The MSM, the Herald, birling or revolving and Syria

Just when you think the Herald cannot sink any lower, up pops Friday’s (4th December) offering from Magnus Gardham (http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14123238.SNP_accused_of_using_airstrikes_vote_to_fuel_demands_for_independence/?action=success#comment_15018137), suggesting that the SNP have used the Syria bombing vote in order to further independence. Even by his standards this is wearisome in the extreme.

The headline (and it’s the lead story – having about 1/3 of the page, while bombing Syria gets THREE paragraphs in the bottom left hand corner. Sahing not a lot more than that we are bombing Syria) pretty much reflects the argument – “SNP accused of using airstrikes vote to fuel demands for independence” – but makes one or two excursions into what is or is not a scientific poll, and various conjectures on how the late Tony Benn might have reacted to the speech made by his son Hilary on Wednesday evening at the end of the debate on bombing Syria. Though it might be said this is simply another device to beat Alex Salmond in particular, and the SNP in general.

But let’s consider the headline issues first. The main witness for the prosecution in this instance is Ian Murray, the Labour MP for Edinburgh South. One has to wonder which planet is Murray occupying just now for him to be able to say

For the SNP playing politics and independence always comes first“.

One of the usual criticisms of the SNP is its tribal nature, but in this case, rather than reflect on SNP voting in the same way as 70% of his own party, it is utterly clear that tribalism is more than a small part of Mr Murray’s own thinking. Perhaps it is his frustration at not being able to berate them for not voting the way he did?

And what is the basis of his accusation – other than the customary SNPBAD? It appears to be the claim from other political parties, including Murray’s own Labour Party, that the SNP have used the Syria vote as a means of demonstrating the distinctiveness of opinion in Scotland from that elsewhere in the UK. The distinctiveness of this thinking can then be used to justify a second referendum. The difficulty with that is that the leader of the SNP has said the Syria vote does nothing to bring forward a second referendum. So a complete denial, but it seems increasingly clear that faced with even a denial the Unionist parties are wont to respond “aye well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”.

A cognate criticism has been made by Murray’s colleague, Labour MSP Neil Findlay, who even though, like Murray, being against bombing Syria managed to be critical of the SNP because all of their MPs were against bombing Syria http://wingsoverscotland.com/the-eurasia-principle/), perhaps again caused by the frustration about not being able to condemn the entire SNP because one of them voted for bombing?

It’s not as if this is the only example of such conduct. For instance, it seems that the Unionist parties spend more time talking more about a second referendum than the SNP do. However, the debate that their talk engenders justifies the claim that the SNP are obsessed with a second referendum nonetheless. Perhaps the real source of concern is that despite attempts to cover over this up the fact is that opinion in Scotland about the wisdom of bombing Syria IS different, though it is important not to exaggerate the degree of difference.

Let’s look at the evidence.

In his report Gardham reports criticism of the use made by Angus Robertson of an online poll by VoteScotland (http://www.votescotland.org/) which purported to show that 72% of Scots were against bombing Syria . Of course one of the criticisms of online polls is that their representativeness is uncontrolled since those replying will often be self-selecting, and thus not random or necessarily reflecting all shades of opinion. The consequence of self-selection is that the outcome doesn’t reflect those who decide not to participate (in that sense, elections suffer from the same defect since we might decide to just not vote). But a deeper problem still is that one needs to know about the online poll if there is to be any possibility of participating, and that is more likely if the poll is being run by – or advertised by – a site that one regularly reads. Perhaps then the 72% quoted by Robertson was run by a site that was particularly likely to be read by people opposed to bombing Syria (though given that 28% voted in favour, clearly not read only by people opposed to bombing Syria), and to the extent this is true, the accuracy of the poll might be challenged.

However, the finding that is most often quoted is that of Yougov, which is also an online poll, which also has other similarities to the poll quoted by Robertson. First of all, to be involved in a Yougov poll one has to “join” – to sign up – for Yougov – it is, in other words, self-selecting. But of course in that respect VoteScotland is exactly the same in that in order to vote one has to register with the site in order to be able to vote. Therefore, in both cases if you aren’t a “member”, you won’t be participating, even if you know about it. So in that respect Yougov and VoteScotland are similar. Secondly, while they select from their “members” to participate, even if one is invited to participate, one might decide not to – there is therefore a degree of self-selection at this stage also. Here the two sites do differ since VoteScotland does not invite its members to participate – they simply chose whether to vote or not. There is therefore less control for VoteScotland in that respect.

In short, Yougov might be stronger than VoteScotland in terms of their processes and controls, but another way of looking at this is the size of the sample. There were over 2300 in the VoteScotland sample, according to the Herald (http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14117707.Poll__72__of_Scots_oppose_extending_air_strikes_in_Syria/) and 1657 in the Yougov sample that Gardham quotes from. However, that figure of 1657 is a figure for the UK. The number of people from Scotland in the overall figure is reported to be 159 (just under 10% of the total sample). Thus the VoteScotland sample is fourteen times the size of the Yougov sample in Scotland. So the conundrum that we have is which is more important – the larger sample of VoteScotland, or the stronger controls of Yougov. What is clear is that Gardham’s argument that Robertson’s “claim was based on an unscientific online survey and was sharply at odds with the most recent opinion poll, by YouGov” is totally unwarranted. Both have their weaknesses, and in particular the Yougov poll is based on a small (159) Scottish sample. Really journalists with little experience or knowledge of polling methodology should steer clear of such issues, and this is a good example of why. As Stewart Campbell tweeted “Why don’t you fuck off Gardham you tiresome wank“.

At the very least the data suggests that opinion in Scotland does diverge from that elsewhere in the UK (though as even Yougov point out, within the UK as a whole opinion does in favour of bombing does seem to be declining (https://yougov.co.uk/news/2015/12/02/analysis-sharp-fall-support-air-strikes-syria/). Moreover as James Kelly points out at Scotland Goes Pop, the Scottish sample includes a remarkably large number of UKIP and Tory supporters (no less than 28% in aggregate) and so might underestimate opposition in Scotland to the bombing campaign (http://scotgoespop.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/yougov-subsample-suggests-scotland-is.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+ScotGoesPop+%28SCOT+goes+POP!%29)

But even if we look at the figures from Yougov, which Gardham quotes totally uncritically, but in a bit more detail, his view becomes increasingly less sustainable. The figures for the UK he presents from Yougov are that 48% of people throughout the UK are in favour of the bombing campaign, with 31% against. Clearly that includes the “don’t knows” (21%). If we strip them out, then those figures become 61% in favour and 39% against. For Scotland the figures quoted are 44% in favour and 41% against, which once the “don’t knows” are removed becomes 52% in favour and 48% against. Thus the figure in favour in the UK is a 17% increase on what it is in Scotland. Or, thinking of it in terms of approval, where “in favour” would have “against” deducted, approval in the UK as a whole is 22% (61-39), but only 4% (52-48) in Scotland.

There are therefore differences in opinion, with approval in Scotland only being marginally positive, but in the UK as a whole approval runs at 3 in every 5. So, it’s not like black and white, but what would we reasonably expect when we watch/ listen to/ read much the same media commentary. Its rather like the recent report that Scotland too suffers from elitism just like England (http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/14119502.New_Elitist_Scotland_report_a__quot_wake_up_call_quot__for_government/) which is hardly a great surprise when we have been part of the same state for the last 308 years, sharing many institutions, not least the legislature that is Westminster. It does though seem clear that the balance of opinion in Scotland about bombing Syria is different from what it is elsewhere in the UK. There might be “terrorist sympathisers” throughout the UK, but there do seem to be proportionately more of them in Scotland. One might have thought this would have been welcomed by that other “terrorist sympathiser” Ian Murray, but it seems, as above, that he has other things in mind.

Now let’s deal with the Benns. This began with a tweet by SNP MP George Kerevan – “Benn summing up for Labour but voting with the Tories. Benn’s father must be turning in his grave” – repeated by Alex Salmond the next day in an interview, but substituting “birling” for “turning”, something which needed translation for readers of the Independent. Salmond said in a radio interview that

His [Hilary Benn’s] father, whose speech I heard in the Iraq debate all these years ago, would be birling (spinning) in his grave hearing a speech in favour of a Tory prime minister wanting to take the country to war and that’s just a reality,” (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/alex-salmond-says-hilary-benns-dad-tony-benn-would-be-birling-in-his-grave-over-pro-bombing-speech-a6758806.html). In reply Emily Benn – Tony Benn’s granddaughter and Hilary Benn’s niece – replied “Mr Salmond, Your comments are both deeply offensive and simply untrue. I hope you reflect and retract them,”. Whether or not they are offensive or not is of course a personal matter for Ms Benn, but are they untrue? The following comment about this dispute has also been made

“No one can know for certain, but I am pretty sure his mother … and his father would be deeply hurt. They wouldn’t have agreed.

“Tony Benn himself had been air crew and I often talked to him about it. What he would have said is what I say, that bombs without ground troops is simply disastrous,” he said.

“No one can be certain about what people think beyond the grave and I am very much against attributing views to people who have passed.

“It is simply that my instinct is that they would have been very distressed.” (http://www.thenational.scot/news/tim-dalyell-tony-benn-would-turn-in-grave-at-his-sons-speech.10795)

That is the view of Tam Dalyell, former Labour MP, and a contemporary of Tony Benn for more than 40 years. Indeed Dalyell has a further advantage in that when Benn made his speech in the House of Commons in 1998 against bombing Iraq, it was Dalyell who was sitting right next to him (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfXmpJRZPYI) – ironically (perhaps) sitting behind him was the (at the time) Honourable Member for Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn. Dalyell’s view is Benn might be revolving in his grave, since, in his view “birling involves a degree of anger. I think it would be more resignation and sadness and that’s why I chose to say “revolving””.

But is there more to this than whether the word “revolving” (or even “turning”) should have been used rather than “birling”? Surely it is more important to come to a view about what Tony Benn would have thought of his son’s speech. It is I think clear from his speech condemning the bombing of Iraq that Tony Benn would not have agreed with the view his son expounded in the House of Commons. Hilary’s speech might have been delivered with some style, and might even have drawn applause (which seems ok as long as it doesn’t involve the SNP) but from the view expounded by his father in 1998 they were unlikely to have agreed. One cannot help but be impressed by the sincerity and indeed the emotion when Benn the Elder contends during his speech that just as the people of London were terrified during the Blitz, that the Arabs will be just as terrified and that, just as in London, Iraqi women will weep when their children die, that MPs voting for a war in Iraq will be taking responsibility for the deaths of Iraqi men, women and children. But if you have time, follow up the Youtube address above, and at 1 minute 40 seconds listen to him talk about the force of the UN Charter and its focus on avoiding the scourge of war, a commitment the previous generation gave to our own and which we abandon if we went to war in Iraq. Personally I heard no echo at all of that in Hilary Benn’s speech which developed the quite reasonable view that ISIS or Daesh is so vile, and fascist that it must be destroyed by means of war. It is clear to me that father and son are developing a different point of view and would not have agreed. Whether Tony is merely revolving or birling seems a secondary point of much less merit than the virtual oppositional views of Tony and Hilary Benn.

Lastly, the motive for this piece was the reporting of Magnus Gardham, Political Editor of the Herald. Just what is going on there? Last summer they introduced a new reader’s comment forum which caused enormous outrage among regular posters, many of whom have either disappeared or post only intermittently, which is a great shame as that forum (in contrast say to the one on the Scotsman) had a reasonably high level of debate, if somewhat skewed toward an independence point of view. Many of the complaints initially were essentially about formatting. For instance if you replied to a post then the original post would be quoted. For comments attracting a single reply this was not too bad, but for one which prompted say 10 replies, every one would be repeated each time, resulting in threads that were ridiculously long. But much of that has been sorted out, however outrage continues. This now largely focuses on two matters. First that certain stories are simply declared off-limits with no facility to comment. In some cases, of course, for instance stories that are very sensitive, this will be the right thing to do. Where it becomes contentious is when comments are not allowed for stories that are politically sensitive, often ones which might be difficult for Unionist parties. Even worse, is when a thread has become extremely critical of the original report and the comments are simply cleared en masse and further comments disallowed. Or when posts are simply not allowed, as happened to me today.

Responding to a claim on a story about the Scottish Government allegedly consulting their Rural Affairs advisor only after they had decided to ban GM crops (http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14125967.Key_scientist_only_consulted_on_GM_crop_ban_a_month_after_controversial_announcement/) a right wing English poster Peter Mosely suggested that we couldn’t find GM companies funding political parties. Using a Herald story from 2013 (www.heraldscotland.com/news/13120827.Why_has_study_saying_GM_could_kill_been_ignored_/) it could be shown that Monsanto (one of the major companies in the development of GM crops) actively funded what can appear to be neutral scientific organizations such as Agricultural Biotechnology Council (sounds rather like a govt funded research council) and Science Media Centre (sounds like the mouthpiece for the mainstream scientific community). This post was removed – not deleted – no fewer than four times by the Herald without ever appearing on the reader forum. This is not the first time, and by no means am I the only one, as many complain, some of whom simply disappear having given up.

The Herald lost 4.9% of its sales between February 2014 and 2015. In contrast the Sunday Herald increased its sales by 34% (http://www.allmediascotland.com/press/88300/the-media-figures-regional-newspaper-sales-daily-and-sunday-newspapers-scotland/). Policy currently being followed does not suggest that this decline will not continue.

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