Friday, 26 April 2013

Positive role of 'new media'

When asked, people who have not already made-up their minds on how they will vote in next year’s independence referendum say they want more information.  Understandably, undecided voters want to make an informed decision, which is why they are looking for facts, as opposed to political propaganda.

Sadly, much of what is reported by the mainstream media provides more heat than light. 

Producers of political programmes on television apparently believe viewers have an attention–span of around 30-seconds.  If an interviewee takes more than this to begin explaining a point, the interviewer butts-in with another question or even an opinion of their own.  This does nothing for informed debate and frequently results in no-one being able to fully articulate their case, which leaves viewers still looking for answers.

BBC Scotland’s flagship political programme Newsnight Scotland is particularly guilty of short-changing the viewing public by allowing regular presenter Gordon Brewer to take 3-minutes to ask a rambling question, only to then cut-off an answer before it is fully-formed.  Scottish Television’s Scotland Tonight at least allows views to be expressed and exchanged.

Newspapers published in Scotland are partisan: virtually all are owned outwith Scotland and take their political position from boardrooms normally based in London.  The Sunday Herald has declared itself ‘open to persuasion’ regarding independence for Scotland, but most other papers support the British Union.  Scotland is a country with just one Tory MP, yet most of the daily national newspapers (Scottish versions) back the Tories – Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Sun.  The Daily Record and its sister paper the Daily Mirror support the Labour Party.

The Guardian and the Independent (and its abridged version, the ‘i’) are good newspapers but essentially English.  They tend to report Scottish issues in the same way they deal with news from other countries, often from a detached and less well-informed position, and usually expressed in the form of an explanation for readers based in England.

Even just ten-years ago, this was the extent of news media in Scotland.  Television, radio and ‘traditional’ newspapers were how we received our news, with content slanted to suit the political agendas of owners and publishers in London.  Broadcasters are supposed to be impartial but even the publicly-funded BBC makes clear in its Editorial Guidelines that impartiality “does not require absolute neutrality on every issue”.

Today, technology and the internet have moved news-reporting into cyberspace, with more and more of us using computers and mobile devices to receive news updates.  So-called ‘traditional’ newspapers are dying: readership and advertising are falling, while profit-driven owners slash jobs in newsrooms, resulting in poorer-quality publications.

This ‘Opinion’ column is written for the3towns, an online local newspaper just about to enter its seventh-year of publication and with a readership continuing to grow.  On the internet there are also sites covering national news and politics, many of which carry regular columns by some of the same journalists and commentators you will see in paid-for ‘traditional’ newspapers.

There are serious questions over how to make online publications profitable – if we want quality journalism we should be prepared to pay the journalists who produce it – but there can be no doubt that the internet and ‘new media’ are the future for news.

Of course, some working in the older mediums of news gathering and dissemination defend their positions by asserting that readers cannot have the same level of trust in online publications.  They argue digital media don’t have to meet the same standards as ‘traditional’ newspapers, a line that is completely untrue.  Scotland’s defamation and data protection laws apply just as much to online newspapers as they do to print and broadcast journalism.

It is also the case that much of the investigative journalism being done in Scotland is carried out by reporters working for online publications.  Locally, the3towns has revealed a number of stories that would not have come to light if the publication had not existed, such as the scandal surrounding claims for public money made by some, predominantly Labour, North Ayrshire councillors.  Likewise, with regard to national politics and Scottish independence, stories are being broken by websites such as the National Collective, Newsnet Scotland and Wings Over Scotland, all of which had a hand in bringing to the public’s notice the fact that the largest donor to the pro-British Union campaign – Better Together – is resident in England, does not have a vote in next year’s independence referendum, and is chief executive of an oil company that gave $1m to Serbian war-criminal Arkan.  The ‘traditional’ media – print and broadcast – subsequently carried the story, but only after the three websites named above had researched and published the information, and had faced-down threatening letters from lawyers representing Mr Ian Taylor, the donor in question.

Just in case you missed the story, London-based Ian Taylor, a long-standing donor to the Tory Party, has given £500,000 to the Better Together campaign, which represents almost half of its entire funding.  Better Together – the anti-independence organisation that sees the Labour Party standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Tories and Liberal Democrats – has refused to return Mr Taylor’s money, despite the fact Vitol, the company of which he is chief executive, has in the past done deals with the regimes of countries such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya and, as previously mentioned, the warlord Arkan in Serbia.  Vitol admits such involvement but states it did nothing illegal.

However, in 2007, Vitol pled guilty to grand larceny in a deal with the Manhattan District Attorney in New York after the company admitted paying ‘surcharges’ to Iraqi officials in Saddam Hussein's regime under the United Nations oil-for-food scheme.  The District Attorney’s Office described the payments as ‘kickbacks’, which in this country would be known as bribes.  Then, in 2010, the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) fined two Vitol subsidiaries $6m for “wilfully failing to disclose material facts” to the New York Mercantile Exchange for almost two years.  Vitol neither admitted nor denied the CFTC’s findings, but subsequently put in place new compliance measures.

In addition, financial statements filed in Luxembourg last month by Vitol Holding II SA, part of the main Vitol organisation, revealed multiple operations in tax havens.  Covering the year to December 31 2011, when Vitol Holding II SA recorded a pre-tax profit of $2 billion, the Consolidated Financial Statements list 90 companies and 100%-owned subsidiaries which form the ‘Vitol Group’.  Of these, 23 were in tax havens: sixteen in Bermuda, five in the British Virgin Islands, one in Panama, and one (90% owned), in the Arab Emirate of Fujairah. 

All of which means that the pro-British Union campaign in Scotland has received almost half of its total funding from a man who doesn’t live in Scotland, can’t vote in Scotland, and whose company has dealt with some very dubious characters in pursuit of multi-billion-dollar oil profits, and apparently uses off-shore financial tax havens to help minimise the tax it pays in Britain.

We wouldn’t know these facts if it were not for the investigative journalism of reporters working for online news publications.

Scots want to make an informed decision on independence when they enter the voting booth on September 18 next year, but ‘traditional’ print and broadcast outlets are currently failing to deliver.  More and more, informative and accurate news is being sourced via online newspapers and blogs.  As we decide our country’s future, it is appropriate that technologies of the future are playing an increasingly important role in informing the debate.

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