On Saturday January 14th former Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker gave a speech to an audience of Yes activists at the Scottish Independence Convention.
The speech focused on the media and its relationship with the Yes movement.
This article is Part 2 of a response to that speech. Part 1 can be read here.
This article deals with comments Mr Walker made in relation to criticisms of his former newspaper and of two alternative media sites – Bella Caledonia and Common Space. Audio recordings of the relevant comments are included in this article. Transcripts are shown below in bold.
The National, the Sunday Herald, Bella Caledonia and Common Space all came under fire during the Holyrood election campaign for the sin of giving space to pro-indy parties such as RISE and the Greens because we were accused of allegedly encouraging voters to give their second votes to those parties and, therefore eroding the SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament.
I’m not so sure that The National came under fire to any great extent during the last Scottish election. Bella Caledonia and Common Space certainly did, but not for giving space to The Scottish Greens. Both were criticised for promoting the radical left group that was RISE. I myself criticised the sites in an article that was published, coincidently, exactly one year to the day that Richard Walker gave his speech.
Below is an excerpt from my article from January 2016.
Creating a new party is one thing, it is quite another to raise its public awareness and to convince that same public to vote for it. RISE has benefited from generous coverage from the online sites Bella Caledonia and Common Space.
Bella editor Mike Small has publicly backed the new party and was one of the speakers at its official launch last August. Cat Boyd serves on the Bella Caledonia editorial board. So it is no surprise that the site has provided RISE with much-needed exposure.
Common Space has carried several articles about RISE. The dozen I found contained a mix of news and opinion. The site has also published at least one article critical of RISE, but most of its coverage has been positive.
As things stand RISE owes much of the profile it has to these two alternative media sites. That has raised the online profile of the embryonic entity, formed only in December 2015, considerably.
Away from those “comfort zones”, things have been very different for RISE. The ‘Scottish Syriza’, as it initially termed itself, has managed to alienate swathes of online Yes activists and some pro-independence bloggers.
On the day of the official launch, leader of the Scottish Socialist Party Colin Fox, whose party is now allied with RISE, made it clear that the new alliance would be targeting the SNP. Fox specifically singled out the SNP’s List vote, the so-called ‘second vote’.
The call for voters to ditch the SNP on the List has played alongside press releases from RISE claiming a second vote for the SNP is a wasted vote.
For critics like myself, the major point of contention was that the group based most of its campaign strategy on splitting the nationalist vote by presenting tactical voting as viable. According to RISE and its supporters, Nicola Sturgeon’s party were going to be so successful in the constituency vote that any regional list votes for the SNP would be wasted, or worse damaging.
Writing in Bella Caledonia in November 2015, Jonathon Shafi said:
“The SNP’s electoral supremacy is so complete that all recent polls show a consistent pattern: the party can almost certainly win the Scottish election on the constituency seats alone.
“Once we embrace this fact, the Scottish elections could suddenly become very interesting. For independence supporters, voting SNP twice becomes counter-productive to maximising independence MSPs.”
The claim was hogwash. Nevertheless RISE received glowing promotion from a host of high-profile commentators.
But RISE was also embraced by the pro-Union media who saw an opportunity to split the indy vote and perhaps undermine the SNP. Even the ultra-Unionist right-wing Mail on Sunday was granted an interview with RISE’s Glasgow candidate Cat Boyd.
When I criticised Bella Caledonia and Common Space for their promotion of RISE I was attacked in the Sunday Herald by Common Space Editor Angela Haggerty, who in an article headlined – Why a hectoring online fringe is putting the achievements of the Yes movement at risk – wrote:
“It’s peculiar, then, that CommonSpace – along with well-established pro-indy websites like Bella Caledonia – has become the enemy for a fringe of the independence movement”
“The Twitter account of @GAponsonby is a prime example of that element of the independence movement which seems hell bent on its own destruction. The man behind this popular anonymous account is constantly warning about the apparent threat of – wait for it – pro-indy initiatives like the new socialist coalition Rise, to independence.”
A week later, writing for the same paper in an article entitled –Why shouting ‘traitor’ is about as far from the Yes movement spirit as you get – Bella Caledonia editor Mike Small said:
“Critical voices, dissenters and those of us deviating from the party line are dismissed as heretics and ‘splitters’. Even to mention the Greens and RISE can mean being monstered by a fragile minority suffering from an unhealthy obsession with ‘SNP 1 & 2’ – both votes for the SNP at the Holyrood 2016 election – as if it is a panacea for all our woes.
“To challenge this orthodoxy marks you down as a traitor and a likely Unionist stooge. Few seem capable of taking on board that a new landscape might include new parties.”
“The SNP would have to do something tremendously stupid to throw away the sort of poll lead and approval ratings they currently hold to lose a majority in Holyrood this year. It’s not going to happen.”
I received abuse and/or criticism from a host of radical leaning individuals on social media. Some well-respected high profile Yes ‘personalities’ joined in the attacks. The resentment continues to this day.
And what of Richard Walker’s other claim that The Sunday Herald was criticised because it “allegedly” encouraged Yes supporters not to give their second vote to the SNP?
The Sunday Herald didn’t just ‘allegedly’ push the tactical voting nonsense that argued against voting SNP twice. It used its front page to expressly promote the idea.
On April 17th, weeks before the Holyrood election, it ran an article with the headline: ‘Revealed: How Scottish independence supporters should use their vote on May 5th’ The image at the top of this article shows the said headline as it appeared online.
The article began:
“SUPPORTERS of independence should not give their second vote to the SNP at the Holyrood elections, according to a new report by one of the country’s top political scientists.
Professor John Curtice says Yes voters should instead give their backing to another pro-independence party – such as the Greens or the leftwing party Rise – in case unionist MSPs are let in by the back door.
The controversial claims are a blow to the ‘Both Votes SNP’ campaign.”
The paper carried an editorial which argued that “progressive Scots voters” should give their second vote, not to the SNP, but “other independence supporting parties”.
The editorial added:
“We want to see an SNP government critiqued and pushed from a progressive position. We do not want a right-wing Tory opposition which attacks the Scottish Government of the day from the right.”
It was for these reasons that The Sunday Herald was criticised. Indeed the newspaper was accused of having misrepresented the report on which its claims were based. The criticism was justified as the following exchange between Stuart Campbell and Professor John Curtice evidences.
As if that wasn’t enough, the article was written by Peter Swindon, who was formerly a Parliamentary assistant to Labour MP Anas Sarwar.
Thus the facts of the criticism leveled at Bella Caledonia, Common Space and The Sunday Herald are somewhat different from that presented by Richard Walker in his speech to the SIC audience.
Walker’s speech then moved on from criticism to the subject of support for the pro-indy alternative media. Or rather those elements of the alternative media Mr Walker deemed worthy of support.
But let’s realise also the importance of nurturing the pro-indy media we have. Let’s make sure The National reaches its sales potential. Let’s make sure The Common Space can continue to provide a healthy alternative to traditional news sources. Let’s do everything we can to help Bella Caledonia flourish in the future.
Let’s do so not just because we are all one movement and we should support one another, although we are, and we should.
Bella Caledonia and Common Space have supporters. You don’t attract over £85,000 in donations in one year – as Bella did – if you don’t. But they aren’t the only two pro-independence sites.
It’s interesting that Richard Walker refused to mention any of the others. Why was this? Could it be that some of the other sites offer a genuine alternative to the journalism that so trashed the independence movement in the run-up to 2014? Could it be that these other sites are an uncomfortable reminder of the dire state of political journalism in Scotland? Could it be that these other sites don’t feel the need to pander to the corporate media in the hope they will be accepted, that they have no need to feel validated?
The conference at which Richard Walker gave his speech was being billed as the start of the rebuilding of the Yes movement. Yet he was allowed to attack Yes activists he disagreed with, misrepresent criticism of two sites widely believed to have promoted a damaging faction, and promote those same two sites. Why was this allowed at an inclusive Yes event?
It brings me to my final point of contention which is the continual presentation of Bella Caledonia as the torch bearer for the alternative media, the most high-profile and something the Yes movement needs to support.
It isn’t. It never has been. Speeches like the one given by Richard Walker help promote this myth.
We demand honesty from the Unionist media, but we also need to demand honesty from those within the Yes movement. Especially those with a profile. Promote your favourite sites by all means but don’t embellish the popularity and influence of those sites at the expense of others. If there are accolades to be handed out, hand them to those who have earned them and deserve them.
According to Alexa Site Info, the site you are currently visiting has a moderately healthy readership. If we take Wings Over Scotland [the most popular] as a benchmark then Indyref2 attracts around one ninth of Wings’ traffic.
The site that’s closest to Wings Over Scotland is not Bella Caledonia or Common Space. In fact Craig Murray’s website attracts more traffic. Murray’s site attracts around half what Wings does. Common Space attracts just under a quarter of the traffic of Wings.
What about Bella Caledonia? Believe it or not it sits roughly equal to that of Indyref2.scot with around one ninth of the traffic of Wings Over Scotland. A site that folded briefly due to a lack of cash, despite generating over £80,000 in two appeals within a year, is no more popular than a tuppence-ha’penny website whose contributors do so for nothing.
By way of an example of the exaggerated claims made about one site, I recently came across an article written by someone called Neil Blain. Neil Blain is professor emeritus of communications at the University of Stirling. He co-edited Scotland’s Referendum and the Media: National and International Perspectives, (published 2016, with David Hutchison and Gerry Hassan, for Edinburgh University Press).
His article contained the following:
“Bella Caledonia is the most prominent among a number of online comment sites and blogs that provide a counterbalance to a unionist-inclined press in Scotland.”
I emailed Professor Blain and pointed out that there were at least four other websites or blogs ahead of Bella. His response was to place the word ‘arguably’ in front of “is the most prominent”.
“Bella Caledonia is arguably the most prominent among a number of online comment sites and blogs that provide a counterbalance to a unionist-inclined press in Scotland.”
By way of explanation Professor Blain said:
‘Arguably the most prominent’ is fair, I think (well, it’s at least ‘arguable’…) because ‘prominence’ is a function not only of measurable web traffic but of brand recognition and other factors.
So, rather than continually urging the Yes movement to support only two sites, and in some cases exaggerating the influence and reach of one or other, we need honesty. Any site that runs an appeal for cash from Yessers should freely publish its site stats for the previous six months. These stats would be required to be verified by respected Yes figures. If we are indeed building a campaigning base for the second independence referendum then let’s do so transparently.
Richard Walkers’ speech, for me at least, bordered on the offensive. It reeked of intellectual snobbery, of looking down on the ungrateful and vulgar Yes ‘riff-raff’ who couldn’t see how marvelous The Sunday Herald, Bella Caledonia and Common Space were. It screamed … “We know what’s best”.
It wasn’t a helpful speech at all. Below is how Bella Caledonia editor Mike Small interpreted Richard Walker’s speech.
One final point. Days before the Scottish Independence Convention held the event at which Richard Walker spoke, I emailed a few questions to the body looking for information relating to its make-up. One of the questions related to the Board. Did it have one and who were its members?
I received a reply that confirmed yes it did have a Board. Despite two further requests I am still none the wiser as to who this Board is and how and when the members were chosen. As far as I can tell the organisation consists of a Facebook account, a Twitter account and a holding domain.
Maybe this article will prompt those who know who the Board is, to let the rest of us know. After all, why keep it a secret?
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