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20 March 2000

Coming adrift on the Mound

New Statesman Scotland - The Scottish press long campaigned for devolution. George Rosie lo

By George Rosie

“A bunch of unreconstructed wankers” is how Tony Blair once famously characterised the men and women of the Scottish press in a moment of irritation. That was a few years ago. Last week, in the august confines of the Scottish Parliament on the Mound, his language may have been more measured, but the sentiment was much the same. After accusing the hacks and the camera-pointers of doing what they could to knock over an edifice that they had been instrumental in erecting, the Prime Minister declared: “Scepticism is healthy. Cynicism is corrosive. And there is no cause for it.”

What Blair was addressing was the state of open hostility that now exists between the Scottish Parliament and Executive and large chunks of the Scottish press. And there is no doubt that the unreconstructed wankers have been giving the politicians a hard time. Holyrood has been dubbed the “pretendy parliament”, the “jimmy parliament” and the “wee parliament”; the First Minister, Donald Dewar, has been labelled “Dismal Donald” and “Donald the Ditherer”; our lady parliamentarians have been unkindly described as “a bunch of fat councillors”; MSPs of all parties are a bunch of “numpties” who are not delivering; and so on.

There are two strands to Blair’s concern about all this. One is that the implacable hostility of the press towards the parliament will undermine the constitutional changes that are the most important part of the Blair project (and certainly the one for which his government will be remembered). The other is that the aggravation will subvert the Labour vote in Scotland and drastically reduce the number of Scottish Labour MPs who are returned at the next general election. This concern is shared by many Labour MPs who are anxious about the performance of the Scottish Executive.

What pains so many politicians is that, for something like 30 years, the Scottish press – and particularly the Scotsman – backed the idea of a Scottish parliament with an enthusiasm that bordered on fanaticism. Now the hacks are sniping, mortaring and shelling their creation to some effect and to the huge distress of its inhabitants. Blair declared: “It’s a little disappointing to see the same journalists who displayed such passion to see the parliament established, now appearing to show an equal passion for knocking it down.”

There is no doubt that Blair has a point. “I think the context is important,” explains Douglas Fraser, the Sunday Herald‘s well-connected political editor. “The Scottish newspaper market is probably the most competitive in the world, but sales are generally declining. Everybody is in the hunt for the big story. The press – English as well as Scottish – have put a lot of resources into covering the parliament. There used to be no more than a dozen people writing about politics in Scotland. Now I’d guess there are around 40 or 50. The pressure is on to get the exclusives to justify that expenditure.”

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In Fraser’s view, the important difference between the press coverage of Holyrood and the coverage of Westminster is that “no newspaper thinks to question the validity of the House of Commons or its MPs, whereas some newspapers are continually challenging the existence of the Scottish Parliament. But it has to be said that the Scottish Executive has not been very impressive in its handling of news.”

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There is no doubt that the political pundits of the Scottish media have been flexing their muscles. They are taking their job seriously. Labour politicians find it particularly galling that their traditional supporters at Anderston Quay in Glasgow (the Daily Record, Sunday Mail and Scottish Daily Mirror) are now giving them a hard time. Newspapers that have always supported Labour, that cheered on the pro-devolution lobby and urged the Scots to vote “Yes, Yes” in 1997, are now tearing into the Labour executive with relish.

To many Labour MSPs, Anderston Quay’s editor-in-chief, Martin Clark, has become the Prince of Darkness. But it is a position he shares with Andrew Neil, the editor-in-chief of the Scotsman, Evening News and Scotland on Sunday. Neil has made it very plain that the job of his Edinburgh-based newspapers is to dog the footsteps of the Scottish Parliament and its Executive, and to growl, nip and bite at every wrong move. And – given the inexperience of most MSPs – there will be plenty of those.

That is fair enough. Holyrood would be naive to expect anything else. It’s what the press are for. But, to an extent, the press are on a hiding to nothing. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If the reporters and correspondents reveal the cracks in the walls, they are accused of trying to pull the house down. But if they failed to point out the same flaws, they would be accused of turning a blind eye to problems that endanger the structure. Ministers now admit (privately) that parliament did itself no good by setting as its first priorities the business of deciding on MSPs’ holidays, wages and expenses. It gave the press the opportunity to spread notions of “pigs at the trough”. And last year’s barrage of publicity about political lobbyists and their high-level connections (the “lobbygate” scandal) did not help the image of the new polity.

In fact, the press (and particularly the Observer) did a good job in nipping in the bud that kind of sub rosa influence-peddling. It dragged out into the open something that might have flourished unhealthily in the dark. But the row lodged in the public mind the idea that Holyrood had already attracted a long caravan of overpaid hangers-on and assorted parasites. It was an important story. It had to be covered. And it did the parliament and the executive a lot of damage.

There is one strand in the parliamentary coverage about which the politicians are right to complain and which the media would do well to watch. It is the constant (but usually implicit) comparison with how they do things in the “real” parliament at Westminster. There are times that Westminster is portrayed as a temple of utter probity, peopled with moral giants and orators of genius. It is as if the sleaze-haunted years of the 1980s and early 1990s had never happened. The droning after-midnight debates to near-empty green benches have been forgotten. Donkey-like stupidity brayed in the accents of Eton and Oxbridge is recalled as great wisdom.

As a facet of the “Scottish cringe”, it is worth study. But there is a paradox here: at the same time, Holyrood is draining media attention away from Westminster. Many a Scottish backbencher in Westminster now finds it hard to get a quotation into the local paper or a sound bite on to local radio. And they do not like it. Nor do the Westminster lobby correspondents of the Scottish newspapers, some of whom are fretting about the lack of interest in their efforts. The more irrelevant our Westminster MPs appear, the more uncertain their futures. And the more likely it is that the Tory-led campaign to have the number of Scots MPs seriously reduced will eventually succeed.

The Scottish press are currently licking their collective chops over the mayhem surrounding the building of the new Scottish Parliament. It is certainly a dripping roast of a story: celebrity panel (including the First Minister and TV star Kirsty Wark) selects daring design by foreign architect; site bought from one of the Tory party’s financial supporters; not enough attention paid to incorporating listed building; Scottish ministers and MSPs demand more and more space for themselves; building programme drops behind; costs soar, etc, etc. There is no way that the press could – or should – play down such a rattling good yarn. But the press enthusiasm for the debacle on Holyrood Road guarantees more grief for the ministers and civil servants of the Scottish Executive and unhappiness for their supporting MSPs. And it will feed ammunition to an opposition (SNP and Tory) that is gradually growing in confidence and expertise. No doubt Labour and Liberal Democrat MSPs will go on shouting “foul” and complaining about the knee-jerk hostility of the media to the Blair project, but it is something they must learn to live with and handle.

When Blair delivered his recent speech to the Scottish Parliament, it did not go unnoticed by the hacks that he was speaking on the spot from which Margaret Thatcher delivered her notorious “sermon on the Mound” in 1989. But before Thatcher was allowed to prognosticate, there were noisy objections from the body of the Kirk, and afterwards she was given a dressing-down about her policies by the then Moderator, James Whyte. Thatcher was plainly furious, but she took it on the chin. Blair received no such going-over. The current occupants of the Assembly Hall proved more polite than the ministers and elders of the Kirk.

This, in some ways, is part of the problem. With many exceptions, there is a certain innocence about our parliamentarians. Most are either new boys and girls hoping for a new kind of “non-confrontational” politics or they are Labourites steeped in a culture of opposition and used to feeding anti-government titbits to their pals in the media. Now that they are in government, they find that those amiable media folk are biting the hands that once fed them. And that the unreconstructed wankers actually prefer confrontation – the bloodier the better.