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21 April 2022

The SNP has nothing to gain from attacks on the media

Nicola Sturgeon’s increasingly arrogant and secretive administration is harming democracy.

By Chris Deerin

The relationship between the SNP and Scotland’s media has always been a fraught one. Alex Salmond, the former first minister, could be verbally and sometimes even physically aggressive in his dealings with journalists. Infamously, he banned the Telegraph, Mail and Express from the press conference following the 2014 independence referendum at which he announced his resignation. In the 1990s, during a testy election campaign, he faux-jovially whacked me on the back and almost knocked me off my seat.

He didn’t like most of us and most of us didn’t much like him. But, amour propre aside, I confess to having had some sympathy with his position. Pre-Holyrood the SNP was a small, shoestring outfit pursuing a cause that seemed marginal and that was relatively unpopular, and as a result it was often treated with contempt and even as something of a joke by the overwhelmingly unionist media.

I don’t think that’s any longer the case. The Nationalists are the power in the land and have been so since 2007, the opposition parties a distant blur in their wing mirror. They are taken very seriously indeed. The print media — under-resourced and stretched ever thinner — does the best job it can of holding this mighty, sprawling machine to account on policy, personality and ethics. It used to be rare to spot an independence-supporting voice on the comment pages; now they are ten a penny. No other party has a cheerleader like the National, which uncritically backs the SNP, its First Minister and the break up of the UK. The Daily Mail will always be the Daily Mail.

And yet relations between Bute House and the media are arguably worse than ever. A few weeks ago Nicola Sturgeon even pulled a Salmond, inviting broadcast journalists to the launch of her party’s council election campaign but snubbing their print colleagues, leading to a predictable furore.

According to a senior SNP source this is entirely consistent with how the leadership cadre feels about the media. “You are either entirely in or you’re entirely out. The circle of trust is very tight and small. It includes Nicola’s team and the Green ministers now they’ve been brought into government. Not much beyond that.” There is little respect for the Holyrood “bubble”, including members of the Scottish Parliament and political journalists, and I’m told the SNP’s leaders have largely given up on trying to manage their relationship with the hacks and their newspapers. “They have no time for the bubble, but they like the voters and repeated elections suggest the voters still quite like them,” added my source. No wonder Sturgeon kept her daily, televised Covid briefings running for as long as possible, cutting out the middle-man.

The problem with this posture is that, day to day, the government can seem locked into a defensive crouch. It has adopted a quasi-regal “never complain, never explain” approach which has the consequence of making it look arrogant, secretive and at times a bit dodgy. Unhelpful data is withheld or massaged, parliamentary procedure is abused, rhetoric valued over evidence, and opposition politicians and journalists are treated as pests. It is unhealthy, antagonistic and, in the end, bad democratic practice.

This deep-seated suspicion of the press — Sturgeon is old enough to have been scarred by the pre-Holyrood battles — affects the country in a larger sense. Over 15 years in office the SNP has been overly cautious and loath to leave itself exposed to criticism. The policy reforms and experiments that an administration of its longevity and broad national support could have pursued have instead been avoided. The party has often appeared frit at the prospect of confrontation, too consumed by the need to deny its opponents the ammunition that would be created by governing radically and meaningfully. Throw into that mix the constant calculation of whether each action makes a second referendum more or less likely and you have a recipe for inaction and wariness.

If you treat journalists as if they are uniformly and personally against you, rather than simply trying to do their job, it’s inevitable that tensions will escalate on both sides. This in turn leads to cheap shots. This week’s row over Sturgeon’s failure to wear a mask during a brief campaign stop at a barber’s shop was ludicrously over-inflated, and even led to some hysterical demands for the First Minister’s resignation. That Sturgeon has scrupulously sought to follow the Covid rules over the past few years, that her handling of the nation during that difficult period is one of her more commendable achievements, counted for nothing when hacks scented vulnerability, however short-lived and however insubstantial the mistake. The First Minister is no Old Etonian conman, though you wouldn’t know that to read some of the more excitable coverage.

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It’s also the case that journalism abhors a vacuum. Space must be filled, stories found and drama induced if readers are to be reached and engaged. The independence debate, still the central dispute of Scottish political life, has barely moved an inch in recent years. Sturgeon’s continued insistence that a vote will be held before the end of 2023 — keeping the Yes campaign on its toes, but with diminishing faith and energy as that date slips closer with ever less likelihood of the promise being met — has become something of a running joke. As one SNP source put it to me this week, “It’s like that scene in Austin Powers where he’s trying to turn the luggage cart — forward an inch, back an inch and so on. We’re stuck.” You could sense this concern in a column last weekend by Kevin Pringle, the SNP’s thoughtful former comms chief, who suggested a referendum might instead be scheduled for 2026, with a built-in guarantee that there would be no third attempt for at least 15-20 years afterwards.

It might be argued that times for ordinary Scots are grim enough without a devolved government that seems relentlessly grumpy. Rows over masks, and more substantial debates about failed ferry contracts and declining educational performance, cast a shadow across the national mood. It is perfectly fair and right that the media interrogates state scandals and incompetence. It is not its job to pretend that things are better than they are. 

Sturgeon wants to take the nation into what she says would be a bright future of rich potential as an independent state, but the daily experience of SNP rule does not back up that vision. The constant comparisons to Westminster — “at least she’s not Boris”, “we’re doing better at [insert random policy area] than they are in England” — have become weirdly self-harming and reductive. After all, if your ambition is to do a bit better than Boris Johnson, your bar is set a little low.

Someone needs to bring optimism back to Scottish politics, and if Sturgeon’s not careful that mantle will be seized by Anas Sarwar, the energetic, upbeat Labour leader who seems temperamentally well-suited to such an outlook. The rise of Labour at Westminster is possibly the greatest threat to the Nats’ prospects since 2007, with its potential for, in time, a reinvigoration of the Scottish party. Sarwar may also be about to benefit from what appears to be the decline of the Scottish Tories under Douglas Ross, whose flip-flopping on whether Boris Johnson should resign over partygate has done his reputation no favours. The easiest option for disillusioned unionist voters will be to switch to Labour, and the upcoming council elections may indicate just that.

If Sturgeon believes the media is out to get her she is right, if in the wrong way. In the free world, with a free press, that is what the media does, regardless of who is in power. The best politicians find an accommodation with the Fourth Estate, and understand that its role is an important and necessary one even if it makes life harder than it otherwise might be. In the end, this enduring First Ministerial huff serves no one well.

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