As a journalist, there are three things that interest me in the GERS debate that has blossomed up. One, why does the SNP accept the numbers if key members among them dispute the numbers publicly. Two, there is a profound difficulty in acquiring primary sources regarding the underlying GERS data. Three, the battle over the numbers could decide Scotland’s future economic health regardless of its constitutional status.
It’s not a journalist’s job to take a side in this. Actually, people misunderstand the role of journalism, because they think that we are truth tellers who are supposed to be impartial and go where we are led. That’s not at all true. Journalism is about telling stories, and good journalism tells ‘true stories’ as we see them. The problem is that the ‘we’ that see things have a myriad of perspectives, focuses, and interests, and so ‘the truth’ becomes as varied. But we all pursue stories.
Therefore, it is a story that the SNP appears to be shirking away from the GERS numbers on one hand, and embracing them on the other. If the SNP don’t believe the numbers, why does Nicola Sturgeon and Derek Mackay base their decisions on them?
If the SNP do believe the numbers, why does it allow high ranking SNP members to undermine that faith? This is a story, and a good journalist pursues that, regardless of calls about “SNP Bad”, which – half the time – is more about “journalists are writing stories that don’t show the SNP in a good light” than it is about unfair coverage.
Good journalism is also about questioning the data. After Richard Murphy’s intervention in the GERS debate last week, good journalists should have seen it for the story it is. Could it be that Scottish economic data is wrong? Here’s an expert that says it is. He is corroborated by other experts. Furthermore, he is challenged by a further set of experts. There is a story here, and a good journalist would challenge the assertions of both camps and evaluate the credibility and the agenda of both sets of experts.
In my own work, the most distressing part of working with the GERS numbers is that I don’t have access to primary sources. I don’t have actual data. It makes what I write about the Scottish economy less solid than it could be. What are the primary sources? Well, it’s good analysis by experts close to the actual numbers, who base their work on properly recorded data. GERS is at best twice removed from the actual data.
No amount of FOIA requests or telephone calls have granted me access to the numbers, or to the experts working on the numbers. What I have are the GERS numers that everyone else has, and if they are contentious, then I can’t in good faith rely on them. As Richard Murphy rightly points out, HMRC is as interested in Scottish data as they are in Wessex data. Stoke-on-Trent and Glasgow are interesting points. Midlands and Scotland, not so much.
A Lidl shop in Leith is, of course, interested in the amount of VAT it collects through it sales, and it reports that to the head office. But once it is there, Lidl can pool all the data from all its shops into one big number. And they report that number to the HMRC, without geographical localization. Because they are not required to report that localization by law, they don’t. And thus, any estimates are somewhat blind. Multiply this across all the taxes that a sovereign state controls, and the sums add up fast. Corporate tax, capital gains taxes, sin taxes, and so on.
These are key numbers, and would determine whether Scotland could afford to become independent or not. Even if it chose not to, those numbers would help the devolved government enact decisions to help the local economy. Transparency about the numbers is a good thing for those who want Scotland to remain a part of the UK, and for those who wish to see the country become independent. Transparency would go a long way to achieve a tool-set for economic development, regardless of one’s view of the constitutional question.
Therefore, my suggestion is that both sides agree to implement a few changes. Demand that HMRC starts to collect Scottish data, and demand that this is done as transparently as possible. It would also be good to set up a statistical agency a la our Statistiska Centralbyrån, the Central Statistics Bureau, that independently worked on these numbers using best practises in the field. Both sides of the debate would benefit. Refusal to do this would suggest that there is an ulterior motive to keep the numbers opaque, and the charge that the numbers are there to achieve a specific policy goal rather than to inform would be much stronger.