It's a bitch and it's got to stop

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em>

David Steel is a brave man. In a speech made recently to the Church of Scotland's Church and Nation Committee he did something that few politicians have the stomach for. As Presiding Officer for the Scottish Parliament he launched a robust and sharply focused attack on what he called "bitch journalism". No code, no allusions, no flannel, straight to the point.

The press, and to some extent the broadcasting, suffered by the new parliament over its first few months was, Steel opined, lamentable. Rubbished particularly in the tabloid newspapers, the MSPs have endured an appalling trial by newsprint. He appealed to editors to rein in their journalists and, in some cases, their own aggressive instincts.

While some of this reeks of a dawning disappointment in the everyday realities, and shortcomings, of the long-awaited dream of the first parliament to sit in Scotland for 300 years, much of it has been corrosive, depressing even more in popular Scottish opinion the already low standing of politicians. However, the consistent hail of abuse also carries the unmistakable symptoms of the most characteristic socially transmitted disease north of Hadrian's Wall: "Ah kent his faither."

Which, for our readers to the south (and some to the north), needs a little explanation. Freely translated, and with no concessions to PC gender rules, "Ah kent his faither" or "I knew his father" means "he can't be much good since the likes of me knew his father", or "he comes from round here so he can't be any good", or "bring back the ruling classes, you knew where you were with them, and I certainly had no chance of ever knowing their father, or indeed any of them".

"Ah kent his faither" is a deep-rooted combination of self-distrust, envy, a chronic lack of confidence and several other things you would need a clinically trained eye to spot and name. But these weeds grow everywhere in Scotland, choking growth and advancement and making sure nothing and no one is allowed to get too tall.

Steel knows all this and what he is taking on. And while, in his case, his faither was a distinguished moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and, like several sons of the manse in Scottish politics, he has some residual moral authority from this accident of birth, he, his wife, Judy, and their children have all suffered more than once at the hands of journalists. If, by making this defiant speech, he has made himself even more of a target, then his courage is particularly to be valued.

Steel has spent more than 35 years in public life in Scotland. In 1965, only 26, he ignited the sleepy, safe Conservative seat of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles in a sensational by-election. Against several contrary tides, he held on to the seat for more than 30 years and became leader of the Liberal Party after Jeremy Thorpe's fall. But now he finds himself facing what is possibly the most challenging role of all. As Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament his job is wide-ranging, tone-setting and probably determinant. Having forsworn party allegiance, he can act as an independent advocate for Holyrood, which, as he is the first to confess, Scots need in order to be convinced that this new institution will work for them. More than the ministers of the government and the party leaders, who operate inside structures already laid down by statute, Steel's rulings on details of procedure in the chamber as well as public pronouncements outside it will be influential.

The problem is that so far the bulk of the reporting has focused on negatives: MSPs' holidays, their pay and benefits, the cost of building the new parliament and daft things such as the new members each receiving a commemorative medal for being the first to sit in the new institution.

Steel is an experienced politician who understands all too well that when first impressions are set, they are terribly hard to shift. And his speech is, to some extent, a highly calculated counterblast to all that initial negativity, attempting to alert the public to the possibility of other, more serious and positive aspects of Holyrood.

Among the press reactions to the speech there are encouraging signs of contrition. While not quite promising to become fans with typewriters, two senior journalists have resolved to report the positive where possible, but perhaps most cheering is the bare-faced candour of one well-published freelance. Because his earnings had doubled in the period since the parliament began its life, he declared, it was certainly not in his interest to see it done down.

Alistair Moffat