No television without representation

The exclusion of the SNP from the UK's prime ministerial debates
Mike Small
4 March 2010

I am suffering a thought crime. I am paying for democracy to be beamed to me and I know it is distorted.

“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget...”

We are told that the whole of Great Britain is in fervour at the prospect of Nick Clegg finally being given the platform he deserves. I don’t know anyone who could pick him out of a line-up. The three 90-minute debates, featuring Brown, Cameron and Clegg, will begin by focusing on domestic policies, international affairs and the economy. They will be recorded in England and broadcast throughout the UK. This is a serious distortion of our understanding of process, politics. As Isobel Lindsay writes in the Herald today: “Will we get guarantees from the broadcasting companies that every question asked will make it clear whether it is relevant to England only?” We will surely not get this.

She continues: “Any discussion of education, the health service, social care, crime and punishment, planning, the arts, agriculture, most environmental, energy, housing and transport policies will have no relevance to Scotland or, for the most part, to Wales or Northern Ireland. So we are going to be presented in at least one of these debates with a crude English-centred perspective which will be seriously misleading unless it is made explicit on each question whether Westminster has any competence in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.”

The Guardian reported: “The first programme, to be presented by ITN's Alistair Stewart, will cover domestic affairs and come from the north-west.” Assynt?  “The second show, presented by Sky's Adam Boulton, will cover foreign affairs and come from the south-west.” Kirkudbright? No.

Yesterday the SNP said it was unacceptable for the licence fee-funded BBC to exclude Scotland's most popular political party from the leader debates.

"This is a matter of basic fairness in the run up to a general election and the BBC has decided to give an hour-and-a-half of exposure to the leaders of the three UK political parties each in the run up to the election - and has made not a single proposal to give balance to the SNP in the run-up to polling day," he continued.

What is a fundamental issue of democracy is being presented as a technical issue of media management. ITN's Alistair Stewart, Sky's Adam Boulton, and the BBC's David Dimbleby, are the vanguards of UK democracy. The tortuously negotiated agreement states: "There will be no close-up cutaways of a single individual audience member while the leaders are speaking. However if [a] leader directly addresses an individual audience member, a close-up shot of that individual can be shown."

So what’s wrong with this?

It's not that it substantially shift the general public's perception of the various parties status at the next general election. Nor that it orients the entire sorry edifice of Westminster as essentially an English parliament and an English election. Nor is it essentially a matter of licence-fee fraud, we are used to paying the same as everyone else in the UK and getting an anglicised world beamed back to us.

No, the exclusion of Alex Salmond is really about re-packaging parliamentary politics as a presidential race. Here three titans of public realm will battle it out, the charisma of Brown pitted against the authenticity of Cameron, that is if either of them can manage to shield themselves against the oratorical whirlwind that is Nick Clegg when he gets going. Really. Please.

Three carefully groomed Unionist politicians will contrive to disagree about some petty details while all will be terminally agreed about all basic fiscal, constitutional, and environmental issues. The constitution has been excluded from the debate.

There will be some quibbling about social policy, with individuals clambering over each other slavishly to be seen to be 'tougher on crime' or more right-wing on immigration or pandering to whatever wheeze the tabloids have dreamt up that week. It will not motivate people to vote. There will be no Obama effect. We are told that the audience are not allowed to make a noise, this is no 'town hall meet' to continue the disgraceful Americanisation of our political culture. We know now that these people will walk on stage with the script of safety first embedded in their heads.

Labour and Tory apologists for this televisual gerrymandering have been bleating about how the SNP are a tiny party in UK terms. Former Scotland office minister David Cairns dismissed the issue saying: "In the UK parliament, which has got 650 seats, the SNP hold seven. In the UK parliament, the SNP are a fringe, minority party." The problem is that if Scotland is considered unimportant to Westminster then Westminster will become unimportant to Scotland.

As if criteria for media inclusion can be made up on a whim and isn’t enshrined in law. So what else could they have done? Is it all so hopelessly complex?

There are two problems: 1) this is a UK General Election - why should Giles in the Cotswolds have to listen to Alex carping about Calman? And Alex, as is pointed out ad nauseam, isn’t running for Westminster. 2) While it’s a two party contest in England (the Liberals are tagged on to this for a laugh) it’s a four party (if you’re feeling very generous) system in Scotland. So, what to do?

They could have just had the three ‘main’ parties plus the governing parties of the devolved assemblies, parliaments, so that would have included the DUP, Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein. This is intolerable as it would be a tacit admission if what has happened and what is happening: change. The brutal truth is that all of these polished immaculate inert professional politicians are running on a change ticket. Brown is running that he is changing, and can cope with the change of the collapse of western capitalist economies better than most, largely because he wrote the cheques that brought it about. Cameron is running on the ticket that he – as an Etonian thoroughbred – is the heir to Blair’s classless society. Clegg is running on – God, I have no idea what Clegg is running on. No doubt it has something to do with PR. I’m sure it’s all very sensible. The problem is it’s presented as all very reasonable and of course there was no other option. But this is Orwellian and our acquiescence and mute deference in it all is worrying. Nobody cares. The media in Scotland, mired in unacknowledged and short-sighted prejudice see this purely as an SNP issue.

Lets assume that actually acknowledging devolution is not an option, and the simple formula of going round the 'Nations and Regions' (sic) is an intolerable affront to the British establishment of the BBC, Sky, and the Unionist political media managers.

Here's a less threatening option that would have better served democracy.

They could have had two debates in England (London and Manchester, Newcastle or Liverpool), then one in Northern Ireland, one in Cardiff and one in Edinburgh. They could have included each of the leaders of the governing parties, plus the other players in England - presumably Caroline Lucas, Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin.

Alternatively - the obvious compromise on this issue is that the proposed debate on domestic policy questions is only shown in England.

There are other criteria the BBC have used about representation, such as: offer space to political parties who are contesting every seat, or who have over a certain percentage of the popular vote. The case is dismissed on three flimsy arguments. Firstly that Salmond is not running for Westminster. No but his party is, and Angus Robertson could stand. Secondly, that the SNP have no chance of forming a govt. No, but neither do the Liberal Democrats. Thirdly, that the SNP are a tiny marginal force when taken in UK terms. True but the Tories are a tiny and marginal force in Scottish terms. They have one MP in Scotland and may have none in two months time.  

The entire affair is dressed up as if it's some sort of psephologist's wet dream, a weird constitutional conundrum. It's not, it's called democracy and it's about representing fairly the options open to people. If the SNP don't sue I think the wider independence movement should consider a mass boycott of the licence fee in protest.

No television without representation.

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