Populist and incorrect? I plead guilty

This column is not written by the special adviser, spin-doctor, speech-writer or bag carrier to Scotland's new First Minister. I need to tell you this because of a foul calumny spread by some of my colleagues in the Scottish media: that I am too close to Henry McLeish and that what I write is therefore somehow less believable than what other Scottish journalists write.

This is one of the penalties of living in what is really a village. Scotland is so small, and we are so clannish, that there are bound to be links and friendships across public life. Politicians and journalists work in what is virtually a closed environment, and there are inevitably close social contacts. Indeed, there is often cross-fertilisation - and, yes, I do mean in the biological sense.

The Scotsman recently produced a complicated graphic of the "cosy nostra", showing labyrinthine personal and political links between media figures and the Scottish government. Its own education correspondent, Seonag Mackinnon, is married to Peter MacMahon, the First Minister's press secretary and a former political editor of the Scotsman and the Mirror. Lorraine Davidson, the Scottish Mirror's political editor and a former Scottish Labour press officer, dates the Minister for Government, Tom McCabe.

John Boothman, the producer of BBC Scotland's Holyrood programme, is the partner of Susan Deacon, the Health Minister. Peter Jones, the Scotland correspondent of the Economist, is married to the deputy rural affairs minister, Rhona Brankin. John Morrison, BBC Scotland's chief political correspondent, is the brother of the Tourism Minister, Alasdair Morrison. And so on and so on.

I was billed as "a doyen of political pundits" among those "with most power and influence who flirt, but don't jump, retaining contacts and trust, but still with the power to wield columns, dent egos and push their favourites". All of which came as news to me, but did wonders for my ego. The conspiratorial connection was that the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, Henry McLeish and myself all hail from the Kingdom of Fife - but then, so do 350,000 other people, at the last count. When I was a baffled junior reporter, the kindly Reverend John E Brown took pity and explained the arcane theological debates in Kirkcaldy presbytery. Some may say that his son now briefs me on matters much less spiritual, but I couldn't possibly comment.

The McLeish connection became more embarrassing for both of us. As part of his campaign to succeed Donald Dewar, McLeish visited the editor of the Labour-supporting Daily Record, where I am a columnist and commentator. The following day, the Record's front page, on the editor's decision, declared "It has to be Henry". McLeish narrowly won the Scottish Labour leadership. The Sunday Times reported that I was a "bow-tied, bull-necked" presence at the editorial meeting. And, hey presto, the rest of the Scottish media reported my translation to special adviser.

None of my colleagues bothered to check with me. The village gossip became accepted fact and the holier-than-me hypocrites in the "quality" (a euphemism for small circulation and smug) Scottish press went to work. The Sunday Herald described me as having "macho, populist, politically incorrect tabloid credentials" - they missed "carnaptious", but I'll settle for four out of five compliments.

They whinged about my NS column in which I anticipated a cabinet reshuffle and predicted a weeding-out of policies that were "politically correct crap", a phrase that was used in the McLeish camp. Naively, I believe it is the job of a political commentator to tell readers what is going to happen. Mea culpa.

In the Herald, Tim Luckhurst, a fellow NS contributor and former editor of the Scotsman (well, for a couple of weeks, anyway), named me as a leading figure in Team McLeish, representing a "gangrenous wound in the fabric of Scottish public life". I have spoken exactly four words to McLeish since he became First Minister.

In a companion piece to the Scotsman's graphic, Martin Clarke sneered at the Scottish "hackocracy" that links journalism and politics. I had to remind myself that this was the same Clarke (ex-Daily Mail) who, although his politics are somewhere to the right of Norman Tebbit, managed to edit the leftish Daily Record for two years, during which time he continued to employ me and happily relied on my Labour contacts.

Common sense finally prevailed when members of the Scottish Parliament Labour Group confronted McLeish, waving fistfuls of cuttings where I had insulted them, attacked the coalition government and monstered ministers. A reading of these showed that, if I were indeed a member of Team McLeish, I would have some difficulty working alongside a minister I had described as "little Miss Cock-Up" or alongside the Deputy First Minister whom I had called "Jim Who?".

I find that it is mainly those journalists who slant their reports to suit their proprietors' right-wing politics who most piously purport to be purveyors of the untainted truth, pretending there is no connection between what they write and what their bosses want. For 20 years, no one can have been in doubt about my traditional Labour beliefs, nor about my readiness to give Labour (especially the new variety) a good kicking when it deserves it. The first column I ever wrote told Scotland's largest daily readership: "I'm a gut socialist." Now, again, I am happy, at the editor's request, to tell NS readers where I stand.

Journalists who claim to have no opinions and no allegiances are either dull or dishonest. My recent experience suggests that some can be both.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to the dirty mac image