Why did the media miss the mess?

by | 27 Mar 2023

Scotland's media seems to have been caught unawares by the crisis in the SNP despite plenty information in the public domain. What caused the media to miss it and how do we fix the problem?

First published by Common Weal

The single most common question people are asking me just now is a simple one – why do the problems in the SNP seem to have come as such a surprise to Scotland’s journalists? Why are bits of information which have long been in the public domain not information journalists seem to have awareness of?

I amn’t going to go over the SNP’s problems here. I just want to look at what this story has revealed about how well public affairs in Scotland is reflected in our media and what there is that we can do to improve it.

Let me start by stating the obvious; journalists are human and so they are all subject to precisely the same human biases and prejudices of the rest of us. When you read news you are not reading only the facts but what any given journalist on any given day thinks the facts mean, selecting the ones which reinforce that story and discarding those which seem not to be relevant.

And let me follow that up with another obvious statement; newspapers are ideological. They have specific identities and personalities and that too shapes content. Some of them are quite open about this (certainly the rightwing tabloids and mid-market papers don’t disguise their ideology). But trying being a reliable mirror of what is happening in power is also an ideology – as soon as you choose what you think power is.

This makes journalism deeply susceptible to all all the bog-standard cognitive biases* like Confirmation Bias (giving more importance to information which confirms what you already think than that which contradicts it), Outgroup Bias (mistrusting information that comes from outside what you identify as ‘your gang’) and Halo/Reverse Halo Bias (once you think something or someone is ‘good’ you can only see the good thing about them and discount the bad things – or the opposite).

Halo bias was a particular issue. For a long time the First Minister was perceived to be ‘good’ (going on ‘brilliant’) which meant by extension that the Scottish Government must be ‘competent’ and statements and promises ‘honest and accurate’.

By the start of 2017 there were abundant signs that those might not always be safe assumptions. There was an awful lot going wrong in government by then (particularly in the education agenda). But Halo Bias seemed to somehow disconnect these facts – if education is going wrong and the government is competent and well-led, it must be something else that is the problem.

The real focus for questioning the extent of that Halo Bias should have been the climate crisis. It was absolutely axiomatic in Scotland’s media that Scotland’s First Minister was a ‘Global Climate Change Leader’. But if we look back (with the knowledge that carbon emissions have actually been rising in Scotland over the last five years) that axiom was based almost wholly on things she said rather than things that were done.

The Scottish Government has not been a climate leader. Scotland has, but that is due almost entirely to a combination of our geography (windy, lots of empty fields) and technology (the rapid decrease in the cost and increase in the efficiency of wind turbines).

There is no way round this problem unless we have more journalists and more journalism in Scotland.

But once a human believes something to be true it becomes a lot, lot harder to persuade them it isn’t. And if they’ve said it’s true in public, that effect is even stronger. 

The number of Cognitive Biases that are triggered at that point are legion – Availability Cascade (everywhere you look someone is saying it so it must be true), Availability Heuristic (we tend toward the first available piece of information), Sunk Cost Fallacy (you’ve been saying it for a while so you better stick with it), Backfire Effect (evidence that disproves what you think can make you think it more rather than less), False Consensus, Bandwagon Effect and Groupthink (variations of the belief that ‘everyone thinks this so it must be true’) among others.

And yet… all of this is true everywhere. In every media there are all these human and institutional biases to deal with, yet other nation’s media seem much better able to uncover information and making it stick. For example, you all remember Greenshill Capital and David Cameron? It was everywhere. Do you remember Greenshill Capital, Gupta and the Scottish Government?

Or for that matter if I was to ask you to tell me the difference between the Gupta Aluminium scandal and the Tata Steel scandal (Scotland has scandals for various base metals…), how much could you tell me? Now if I asked you whether you could tell me what child’s item got damaged at a Westminster Government lockdown party, how would you do?

No, it’s not just normal biases, it’s capacity. That, in the end, is the primary problem in Scotland – almost none of the media has the capacity to hold a government properly to account. Scotland used to have double-figure lobby correspondents in what is now Glasgow City Council alone. There probably aren’t all that many more lobby journalists at the Scottish Parliament these days.

This matters. To give you a pen-portrait, we were working with a journalist recently. He’s a really good journalist, thorough and informed. We cited a piece of information. He was briefly dubious and asked for a link to verify. I hunted him out a link – and it turned out it was in a story he broke 18 months earlier.

There are three big reasons that lack of capacity is an issue. The first is that journalists are so busy writing content they barely have time to remember it – the volume of output from a journalist today has increased massively since I was a young reporter. No-one can remember that much information.

The second is the loss of specialist correspondents. I worked with eight or nine dedicated education journalists 15 years ago They knew what was going on, really understood the issues and had time and ability to go way beyond media-release recycling. There are hardly any now.

And that demonstrates the third problem; good journalism isn’t about writing but about listening to multiple sources (and interrogating them). When I started in political strategy, individual journalists would phone me up most weeks, for no particular purpose. Just to find out generally what was going on, what I or we thought was going on, gossip, internal personality clashes – the stuff that lies behind what you eventually see in newspapers.

Few if any have time for that any more. Why has not a single journalist in Scotland ever shown any curiosity in Peter Murrell or what has been happening in SNP HQ? Because there was no press release, no statement, nothing to require them to do so.

What journalists are most certainly right about is that if we don’t have them, we have serious problems in our democracy

Which means that when something goes wrong (like the Treasurer and half of the Audit Committee resigning over being denied sight of the party’s accounts), journalists are covering it with no background knowledge, no grounding in why it was happening or what it told us about the dynamic of what was going on in the party at the time.

Make no mistake – if the Treasurer of the UK Tory Party and half of that party’s Audit Committee resigned under these circumstances it would have led the news for days. Swarms of journalists would have been hitting the phones or doorstopping the players to find out why the Committee wanted to see the accounts in the first place and what possible reason Murrell would have had for withholding them.

Which means that it would be lodged in everyone’s memory, like a broken swing is, or David Cameron’s lobbying activities. Which would make Murrell ‘news’. Which mean that people would be not only aware of this, they’d be looking for more. And that would have created the ‘chain’ – the second and the third revelation, each linked to the other, creating a narrative. In Scotland it came and went in a day, largely consigned to the inside pages. 

I know clever people who really believe conspiracy theories about why the journalists largely ignored all of this. They think it is some kind of media plot to protect ‘the Murrells’. It was no such thing. It was about as much investigative journalism as is possible in a nation with no investigative (political) journalists (though shout-out to the Ferret which does good policy journalism, and to the Herald for a fruitful collaboration with them.)

There is no way round this unless we have more journalists and more journalism in Scotland. The market will not sustain this. Few of us pay for our news any more but then complain it is substandard. Without public investment, journalism in Scotland will wither further.

Common Weal has a very clear model for this. Subsidising existing newspapers just reinforces the ideological biases that are a problem and consolidates the power of existing media empires. We want to see a Public News Agency (summary here, find more in Sorted), creating public-domain, public-good journalism which is effectively both a subsidy to the commercial media and a source to stimulate alternative media.

We need to do something because this situation isn’t going to get better. You don’t read about this in the media because for obvious reasons they can’t really write about their own weaknesses. What journalists are most certainly right about is that if we don’t have them, we have serious problems in our democracy. We can’t let that happen. It is too serious.

And don’t even get me started on the state of Scotland’s local media and the extent to which our ‘local’ authorities are even scrutinised at all…

*If you’re unaware of cognitive biases but interested to learn more, there is so much on the internet that it is hardly worth me providing links. But Wikipedia has a comprehensive list and other sources will happily tell you about the ‘top ten’ or ‘top 20’.

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