In My Opinion: Maurice Smith: Which way will the tone of the referendum debate go?

AS another Scottish football season closes, so its annual summer panto season is begun.

Almost since the inception of the Scottish Premier League, each summer has witnessed bickering debate that has bordered sometimes on the comical, and most recently crossed into farce.

Last summer’s crisis, sparked by the liquidation of Rangers FC, has been one of the most divisive junctures of Scottish modern history (should you care about football, as many do).

For Scottish football writers, it also meant a chilly plunge into the murky worlds of business and the law.

The everyday task of reporting transfer window speculation and cruciate ligament injuries broadened to cover VAT, ownership bids and counter-litigation.

This year, there is the baffling question of league reconstruction.

12-12-18? 12-10-10-10? 14-14-14?

The Titanic’s deckchairs had a less confusing denouement. Then there is the Hearts’ debt mountain, the club’s repeated inability to meet tax deadlines and the fate of its Lithuanian owner / creditor.

Last season also brought journalists directly into the firing line. Like it or not, the web’s instant delivery of news and comment brings with it a new level of public access. All well and good, but last season it also visited direct personal threats on individual reporters.

Here is the dilemma. TV and radio programmes give the public the right to be quoted on air, not because they are qualified by specialist knowledge, but by virtue of the fact that they have an opinion and a 3G signal with which to transmit it.

For the Press, the conviction that enabling ‘comments’ at the end of live stories will attract readers brings with it the awkward fact that anyone with a broadband connection or a smart phone can add their ‘tuppence worth’.

The Rangers crisis sells papers and attracts lots of clicks to websites desperate for eyeballs – and not only from Rangers supporters. Sports news always sells, but this story developed a life of its own. Editors and their bosses know that every Rangers story – and non-story – attracts readers. At a time when sales are falling, it’s hard to resist.

But the downside for sports journalists has been the pressure to deliver every breaking angle to a story that is shrouded in a world often far-removed from sport. Even now, whenever the story re-erupts, there are dark mutterings from the more extreme ‘fans’ who see each story as part of a conspiracy against their club.

Conspiracy theories are long-lived in Scottish football. Celtic supporters have long seen the Scottish FA as an establishment plot. Aberdeen and Edinburgh-based fans think the entire media is biased in favour of the West Coast. Most fans think referees have it in for their clubs at some stage or another.

Football fans – almost al of us – are never the most rational of people when it comes to the game. Lately, that irrationality has overflowed in Scotland. It has made reporting the game downright unpleasant for many decent reporters who are well used to the robust nature of journalism but who have become concerned at times about their safety.

The National Union of Journalists spoke out last year about threats made during the Rangers affair. Today, it remains the story that just keeps giving, amidst boardroom struggles, counter law suits and ongoing wrangles involving the various football organisations.

The coming year will witness a new cyber war in the run up to the independence referendum. There has been disquiet already about the tone of online debate, much of it targeted at individual journalists. The ‘cybernats’ may or may not have started it, but the other side has been catching up.

Both sides perceive bias in the media, and not-so-subtle pressure is being put on the BBC in particular. When it announced a new £5 million budget for additional referendum coverage, a Labour spin doctor is understood to have suggested this should be declared as a campaign contribution for the Yes campaign. Seriously, let’s hope this was just an intemperate moment.

As a poll showed the other day, the 16-to-18 year-olds who will be offered the vote in 2014 are already signalling weariness with the phony war being engaged on Twitter and on the news websites.

Scots love an argument, and the web is well suited to extending legitimate debate. At its best, it delivers a range of new voices to the media world. Unfortunately, it also provides easy access to the conspiracy theorists and keyboard bullies.

The referendum debate will elevate Scotland – and the profile of Scottish journalism – within the UK and overseas. If it descends into nasty, petty point-scoring, the impact will be anything but pretty – whatever the result.

Let’s hope that debate doesn’t follow football down into its recent depths, and that the public is engaged and informed by lively, balanced discourse.

We can only hope…

Maurice Smith is a journalist, video producer and consultant.