The mainstream media bubble and the Scottish referendum

In today’s Observer, Scottish journalist and commentator Kevin McKenna notes a clash of parallel worlds. One is inhabited by the elites in ‘Scotland’s media and political bubble’ and the other by people filling parish halls and schools to discuss the issues involved in the vote to stay in the UK or become an independent state. Some journalists, McKenna notes, have been using the word ‘cult’ to describe supporters of the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party. The implications of such wording, he argues, are that political and media elites think ‘politics ought only to be conducted and analysed by the professionals – either the politicians and their advisers or we who are paid to scrutinise and report their words and ideas’. But the people entrusted with the vote – the people who have been thronging to information meetings and SNP conferences – are ‘gloriously unsophisticated’ and many have never previously attended a conference. ‘Not for them clipboards, iPads and a rolled-up copy of the New Statesman peeping out of their pockets. Instead, it was packed lunches, leisurewear and idiosyncratic millinery. There were lots of babies in buggies and friendly ladies doing that selfie thing all over the shop. You’d have to have been as cyncila as a hedge fund manager or a member of Her Majesty’s political lobby, scowling in your curmedgeon-hood, not to have been a little affected by it all.’ When words fail to explain what McKenna considers to be an unusual phenomenon, he sees media elites choosing to denigrate it. Pundits have been scorning the fact that these newly-mobilized citizens have only an ‘untutored grasp’ of the currency question, and fail to understand the predictions of the Office for Budget Responsibility. What McKenna describes in this article are classic portrayals of the ‘uninformed citizen’ who haunts decades of accounts of political communication, as outlined in Chapter 5 of Media and Politics in a Globalizing World. In his column, McKenna has given unabashed support to arguments for Scottish independence. Something to think about is whether his analysis is an example of media bias (i.e. the bias of a journalist using his column to argue his own viewpoint), or an astute commentary that seeks to unmask media bias (i.e. the bias of the ‘English broadsheets’ that McKenna maintains are smearing a movement they do not understand). One way of answering the question would be to analyse coverage of the town hall meetings in the British press, with a special focus on journalistic depictions of the ‘ordinary people’ taking part. Is McKenna correct in perceiving ‘a barely concealed narrative of contempt’ and if so, could that matter to British politics more generally?


Picture: Referendum consultation – press conference. Journalists gather for the Press conference for international media in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle after the launch of the Referendum Consultation. Photo Credit: Scottish Government/Flickr


Read more: ‘Scotland’s SNP revolution terrifies the main parties‘, The Observer, 5 April 2015.


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