The Brexiteer Tim Montgomerie’s admonishment of the BBC this morning for its “unpatriotic” coverage of Brexit was depressingly familiar to those of us in Scotland who have fought unthinking nationalism for years.
The BBC’s crime in this case was to give air time to the French finance minister, Benjamin Griveaux who was visiting London, in part to try to encourage banking jobs to Paris post-Brexit. Montgomerie’s comments echo those of leader of the House of Commons, Andea Leadsom, who urged more patriotism from the media at large.
Of course all politicians attempt to influence the media coverage of their cause. As a Labour member, I have to acknowledge that the tedious attacks on the “MSM” have become a problem from a section of my own party. However there is a world of difference between attempting to influence critical coverage and attempting to prevent criticism at all.
Listening to the Hard Brexiteers, we are reminded of the bitter attacks on the BBC and the rest of the “mainstream media” throughout the Scottish referendum campaign. Over and over again, the Scottish National Party leadership made the Corporation the target of attacks. Thousands demonstrated outside the BBC’s headquarters in Glasgow, famously marching behind a banner bearing the face of then BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson. They called for him to be sacked after he had the temerity to robustly question Alex Salmond in a press conference that was packed-out with nationalist supporters.
To imagine nationalist hostility is a reaction to an outside presence is to misunderstand the depth of their hostility to the media. In 2014, the angry crowds also called for the dismissal of Jackie Bird, the popular Scottish anchor of the nightly news programme. An STV journalist complained of attempts by two SNP MPs to silence his critical voice.
The antagonism of nationalists to free and critical media goes to the heart of their worldview. Nationalism is a matter of belief. It rests on emotion, not facts. The role of good journalism in reporting the facts and offering clear-headed analysis is an anathema to them.
Using the word nationalist to describe such behaviour has become controversial in an age where the term is applied to everyone from pro-immigration SNP politicians to resurgent Nazis in the United States. Even the First Minister of Scotland, who describes herself as “a lifelong nationalist” now claims that she isn’t really. But what else do you call someone who suggests that critical analysis be replaced with unquestioning national pride?
The trouble with nationalists is that people with otherwise rational, mainstream views become completely irrational when dealing with “the national cause”. Think of the free marketeers who campaign to leave the biggest free trade area or anti-cuts campaigners who argue for the unthinkable austerity guaranteed from leaving the UK.
For them leaving the British or European unions is not just another a policy, a proposal to be debated on its merits. For them, the campaign to leave is a campaign for our nation itself. So if you are against the policy, you are against the nation. You are unpatriotic, a remoaner, a quisling, a traitor, a pessimist…
This is one of the greatest tricks of nationalism. Its advocates may argue for an outcome which will destroy jobs or decimate public services, but they are always the “positive” ones. They are the visionaries taking on those who simply lack faith in their own country. Suggest that Brexit negotiations aren’t going terribly well or that it might be a nice idea to know what currency an independent country might use and you are “talking down” the country.
Behind the attacks on media criticism is a wider strategic aim. Nationalists want to devalue the role of facts in democratic decision making by discrediting the message carrier. They encourage, in their place, online media sources which support not journalism but the nationalist narrative. If they replace reasoned debate with ignorance and emotion, they win.
Beating post-truth patriots is an exhausting war of attrition. However the attacks on the media reveal the weakness and insecurity at the heart of their politics. The anger that erupts comes from their own inability to square their nationalism with facts they cannot credibly refute. So fight them, mock them, and make sure you beat them because nationalism is a dead end.
Blair McDougall was the head strategist of the Better Together campaign during the Scottish independence referendum.