From Edinburgh to Washington, journalists are suspicious of unofficial information and eager for censorship. Industrial decline and profiteering are only half the story argues David Jamieson.
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In recent weeks, one story – that of the SNP’s finances – has shaken Scottish public life to the foundations. About 80% of journalistic work for that story was done by one man, with a self-administered blog, from the south of England. There’s perhaps no more controversial figure in Scottish politics than the author of Wings Over Scotland, the once hard-line SNP loyalist website turned apostate. But no one would even attempt a denial of his importance to the events threatening to destroy Scotland’s longest serving political leadership.
Had he not pursued the finances story when many regarded it beneath investigation, Nicola Sturgeon might still be First Minister, and Peter Murrell might still be CEO of a party believed to have over a hundred thousand members. The pair might still be predicting an imminent independence referendum every twelve months or so, and a long tail of scavengers in the nationalist press and blogosphere would still be damning anyone who refused to believe it.
The light this casts over Scotland’s main media houses is unforgiving. What seems strange now is that even the launch of the formal Police Scotland investigation into SNP monies in July 2021 failed to mobilise sufficient interest among our broadcasters and publishers. It’s remarkable, isn’t it, how much tougher Scotland’s press Corp were on the SNP before 2014 and after. The threat of a mass movement to the Union inspired a blizzard of dodgy stories about capital flight and ‘dark forces’. But, after Sturgeon adopted her Clintonite vibe and clearly opportunist approach to the independence cause, a story of real substance was viewed with suspicion by journalists.
Most criticism of the media falls in to two broad camps. One depicts journalists as knowing agents of a powerful but ill-defined ruling conspiracy. The other, ostensibly more materialist, blames the failings of the media on corporate profiteering. Undoubtedly, the capacity of the Scottish press has been hammered in recent decades, and there’s no let-up – jobs are still disappearing every year, remaining offices are still being shuttered.
Those staff who remain are often young, inexperienced and overburdened with demands for clickable garbage and rudimentary churnalism – repackaging the soundbites barfed from a PR industry now of equivalent size to the news outlets they seek to spin. The profession of journalism is being strangled by its, usually foreign, corporate paymasters, at a time of mounting state censorship and privately finances obfuscation.
It would be easy – and a kind of playmobile-level socialism – to leave the analysis there. But the strange truth is that many journalists are busily engaged in the murder of their own industry.
I don’t mean by this that they are alienating the public by poor work, though there may be plenty of that. I mean too many journalists seem actively hostile to the whole ethos of journalism, and friendly to its natural enemies. Cults of censorship are everywhere today. Consider developments of just the past few years.
Since 2016, almost every ‘averse’ political development in the western world has been ascribed to Russian influence, and almost all these ascriptions have focused on nefarious media and the need to control it. In every instance, the chief supporters of censorship have been professional journalists.
The profession has consistently demanded tighter controls on social media, the closure of foreign news outlets in the west, and a wholesale crackdown on instances of ‘misinfo’ and ‘compromat’ blackmail of western politicians – many of which turn out to be hoaxes spread by journalists themselves.
Consider just one dimension of this craze for censorship. Twitter – the social media platform that journalists seem to regard as their own domain – has been utterly transformed by the waves of hysteria. Any widely circulated post on the website diverging from official narratives is supplemented by a health warning from the corporation. Accounts for outlets and personalities of ‘enemy’ states outside the orbit of US power likewise carry labels notifying their foreign character. When it was revealed through the Twitter Files (an exposé promoted and controlled by the platform’s new owner, Elon Musk) that company executives had been routinely censoring news embarrassing to US President Joe Biden, journalists rushed to denounce not the censorship, but the revelations.
The orgy of self-abasement is now reaching new depths. In the last week, when a US soldier leaked sensitive information about US assistance to Ukraine in the ongoing war, journalists actively pursued the leaker, to rapidly stop the information at its source. The leaks detailed the extent of western deployments in the war (the British SAS, we now know, are on the ground), and painted a highly unflattering picture of the state of the Ukrainian war effort – contradicting mainstream press coverage in the west.
Bellingcat – the investigative media platform that, like Twitter, enjoys a pipeline of staff from western intelligence and military agencies – tracked down the leaker and he was promptly arrested at gunpoint. They were joined by the New York Times – that paragon of liberal rectitude – whose reporters actually arrived at the scene before police. The media as an arm of censorship, what a strange juncture.
Journalistic obsequiousness in Scotland is, then, part of a global picture. As elsewhere, the Scottish press has had one message about the present war in Ukraine – the exact same message as almost every elected politician and public institution. There’s little doubt that ideological commitment to the establishment and its prerogatives is necessary to rise through the profession. But to understand the poverty of critical perspectives in the media, we also must examine what happens to journalists when they do their job.
The SNP finances story might have been low-key in the Scottish press, but the plight of Julian Assange has been downright obscure. Journalists around the world have taken a vow of near-silence ever since Assange was dragged from the Ecuadorian embassy in 2019.
He was, in many ways, the defining journalist of his generation. The information promoted through Wikileaks exposed the brutality of the ‘War on Terror’, and for a brief moment excited democracy, anti-war and human rights campaigners around the world about the potentials of the internet age. Even some mainstream journalists, like the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald, got in on the act, publishing intelligence provided by Edward Snowden – a contractor for the US National Security Agency.
This brief adventure by journalists into the seedy, violent, secret world of US power now seems incredible. Greenwald is a pariah among his former colleagues. Snowden is in hiding in Russia. Assange is on trial for his life. These are the rewards that await journalists who take their vocation seriously. Today, Bellingcat exists as a kind of grim photo-negative of Wikileaks, brandishing their credentials as brave online sleuths to protect the powerful and hunt-down those who dare bring what goes on in the dark into the light. The sorry truth is that the journalistic profession has reached its worst nadir since the birth of the free press. Perhaps Scotland is predicting the future of journalism elsewhere. Our weakened civic sphere may mean we lose the profession before other parts of the anglosphere. The United States still needs to prettify its global power with journals full of apologia. But nothing intent on destroying itself can live forever.
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