Make Up Your Mind

We’re all biased. Well, I am. My bias is towards an independent Scotland free from the grip of the British state. But should the leanings or even the political passions of everyone be on display? Should everyone who takes part in public debate or who plays a role in public life be expected to declare if they are Yes, No or Don’t Know?

Would it help others make up their mind if they were?

I was wondering about personal declarations when I read, I think for the third day running now, a version of the Shona Robison story – you know, the one where Dundee’s evil Rosa Kleb from the Bond movies silences the friendly professor from the Forces of Good. It’s been a dripping roast for journalists uninspired by for example Labour MPs treating their own Bedroom Tax vote in the Commons as just another meaningless gesture – so allowing pairing with government MPs. (An opposition debate is of course gesture politics but in this case that is exactly the point and was a chance to show that this matters enough to justify a moral victory. Instead the effect is to neutralise Labour opposition to the removal of the subsidy by rendering them ridiculous – to SNP, Tories and voters – when next they speak out).

But in the case of Evil Shona, new nickname The Silencer, she found herself in an awkward spot not because of her instincts but because she spoke out without realising how it goes these days when nationalists dare to veer slightly off course – a course set by the No campaign and enforced by a pliant media. Professor Chris Whatley strikes me as exactly the kind of experienced and well-informed voice we need in our debate and, usually, academics manage to pique my interest with original thought even when they are basically coming down on one side or the other. It seemed to me though that Robison wasn’t objecting to his expressing a view on independence, but rather that he was doing so simultaneously with assuming professional responsibility for an academic programme requiring neutrality. At least the Five Million Questions programme appears to be so…as it says: “At our best the universities are ancient repositories of the knowledge, and hopefully some measure of the collective wisdom, of Scotland. In what is an impassioned and partisan debate the objective neutrality of academia is ideally placed as a forum for illuminating discussion. Indeed, at the University of Dundee, we see such a role as the duty of our institution at this pivotal and exciting moment.”  Now I don’t for a moment question the academic neutrality of Professor Whatley but given how, as they say, this is a deeply partisan debate, did he consider it entirely appropriate to be chairing the inauguration of Dundee’s Better Together campaign? Ask yourself, if you are heading a publicly-funded project on politics and are therefore the figurehead for it, do you genuinely think that it makes no difference to anyone’s perception of the project that you take the chair at the establishment of a partisan group taking sides in the very subject you are researching? At the very least this is a question any reasonable person would ask and, since Robison’s constituents will be aware of this and no doubt her supporters are moaning about it, is it neo-fascist gagging of honest opinion or a fair response from a local MSP that she questions it? Since the outrage of Better Together is focused on the right to speak out, do they deny that same right to the local representative on behalf of constituents? Adding in Minister to imply this was somehow government bullying is the spin doctor’s flick knife. But frankly, she should have known better. The whole background and record of Better Together has been based on the Damien McBride school of sewer politics. It was only weeks ago that the right to speak out of another Scottish academic Elliot Bulmer was brutally challenged when his work appeared in the Herald without a credit to Yes Scotland which had paid him. How the Mourners for Truth wailed in despondency and wrung their hands at the injustice. Mr Bulmer was after all a dangerous nationalist. Pity he hadn’t been in Better Together so the same Unionist hypocrites could have lauded him like Chris Whatley. The thunderous outrage of the one-eyed bullies at Better Together who were happy to see Vitol’s lawyers closing down debate and National Collective, will be a legacy issue when this is over, leaving the sourest of aftertastes. When the moral high ground is assumed, with media support, by an organization largely funded by the man whose fortune comes from the immoral activities of the Vitol company, poor wee Scotland really is a laughing stock.

And so is Louise Richardson, principal of St Andrews who has been quick in the past to step in to the public affray. She was immediately open to be quoted on the importance of academics not being bullied and rushed a letter around her staff as if some declaration had been made in Holyrood that henceforth all universities were to be quarantined. If this was an attempt to close down a row she needs judgement therapy. She managed to make it feel as if academia was under a general threat, playing (deliberately?) into the manufactured controversy. Staff must be free to speak their mind, she announced. And yet, curiously when asked what her mind was, she declined to answer. Why not? Perhaps the truth is that she sufficiently cute to know that actually declaring your politics might give people the idea you’re biased and you never know when a job opportunity might arise where that could be awkward? Is she hedging her bets for future consultations with the Scottish government? It seemed to me she was doing exactly what Chris Whatley should have considered –  that some activity can appear to conflict with your primary role – and that Louise wasn’t falling into that trap. So it’s all right for her staff to open up and express a view but she’s isn’t so daft. I thought she made herself look very silly standing up for the absolute right to speak out – when her own university wasn’t even mentioned – but bottling her own right to do so for personal reasons. Very brave.

This bias business affected my own career and I was from time to time accused of political bias, sometimes for being nationalistic! I was nationalistic. But the difference is that I never did, and never would, break a professional rule in carrying out my duties. I have far too much respect for the BBC and for the audience and my colleagues and interestingly in 25 years I was never subject to a successful formal complaint of bias. There was always plenty of smear and implication but facts, never. A classic complaint was one from the Highlands who said I was expressing personal views on air because I asked the question: Is the Coalition the most right wing government Britain has had? We did three interviews and left listeners to decide, so why the complaint? I checked out the name and address and what the complainer didn’t tell us was his position as Lib Dem candidate. And they say you can’t trust the BBC. I see Alf Young this morning in the Scotsman saying he aches for a better-informed debate but is being “drowned out by the fervour of the committed.” Does he mean Prof Whatley?

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0 thoughts on “Make Up Your Mind

  1. You biased Derek? How very dare anybody even suggest such a thing!

    Anyhoo, good to see you jumping in to protect government ministers – how dare her majesty’s press hold them to account and highlight them silencing dissent and intimidating those they fund, that’s not their job is it?

    And it’s a dampt disgrace that those awful rogues in the press exposed the YES campaign placing advertorials in the papers.

    I would gently suggest however that the clumsy legal action taken by Vitol lawyers had less to do with shutting down that particular ‘debate’ than the pictures of Nicola Sturgeon and Fiona Hyslop on a seesaw celebrating a donation from Vitol’s chief exec which surfaced a day or two after lots of sanctimonious claptrap spouted by SNP spokesfolk about accepting ‘blood money’…….

  2. On the journalists ignoring of Labour MPs failing to turn up for the vote to stop the bedroom tax, it was slightly surreal to also read the public’s comments pages in the Guardian.
    Two days ago there was outrage at the LibDems not voting it down. Spinning from Labour apologists, using the Parliamentary pairing procedure, to let themselves of the hook for not voting.
    Now, two days later, happily back to discussing how terrible the bedroom tax is, as if the vote had never happened.
    Labour doesn’t seem to be aware it has been caught by the law of unintended consequences. Trying to catch out the LibDems they exposed their own cynical hypocrisy. 47 of their own MPs not there.
    The people affected by the tax, not important in the Westminster game.

  3. Alf Young is rather unfortunately going to have a long wait for a better debate. Especially as both sides are intent on dissembling to the general public on an industrial scale.

  4. Surely the point about Chris Whatley is that he is a Vice-Principal of Dundee Uni. In other words, he isn’t just any other academic. He is an office holder who has fiduciary duties towards all Uni students and employees irrespective of what political views those persons do or do not have. Moreover, as someone who sits on the Uni Court, his duties as Vice Principal also have a quasi judicial aspect. In legal terms, that means he cannot do anything which suggests bias without exposing his actions to the threat of judicial review.

    In summary, getting involved in a political event is not acceptable for an office holder like a Uni Vice-Principal. I think this point was tacitly acknowledged by Louse Richardson when she maid the point that while she was happy for her academics to speak out she did not feel that she, as a Uni Principal, could express a view on her preferred side in the independence debate?

  5. Louise Richardson declared that £9,000 a year for an education was “chicken feed” so I think we know where her allegiances lie.

  6. It really is a pity this does not get out to a mass audience Derek, as it is more incisive and targetted than anything we hear day to day in the press and media. Absolutely my thoughts on the matter from when it emerged. Surely others, even more impartial and reasoned will see through the BBC – STV and papers; wont they ??

  7. I think we owe Professor Chris Whatley a vote of thanks. After all, if he hadn’t come clean about his leanings we might have imagined that the leader of the Five Million Questions project was unbiased. Now we must at least consider the possibility that he may not be so.

  8. Grahamski says:

    ” would gently suggest however that the clumsy legal action taken by Vitol lawyers had less to do with shutting down that particular ‘debate’ than the pictures of Nicola Sturgeon and Fiona Hyslop on a seesaw celebrating a donation from Vitol’s chief exec which surfaced a day or two after lots of sanctimonious claptrap spouted by SNP spokesfolk about accepting ‘blood money’…….”

    Any evidence to back that up?

    My seaches of this web-thingy haven’t turned up anything.

    • No evidence because he was’tripping’ at the time.

      Surely you don’t believe anything ‘grahamski’ types?

    • Grahamski,

      I must press you for some evidence that what you have said is true. Your silence i no defence. I want chapter and verse on your sources.


      douglas clark

    • Douglas, what a simple and sensible question. If Graham can back up what he says, I think he has made quite a killer point. At which time we will all, no doubt, roll our eyes at politicians on both sides (but not, I think, the National Collective) and move on. It’ll be quite easy for him I imagine, for he surely has the newspaper clipping of the damning Seesaw Incident to hand.

      If not, I propose we treat his frequent (and frequently humorous) posts as the seawater on the shore, and simply let them run away, to be quickly forgotten. For to acknowledge and attempt to re-butt them (as if you could persuade him from his chosen course), as I have been guilty of doing myself in the past, is only to give them what the lady called ‘the oxygen of publicity’. I suspect Graham isn’t looking for conversation, nor even heated debate. His objective is to distract. Preferring the creation of light over the production of heat, I don’t think we should feed that particular fire.

      What do you think?

    • The SNP official twitter and Angus Robertson MP ran a ferocious campaign about accepting cash from the Vitol chief executive. Angus was tweeting every day about it. We got to day eleven and Tom Gordon posted the post below. As soon as that was posted the SNP official accounts and Angus Robertson dropped this as fast as they could. No wonder.

      • Not brave enough to comment on your sides issues with dontations; thought so typical distortion (smoke & mirrors).
        Arkan good / SNP bad !!
        You lot are not only sad; its worse pathetic may be better.
        Back to the BT bunker cyberbrit ( or is that just basically Labour HQ)

      • Grahamski,
        is that it? That’s your evidence?

        I would encourage anyone who read Grahamski’s initial post attempting to slur Nicola Sturgeon and Fiona Hyslop (and gave it any credence) to follow his link.

        Devastating indeed Grahamski, but only to your own credibility.

  9. Good one Derek..thanks.

  10. ‘is’ rather than ‘i’, but you get the point Grahamski. Please provide your evidence.

  11. Well by your own admission of bias towards independence we won’t be seeing and hearing you on Question Time,whereas the good Prof Whatley could be benignly considered to be ambivalent, or if you prefer, showing one hand and taking with the other.

  12. Douglas Clark, i wouldn’t expect an answer from Grahamski anytime soon, or in fact anytime period!

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