isn’t so awful after all, eh?

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3 thoughts on “Isn’t Scotland awful?

  1. bringiton

    If you were to design a recipe for selling newspapers,what would it contain?

    Salacious gossip
    Dubious expose’s
    and most importantly,the political views of it’s owner.
    A bit like some of the unionist party political manifestos we have seen recently

  2. bjsalba

    From my (25 years) of IT experience I would say that the success or failure of a project is primarily due to the correct definition of what is to be done by the system by the entity which orders it.

    There is no programming solution to a poor specification.

  3. Pingback: Not fooled! – Towards Indyref2…

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