John’s Speech on Media, Society and Democracy

Yesterday (14/05/15) my colleague Jean Urquhart MSP led a debate in the Scottish Parliament on the role of media in society and democracy. I was delighted to be able to take part, you read the transcript of my speech below.

Motion debated:

That the Parliament believes that there is widespread debate in Scotland about the relationship between the media, political power and democracy; believes that critical and well-supported journalism is essential to a thriving democracy; believes that many Scots have lost trust in a range of media institutions; notes the development of new methods of delivering news and commentary through the internet and social media; notes the importance of local media and press in areas such as the Highlands and Islands, which rely on the many and diverse local news services available, and welcomes the continuing public debate on how media can be held to account by citizens and civil society and how to sustain and develop diverse media outlets that contribute to generating positive engagement with politics, the Parliament and the important issues facing society.

 John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):

I, too, congratulate my colleague Jean Urquhart on bringing the motion to the chamber. We know from the media and from the speeches that we have heard that the subject is of great interest to the general public. It is perhaps unfortunate that there is not a bigger attendance in the chamber for the debate.

The motion refers to a “widespread debate” and to “the relationship between the media, political power and democracy”.

Members have talked about the range of media, from the locals, nationals and broadcasters to social media and the internet. The question of who has the power may be important. Mr McGrigor touched on that, and I venture that, at United Kingdom level, the power still rests with a group of elites—bankers, public schoolboys, the military and the like, and their lobbyists—and people will always have concerns about the term “state broadcaster”.

Jamie McGrigor:

I referred to witnesses we had at the European and External Relations Committee. Is Mr Finnie suggesting that all of them were public schoolboys?

John Finnie:

I do not know the committee that Mr McGrigor talks about, but I am not suggesting that the witnesses from whom it received evidence were exclusively public schoolboys, and nor was my remark a personal dig at Mr McGrigor.

The promotion of news is terribly important, and so is the reflection of opinion. We need to ask ourselves what we expect from the media. We want facts, opinion and analysis, and we want a combination of all that, but we must look at what the facts are and at who says that they are facts and on what basis. Opinions cannot be right or wrong, but we can ask whether they are based on facts. Analysis of facts and opinions is challenging for many people in the media, for the very reasons that we heard from Graeme Dey—it was good to have that input from someone from the profession.

People ask, “Are there agendas?” Of course there are agendas. We all have agendas. I support an organisation called Reporters Without Borders, which wants freedom of expression and of information and says that that will always be the most important freedom that the world has. It also says:

“if journalists were not free to report the facts, denounce abuses and alert the public, how would we resist the problem of child-soldiers, defend women’s rights, or preserve our environment?”

Reporters Without Borders is asking the United Nations Security Council to refer to the International Criminal Court the situation in which its members find themselves in Syria and Iraq, and we know about the situation with Al Jazeera staff.

By and large, our media people do not find themselves in such circumstances, and we know that good work is done by those who work on community broadsheets and on local radio stations, as a result of community empowerment. We must sustain and develop those media outlets, as the motion says. The national corporations follow a narrow agenda, and I am not sure how we can deal with that, but there is much to commend outlets such as Common Space and Bella Caledonia.

The motion notes that trust has been lost “in a range of media institutions”.

Trust has been lost in a lot of institutions, including politics, and we must all move away from spinning stories and towards a situation in which we provide facts and the basis for saying that they are facts. That would allow analysis. It is a two-way engagement.

As has been rightly said, the Highlands and Islands have a vibrant papers sector, and long may that continue. People view the sector as having a public service ethos.

There must be a separation between our media and party politics. There is much to be positive about for the future, and I applaud the work of the National Union of Journalists to encourage young people into the profession. I commend its code of conduct, and I stress that journalists must at all times uphold and defend the principle of media freedom, the right to freedom of expression and the public’s right to be informed. If we stick to those principles, I do not think that we will go far wrong.