Long before “fake news”, the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan coined the aphorism: “The medium is the message”.
There is no precise definition but it’s easy to get the gist. First dominate the medium, then control the message. Whether the message is true or false becomes entirely secondary. To voice any alternative message is from a position of dissent.
There is a lot of that going on in Scotland and it is quite sinister. For example, I happened to hear BBC Radio Scotland yesterday morning and a Nationalist propagandist was in full flow, introduced as a “columnist and commentator”.
Her monologue was relentlessly on message. It included the standard assertion that Scotland had been “extremely successful” in dealing with coronavirus. Not a shred of evidence was offered or sought.
The previous day, the Office for National Statistics provided a different story. According to these inconvenient things called facts, Scotland has the third worst record in Europe, measured by excess deaths. Twice the rate of Wales, three times Northern Ireland’s.
In these parts of the UK, nobody boasts of having been “extremely successful”. No politician feels the need to foster division through false comparisons. The tasteless battle of statistics is a Scottish phenomenon and reflects ill upon us.
The parts of England suffering worst have socio-economic characteristics which largely explain their vulnerability and require understanding. There are other parts of England with lower incidences of deaths than Scotland.
Can we not just leave it at that and deal with realities on our own patch? Unfortunately, these include a death toll of 4201 up to 26th July, according to National Registers of Scotland. There is nothing “extremely successful” about that and it is disrespectful to build a political message by claiming otherwise.
The reason the four UK nations feature individually in the ONS list is that health responsibilities are almost entirely devolved. Decisions about how to respond to coronavirus in Scotland were taken here and nowhere else.
Earlier this week, those who stayed up late saw a devastating documentary by BBC Scotland’s Disclosures team about critical decisions which led to a ghastly death toll in care homes – an appalling story for which explanations must, at some point, be sought.
It is a matter of record that many people – trade unions, care home operators, scientists like Hugh Pennington and Allyson Pollock – were warning about the dangers long before they were acknowledged or acted upon.
Why did the traffic of untested patients from hospitals ever begin, far less continue so long? Ditto the absence of testing for care home staff? Can it really be that people who developed Covid-19 symptoms in care homes were not allowed to access hospitals?
Nicola Sturgeon’s answer is to accuse critics of “hindsight” – which, in most cases, is simply untrue, or assert repeatedly that everyone was acting with good intentions, which nobody has ever disputed. The crucial issues are of judgment rather than intent, far less “blame”.
In Jackson Carlaw’s valedictory appearance as Tory leader, he pursued Ms Sturgeon on her abuse of emotive statistics. For his trouble, she accused him of “for his own narrow reasons, not wanting to recognise the strong position that Scotland has got itself into”. That was a contemptible charge, from the woman who set the dogs on Sarah Smith for much less.
If Scotland has slowed the spread of the virus by using our devolved powers then that is a thoroughly good thing and what many, including this column, argued for much earlier. The right to do things differently has existed, in the case of the NHS, since 1948. We have a different demography and geography, our own socio-economic conditions.
The Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic must be open to scrutiny, just like every other regime’s in the world. Mistakes should be identified, learned from and forgiven.
The only element for which there should be no forgiveness is the relentless effort to re-write history even as it evolves. The message is too important to be falsified and that must not be facilitated by any medium. Behind the statistics, lie human lives and losses.
EVERY PARTY LEADER SHOULD FACE THE MIRROR TEST
Our Justice Minister, Humza Yousaf, took time off from his pernicious Hate Speech Bill to engage in a spot of triumphalism over Jackson Carlaw’s departure.
“Independence is coming, people. Even more important that we stay focused!”, tweeted Scotland’s legal statesman. His “people” meanwhile were expressing opinions on Mr Carlaw’s stewardship in terms which might one day keep Police Scotland busy.
Mr Yousaf’s colleague, Paul Wheelhouse, also felt the hand of history on his shoulder. Absenting himself from oversight of Scotland’s industrial debris, he likened his opponents to “Canute trying to hold back the Indy tide”.
Well, mibbes aye, mibbes naw, as Sir Kenneth Dalglish might put it. It is a long way from the midst of pandemic to considered reflections at some distant future point, with an economic Stalingrad in between. They should not get over-excited.
I don’t like calling on people to resign. When they refuse, what next? My preferred formulation is to insist that every party leader has a duty to look in the mirror and ask what, realistically, the future holds?
Jackson Carlaw, very sensibly, has done that even if others may have proffered the mirror. In different circumstances, he might have made more progress but the internal polling showed he had made no impact in six months and was unlikely to do so.
Labour leaders have been particularly reluctant to risk the mirror test even when it was blindingly obvious they were leading their party towards a precipice. Think Milliband… think Corbyn … Think …. ?
It is possible to be a perfectly good MP or MSP without being a leader. There is a lot less shame in recognising that than in soldiering on regardless.