Friday, 30 May 2014

Democracy UK-style





Imagine, if you can, living in one of those oppressive states elsewhere in the world, like North Korea or China or Saudi Arabia.

Actually, from a UK Government perspective, the last two are not oppressive regimes, contrary to all available evidence.  China and Saudi Arabia are good customers of the UK, so small matters like human rights, torture of civilians and state executions are overlooked.  Do an internet search and see the photos of UK politicians and the Royal Family kow-towing to visiting Saudi and Chinese ‘dignitaries’.  Do another search for Saudi and Chinese ‘government brutality’ to see the type of people with which the UK Government is happy to do business.  Don’t click on any videos unless you have a strong stomach.

North Korea, purportedly a ‘communist’ state, makes the massive error of failing to buy its military arsenal from UK companies, so it can, officially, be called an oppressive regime.  Of course, North Korea is as far from a communist state as you could possibly get, as is China, but it suits the capitalist-run western world to portray a deeply dysfunctional state as ‘communist’ – all the better to discredit the ultimate alternative to ‘greed is good’ capitalism. 

In reality, both North Korea and China are dictatorships where the general population are ruled by small elite groups.  Saudi Arabia is very similar: there, though, the ruling elite is the Royal Family.

Freedom of expression and opposition to the ruling elite are repressed, often brutally, in the world’s dictatorships.  So-called ‘dissidents’ frequently find themselves thrown into jail before being convicted of crimes against the state, which carries severe punishment, even execution.

In dictatorships, the state also controls the media – newspapers and broadcasters – meaning the people only get to hear what the elite wants them to hear.  No alternative view is allowed, and no criticism of the ‘official’ line is permitted.

In the UK, aren’t we so lucky to live in a state where we have a free press, freedom of speech and a multi-party political system that allows democracy to flourish?  You would think so, wouldn’t you?

Clearly, no-one in their right mind would attempt to equate the UK with states such as North Korea, China or Saudi Arabia.  However, if we take more than a cursory glance at our society, media and those who seek to govern us, it quickly becomes apparent that all is not as free, open and democratic as we are led to believe.

Generally we are free to move around and to express our opinions: we also get to elect governments.  So why complain? 

At this point we could embark on a wide-ranging book covering every aspect of infringement of our civil liberties - admittedly minor in comparison to the countries mentioned before – but events of last week will suffice to illustrate why we aren’t as free and democratic as we might think.

Firstly, we had the Election to the European Parliament.  In England, the far-right and racist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won the election.  This was not totally unexpected, but not because of the hard-work and persuasive arguments put forward by members of UKIP.  The party’s election success was down mainly to the blanket coverage provided to them – and in particular their leader, Nigel Farage – by the so-called mainstream media, in particular the BBC.

Thanks to the BBC’s promotion of Farage, UKIP was propelled from an obscure far-right party of racists, homophobes and misogynists into one that secured victory over the professional electoral machines of the Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats in England.  Without the BBC’s wall-to-wall coverage of UKIP in the weeks ahead of the election, this result would not have happened.

A similar thing occurred in 2010 ahead of the UK General Election.  At the time, the BBC promoted Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, which propelled that party from minority status into government with the Tories.  Now, though, the BBC is only too happy to join in the hounding of Clegg following the Lib Dems disastrous polling in the European Election, where thousands of the party’s previous supporters switched to the BBC’s new poster boys in UKIP.

Newspapers no longer have the clout and influence they once had, which is partly down to the public’s contempt for much of the industry following revelations exposed by the Leveson enquiry into phone-hacking.  Another factor is the accessibility of online news sites.  There used to be no alternative to the daily newspaper or weekly local publication, but now we can log onto the internet and access all the news we could ever want, usually for free.  Internet sites have also become expert at exposing the biased nature of the reporting carried by most ‘national’ newspapers.

Broadcasters, though, are supposed to be impartial.  In particular, the BBC – funded by what is to all intents and purposes a tax as regressive as the hated Poll Tax – still retains an international reputation for honesty and integrity.  It is a reputation now undeserved but which lingers in the minds of so many people.  For that reason, when the BBC promotes Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage by providing them with airtime denied to others, the broadcaster is working to an agenda and attempting to influence the outcome of elections.  Because many people still believe what the BBC broadcasts, the strategy has been successful – the Lib Dems secured a massively increased vote and a place in government at the 2010 UK Election, while UKIP won last week’s European Election in England.

Scotland receives a double dose of the BBC’s bias: we get the same agenda promoting particular politicians and parties, and we also have a situation were the distinctly different political reality in Scotland is ignored.  UKIP has virtually no presence in Scotland, but because of the BBC’s promotion of the party, its vote doubled north of the border, allowing it to scrape the last of six Scottish seats in the European Parliament, at the expense of the Lib Dems. 

SNP analysis of BBC broadcasts showed the corporation had provided four-times as much airtime to UKIP ahead of the election as had been provided to the SNP, which forms the government of Scotland.

The BBC in Scotland then reported UKIP’s capture of a European seat as if the party had won the election, when, in reality, it had finished fourth and took just 10% of the vote (on a 30% turnout).  Back in London, the BBC ‘national’ news reported UKIP’s victory “across the country”, but the only country in which the party topped the poll was England.  That did not stop Scotland receiving the message, broadcast into our living rooms, that UKIP had won the election.

In Scotland, the SNP won the European Election, increasing its vote by almost 70,000 from the last Euro poll in 2009, which was a remarkable feat for a party that has formed the government of Scotland for the past 7 years – governments are supposed to be unpopular.  However, BBC viewers would have struggled to unearth information about the SNP’s victory amidst the UKIP-fest that saw every ‘national’ news bulletin lead with a beaming Nigel Farage.

Of course, such BBC bias is nothing new to pro-independence activists in Scotland.  Many of the corporation’s failings in its duty to be impartial in the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future have been documented on sites such as Newsnet Scotland and Wings over Scotland, but the bias simply goes on and on.

So blatant in its pro-British Union position is the BBC in Scotland that the corporation refuses to terminate its membership of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), a right-wing organisation that continues to actively oppose Scottish independence.  BBC Scotland’s decision has been taken despite repeated requests from the National Union Journalists (NUJ) for the broadcaster to quit the CBI.  The NUJ points out that journalists working for the BBC in covering the Independence Referendum may be open to allegations of bias, given their employer helps fund and is a member of an organisation that is actively campaigning for one side, the British Unionist side.

In our free and democratic country we have a print media almost entirely owned outside of Scotland and which, with the honourable exception of the Sunday Herald, not only opposes Scottish independence but is prepared to lie in the promotion of the British Union.  We also have broadcasters, primarily the BBC, which use their power to manipulate the outcome of elections.  We could also throw in the unrepresentative nature of the people elected to govern us at a UK level – most having been privately educated and attended either Oxford or Cambridge universities – and the fact that Scotland didn’t vote for them (the Tories finished fourth in Scotland at the last UK Election in 2010).

Clearly, we do not live in an oppressive state: I will not be thrown into prison for writing this article.  We can travel relatively freely and we do have the opportunity to vote at elections.  However, when the UK government is imposed on us even after we have rejected them at the ballot box; when that government does not in any way represent or understand the people it governs; when we have ‘national’ newspapers acting against the interests of Scotland; when we have broadcasters manipulating election results, reporting issues in a blatantly biased manner and censoring what we are told by promoting certain stories and omitting others, then perhaps the country in which we live is not as free, open and democratic as those in positions of power would have us believe.

In a truly free and democratic country, a broad-based media should reflect the diverse views of the people, instead of attempting to manipulate opinion to favour the positions of multi-millionaire publishers, bankers and politicians.  

Independence is about Scotland re-taking the status of a normal nation, and in normal nations governments are elected to govern with the consent of the people: in an independent Scotland we will always get the government for which we vote – never again will a government be imposed on us by people in another country.  That is democracy.

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