The election has been, in many ways, a stark wake up call to the independence movement. With the loss of 21 SNP MPs, passionate debate has ignited around what strategy should be adopted in order to win the hearts and minds of the Scottish people in a future referendum. Amid the haze of modern Scottish politics, one thing has become clear – there is a strong diversity of opinion within our own movement.

The latest discussion was sparked by Scottish Green MSP, Ross Greer, who claimed that The National – Scotland’s only independence-supporting daily newspaper – was doing “more harm than good” to the drive for Scottish independence.

Greer argued that the newspaper was providing a voice to extreme factions within the campaign, such as the Scottish Resistance, and promotes ethno-nationalism when it publishes letters from some readers who believed that only people born in Scotland should be allowed a vote in a future independence referendum. However, the Green MSP’s comments generated feelings of anger and disappointment amongst some independence supporters; not least the editor of The National himself, Callum Baird, who promptly defended his paper.

Thinking back to when Richard Walker announced plans to deliver a newspaper which would put Scottish independence at the forefront, I, like so many others, was thrilled about the possibilities that such a platform could bring. Sick and tired of the unionist monopoly on the media, “Yes” voters were crying out for a voice. The National really did appear to be the dawn of a new era in the long fight to break a 300 year old union of parliaments.

It was an opportunity to report the facts which supported both sides of the argument, rather than the doom and gloom of “Project Fear” which swamped the headlines in 2014. It was a chance for those who were not yet convinced to read about the real potential that independence could bring to our country, aside from the exaggerated scare stories. It also offered the prospect to highlight the gross-injustice which our people fall victim to, as a result of being part of the UK.

There was no doubt; expectations were high.  But then why shouldn’t they be?

Yet, I must admit, I feel as though The National is now the embodiment of a missed opportunity. Though unlike Ross Greer, I believe that the newspaper contained a fetal flaw from the beginning. As the first edition rolled off the press, its purpose for existence was clear for all to see, – it was “the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland” – stamped clearly in block capitals as part of the paper’s masthead. This was both its biggest asset and its greatest weakness.

Tragically, it was the “all about independence” business model which, although brought about the newspaper’s early success, has limited The National’s ability to expand. The slogan alone makes it an untouchable product to unionists – even moderates – who will be vital for swinging the polls.  No one spends their money on a paper which explicitly supports a belief or ideology which opposes their own. In this narrow context, it has become the Daily Express of the independence movement – occupying a niche market.

As studies have continued to demonstrate, people prefer to surround themselves with like-minded opinion. Therefore, if The National is to become a dominant force for change within our movement, then we must attract readers who hold dissenting views on independence. This will only be achieved by taking a more nuanced approach.

It is important to understand why newspapers are such effective political machines, and what allows them to set the agenda. The reason is simple. They have a capacity to transport their messages over the threshold of people’s doors. Individuals choose to consume their propaganda, instead of having it thrust upon them by political parties. It is an ability that the majority political parties could only wish for when they deliver their election literature. It is easy to appreciate why befriending multi-millionaire media tycoons has become an established election strategy for the Conservative Party. The news media is a medium which rivals no other when it comes to shifting public opinion.  It carries a sense of legitimacy, bolstered by the concept of journalistic independence.

Nonetheless, The National has not been successful in achieving this same power of influence. The notion that propaganda is only potent, if it doesn’t resemble propaganda, helps to explain why this is the case. The problem for The National is that is hasn’t even attempted to disguise its message. Instead, it made it a catchline and printed it on every front page. The slogan practically serves as a “before you buy disclaimer.” Shall we imagine for a moment that in advance of every episode of Reporting Scotland, the newsreader stated that they were “the broadcaster which supported The Union” – their integrity would be shattered. Instead, the credibility of the BBC originates from the “trustworthy and impartial reporting”, which many viewers believe they provide. Independence campaigners, such as myself, know that that isn’t necessarily the case, however, it is only the illusion that matters. The unionist media are participating in a level of canniness that we must replicate.

BBC Scotland Headquarters
BBC Scotland Headquarters at Pacific Quay, Glasgow

Similarly, in the United State, one of the most successful propaganda machines is Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel, which, until recently, carried the catchline “Fair and Balanced.” To you and I, such a phrase may seem rather ironic, considering Fox News’ infamous biased reporting and fabricated claims. However, accuracy of reporting is not what is relevant to this discussion. The essential point is that they are both extremely effective at setting a political narrative – and it’s all about marketing.

Unfortunately, the entire premise of The National – to shore up Scottish independence – is wholly transparent, leaving little credibility among “No” voters and “Yes” moderates alike. Quote any piece from the National to someone sitting on the constitutional fence, and their reply will be the same every time; “Yeah, but that’s the National.”

Ultimately, it’s the unapologetic nature of the paper’s beliefs which has rendered its influence over crucial swing votes as about as effective as an SNP press release. When the political purpose of a media organisation is made so explicit, then it completely loses its legitimacy among those who don’t share the same beliefs.

However, I can not to pretend to agree with the conclusion of Ross Greer . The National is far from doing more harm than good to the independence movement. The newspaper has provided a constant platform to pro-independence voices, and in turn, has raised the profile of those who are now leading our movement. These opinions from valued members of our movement are vital for influencing the direction of travel of our campaign, and keep us all moving forward together.

As I have already mentioned, the independence movement is made up of a multitude of different views. It is an almost impossible task to keep these opinions singing from the same hymn sheet, but such a newspaper has allowed our movement to keep that cohesion which has existed since 2014. The loss of The National would risk losing control of our followers and the momentum which we have worked so tirelessly to build. Now more than ever, when” Yes” voters are differing on their political party of choice, we need to stay united, if there is to be hope in winning the fight against the still dominant unionist media.

Moreover, as both our country and our world experience a state of political flux, it is imperative that we continue to advance the arguments for independence, from those of the first referendum campaign. As our First Minister has highlighted over the past year, the context from which we will be entering a new drive for independence will be drastically different than it was 3 years ago. The National may not be perfect, but it arms our movement with the arguments of today. The narrative that this newspaper sets may not make it directly to the key swing voters, but our vast army of enthusiastic and passionate campaigners will undoubtedly be taking it personally to the doorsteps, street stalls, and hustings.

This newspaper does more good than harm. It is abundantly clear that if we were to lose such a great asset to our movement, it would be a major blow to our chances of winning a majority in a future vote.  The paper is imperative for uniting our cause and elevating the voices which will eventually guide us to victory. The political context is changing, the UK is changing, and Scotland is changing. We must be keeping up with the arguments, and The National provides a trustworthy source for the facts that we can take to the doorsteps.  In many ways, it serves as our political compass.

However, there are obvious pitfalls. In its present state, the newspaper remains particularly uninviting to those who we need to convince of the arguments. It takes on the appearance of a supersized political communication leaflet. A newspaper will only change minds if it makes it into the hands of someone who doesn’t agree with the editorial opinion. It might be the case that The National must do what the SNP has done before them, and place the independence message on the back burner. A more tactile approach of gentle persuasion will allow it to be a true long term force for our movement. Then again, it might be too late for that. But don’t rule out such a move, yet. The 2015 General Election result proved that people were comfortable putting their trust in a party, which had independence at its heart, even when they didn’t support it themselves. A softer slant from The National might just be able to gain a wider audience, and reach beyond the parameters of the independence movement. Then we really would possess a true force for change.

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