By Lynda Williamson Editor of Newsnet Scotland
Now that the festive season is behind us, here at Newsnet we're keen to get cracking with renewed vigour on our quest to shine a light on the big issues surrounding the referendum. Welfare, currency, the EU and the future of Scotland’s funding under Barnett – or whatever replaces it, are all issues that deserve scrutiny.
Whatever you think about independence, the very process of making the choice has reinvigorated Scottish politics.
At the beginning of the journey some commentators warned that 'uncertainty' over Scotland's constitutional future would have a detrimental effect on inward investment and would harm Scotland. Few would make that argument now with inward investment at record levels; instead new groups and voices have surfaced and begun to examine the way in which our society is organised and look at ways it could be improved.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, groups such as Nordic Horizons and the Common Weal will surely continue to make an important contribution to the body politic.
And the conversation about our country's future must be held among disparate groups, it cannot be claimed and owned by professional commentators, politicians and the main stream media. No-one can feel excluded from this decision about our future and if the decision is to have veritas it must be taken by as many of those eligible to vote as we can possibly inspire.
But the most important, nae crucial, aspect of this choice is that it should be informed choice.
With that in mind, Newsnet Scotland decided to embark on a new project for the New Year. We decided to approach both Better Together and Yes Scotland to invite each to submit questions to the other. Newsnet Scotland would then publish the questions and the answers completely unedited.
Below is the text of the email which was sent to each group:
In a bid to enlighten the independence debate NNS is embarking on a new project.
Our idea is that each campaign (Better Together and Yes Scotland) should submit four questions on any referendum issue of their choosing to be answered by their opponents. Questions should be around 100 words in length, answers can be up to 1000 words. Each side may supply an image which is a generic representation of their campaign to accompany the answer.
We will publish the questions and answers, one at a time, completely unedited.
At NNS, we believe that citizen journalism has an important part to play in this historic debate. We intend to allocate a great deal of our time and resources to publicise this project in a bid to bring it to the widest possible audience. This can only be to the benefit of both sides of the debate as well as to voters who may, as yet, be undecided. We will publish an editorial to announce the project on Sunday 5th January and would appreciate if you could respond to our invitation by Friday 10th January.
I do hope that you will each feel able to participate.
Many times over the last year we have heard Better Together complain that there are too many unanswered questions surrounding independence, while Yes supporters complain about the difficulties of getting their message out.
It seemed like a win/win proposition to us and it also seemed like a good idea to the folks at Yes Scotland who were very keen to participate. Unfortunately, for all their bluster about unanswered questions, Better Together were less than eager to actually pose any.
After being prompted several times, their head of communications Rob Shorthouse emailed:
Apologies for the delay.
We won’t be supporting this initiative.
Now Newsnet Scotland has a very clear editorial line, we are pro-independence. However amongst our 125,000 monthly readers and 12,500 daily readership there is sure to be many undecided voters.
Here was an opportunity to reach out to them and argue the case for the Union. It was also an opportunity to show willingness to debate in a forum, free from the restrictions normally imposed by the traditional main stream media.
But someone at the No campaign slammed the lid shut on our idea. The campaign who claimed people were being silenced by Yes supporters decided to silence themselves when invited to speak by Yes supporters. The irony was not lost on the team at Newsnet Scotland.
Speaking to the Scottish Affairs Committee in 2012, Blair McDougall of Better Together was very keen to stress the importance of debate.
"I think you are right-that the rules are fair and transparent but also that they are set in a way that enables a full debate over the course of the next two years and also during the regulated period. That will be about ensuring a fair playing field but also one that allows for proper free speech and proper exchange of ideas."
"...The good thing about the two-year period is that we have two years to debate it, and we need to make sure that those two years are full of debate."
"...The only way you get to a point where the Scottish people have all the information they need is by having a vigorous debate."
"...My point is that you can have a grass-roots network but you need to be able to resource it. Important as the national media are, they will never cover the full range of issues. The campaigns themselves need to be able to put their case directly to the people without the sometimes helpful and sometimes unhelpful filtering of the media."
That "sometimes unhelpful filtering of the media" was precisely what Newsnet Scotland offered to address for Blair McDougal, but it was rejected out of hand.
Was Better Together afraid that a debate which allowed for considered responses from both sides, would leave them at a disadvantage? We will probably never know.
The refusal of Better Together to take part in our project fitted with an emerging pattern of behaviour from the No campaign which appears to view debate in the same way Dracula views sunlight.
Prime Minister David Cameron refuses to participate in a face to face debate with his opposite number, Alex Salmond. Cameron, like Better Together, is happier issuing press releases and demanding answers than defending his views in public debate.
His overtures to foreign leaders Rajoy and Putin, make a mockery of his claim to want to leave the referendum debate up to Scots.
Not content with refusing to debate, some Unionists have opined we should close the debate down completely!
Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale's bright idea is that we should call a truce and suspend all talk of referendums during the two weeks of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games. Jack’s demand that we refrain from using sporting events in order to make political capital was followed days later by Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael who did exactly that when the Lib Dem highlighted the London Olympics as a reason to vote No.
We don't debate unless it's on our terms, seems to be the message from the No campaign.
Of course one reason for this reluctance to engage could be the growing evidence that such honest exchange often leads to an increase in support for Yes. Remove the debate from the politically loaded and heavily pro-Union media machine and into honest daylight and the No campaign struggles.
How many times have we seen debates where people change their minds once the facts are presented to them in a sensible fashion? Who could forget Kirsty Wark on that bridge when the BBC broadcast a debate that saw a significant swing from No to Yes by the end of the programme?
I'm disappointed that our new project failed at the first hurdle.
I genuinely believe it would have been of benefit to the people of Scotland who want and deserve the information they need to make that informed choice. If however Better Together ever has second thoughts then the offer still stands.