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Recently, Scottish social media discovered that the Cineworld chain of movie theatres won’t be showing the new film about the life of Scotland’s great hero, Robert the Bruce. The Robert the Bruce movie will not be screened in any of the UK’s biggest cinema chain’s outlets, meaning that in many Scottish towns and cities movie viewers will be deprived of the chance to see it.
The decision provoked an outcry. The film deals with a crucial and important part of Scottish history, the restoration and reestablishment of this country’s independence after military occupation by the forces of the English monarchy, and the securing of Scottish independence for the next four hundred years. The complex and fascinating character of Robert the Bruce is one of Scotland’s greatest national heroes. I’ve not seen this new movie about him, but it has received positive reviews and it seems that it is not afraid to examine the Bruce as a human being with his frailties, complexities and negative characteristics intact, and not to reduce him to a one dimensional action hero in the Holywood blockbuster mould.
So naturally it was deeply disappointing that the country’s largest cinema chain took the decision not to screen the film. Scotland is a country which is cut off from its history, many Scots report that Scottish history was not covered during their schooldays. Many more of us could name the English monarchs of the middle ages than could name the occupants of the Scottish throne at the same time.
However the regrettable decision not to show the film didn’t just produce a demand from its potential Scottish audience to see it, it also produced a slew of dark and muttering conspiracy theories. There were rumours that the film was the subject of a D notice from the British government. There were mutterings from some that since the decision was allegedly taken by the chain’s owner, who lives in Israel, that there was some nefarious deal between the British state and the Israeli government as though a cinema in Aberdeen was the bombardment of the Gaza strip.
There is no D notice. The rumour was started by a Scottish journalist who posted about a D notice on Twitter as a joke. Other people took him seriously, and before you knew it hundreds of people were convinced that Scottish history was being censored by the British state. That’s not how D notices work. If there really was a D notice, the film wouldn’t be being screened by Cineworld’s competitors, the Odeon chain. Instead, every copy of it would have been seized by the police. But it is being shown in Odeon cinemas.
Indulging in conspiracy theories without overwhelming evidence does the independence movement no favours. It risks making us come across as tinfoil hatted nutjobs. It repels the soft noes and undecided voters that we need to attract in order to attain independence. Remember the scientific rule of thumb, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The fact is that despite the authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies of the Conservative party, we do not live in a one party state. We still have freedom of speech. If you want to claim that the state is actively censoring a work of art, a movie, you need compelling evidence. There is no such compelling evidence here. The suspicions of people who are speculating on Twitter don’t count.
By far the most plausible explanation is that a UK wide movie chain took the commercial decision not to screen an independently made and produced film which deals with the life of a man who is unknown to the vast majority of people in the UK. People in England don’t know much about Robert the Bruce, and for the most part they are not interested in watching a film which shows England as the bad guys. Commercially, this film is not a good prospect for a movie chain which produces the large majority of its revenues from bums on seats in English cinemas. The company is going to make a lot more money from showing Toystory 4, the new Lion King film, or the new Spiderman movie.
The real lesson to take from this affair is not that Scotland is being censored by the British state. It’s not that there are deep and dark state conspiracies to do Scotland’s cinematic representation down. It’s not surprising that some leapt to that conclusion, given that we learned after the independence referendum in 2014 that David Cameron had intervened to ask TV broadcasters not to show the Outlander series during the referendum campaign. But even he didn’t resort to a D notice.
The real lesson here is that independence is necessary not just because Scotland is poorly served by the British government, it’s that Scotland is also poorly served by UK wide companies which don’t have a head office in Scotland and which don’t make Scotland specific decisions. A company which is UK wide and whose revenues are largely derived from its activities in England, because the English market is so much larger, took a commercial decision not to screen a movie which is unlikely to be popular with an English audience. Moreover that movie is being released at the same time as the huge multi-million Holywood blockbusters are being released, movies which represent a much better commercial bet for a cinema chain.
What happened is that the interests of a Scottish audience were not taken into account, because as a UK-wide company there is no head office in Scotland with control over the company’s Scottish activities. At best there’s a branch regional office. What has happened with Cineworld is very similar to Tesco’s decision to plaster union flags all over their produce. That’s a decision which is non-political in England, where it plays well, but which in Scotland is deeply political and which antagonises as many if not more than it attracts. The sensibilities and concerns of the Scottish consumer are drowned out in a company which operates on a UK-wide basis.
With independence, Scotland would cease to be a mere region of a UK wide company. Then a company would need to have a Scottish head office because Scotland would be an independent country with distinct laws, tax regimes, and regulatory authorities. Scotland could no longer be treated as an adjunct to the company’s north of England operations. The Scottish head office would be in charge of the company’s operations within the territory of an independent Scottish state and would therefore be in a position to make decisions which will make the company’s products or services appeal to the distinct interests, culture, concerns, and sensibilities of the Scottish consumer.
That would mean that a cinema chain would be able to make a commercial decision about what movies to screen based on its assessment of what might appeal to Scottish movie goers, and not those which appeal to a generalised UK average cinema goer. It would immensely strengthen the Scottish film industry as it would assist Scottish made and produced movies to find their audience. A Scottish audience would like to have the chance to watch Scottish movies, but a UK company making commercial decisions on a UK-wide basis has no real commercial interest in giving them that chance.
What the regrettable Cineworld decision teaches us is not that Scotland is being censored, it’s that within the UK Scotland is being drowned out.