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10 April 2000

Passionate polemics? I plead guilty

New Statesman Scotland - A new book charts the rocky relationship between the Scottish Parl

By Tom Brown

A not-so-funny thing has happened on the way to the Scottish Parliament. The relationship between politicians and press north of the border has curdled and become distinctly rancid.

We have become accustomed to paranoia about the press in Downing Street but, although blood was occasionally drawn, the fencing used to be friendlier north of the border. Now MSPs are bitter; the Scottish press, which wholeheartedly supported devolution, has developed a snarl; and a mutual feeling of having been let down, even an iciness, has replaced former friendliness.

Such things hardly matter at Westminster, but Scotland is a much closer community, and the acrid atmosphere is poisoning the public perception of the new parliament.

Murray Ritchie, the Scottish political editor of the Herald, charts the start of the breakdown in his diary of last year’s Scottish election, Scotland Reclaimed (Saltire Society, £10.99). As well as a history of the public and behind-the-scenes events, it is a catalogue of conspiracies and murky deeds. In the fevered atmosphere of “Scotland’s first democratic parliamentary election”, relations between the political parties and the press became strained and finally snapped.

Ritchie puts on record Labour’s crude attempt to blackmail his paper by withholding £100,000 of advertising revenue, a shoddy exercise that was raised recently in the parliament. The SNP’s Mike Russell, who ran his party’s campaign, demanded assurances about the Scottish Executive’s criteria for placing advertising – but got short shrift from Labour’s Finance Minister, Jack McConnell.

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On the other hand, Ritchie glosses over the SNP’s disastrous publication of its own election newspaper in an attempt to counter the ferocity of the attacks on it by Scotland’s biggest-selling newspapers.

The pressures that can be brought to bear in a close-knit community such as Scotland are shown in a series of encounters with the Labour Party. At one meeting, Donald Dewar and the spin-doctor David Whitton visited the Herald office armed with “sheaves of clippings” to complain about its coverage. When the editor refused to name the author of an offending leader, he was told: “Well, whoever he is, he’s got a thistle stuck up his arse.”

The decision to withhold £100,000-worth of Labour advertising from the Herald was taken by Philip Chalmers, the party’s Scottish publicity chief, on the grounds that the paper was “not worthy”. An Observer story also quoted Dewar describing the Herald as “an out-and-out nationalist newspaper”. Ritchie comments: “Even the Tories in office, with whom we had many disagreements, never deliberately chose to fund our rivals as a means of exerting editorial pressure.”

Such is now the suspicion of MSPs of all parties about the motives of Scottish political journalists that moves are afoot in the parliamentary standards committee for a register of our interests. No problem – but there might be more embarrassment if they asked for a declaration of political affiliations.

Labour’s fans-with-laptops (as I have been described, although the Scottish Labour leadership might not agree) are well known, as are the unashamed Tories. But the SNP supporters in the press corps seem somewhat coy.

Perhaps for good reasons. The trenchant Dorothy-Grace Elder, now a Nationalist list MSP, was sacked by Scotland on Sunday because her column was too pro-SNP, then temporarily reinstated after an internal row.

Ritchie lets us in on discussions with the Herald‘s editor, Harry Reid, about the paper’s editorial stance, which has never openly supported a political party. “Openly”, because for many years it was self-admittedly more right-wing than the Tories until the advent of Margaret Thatcher.

Ritchie reveals: “We think we should not align ourselves with any party in the Scottish Parliament elections, but there is a sound case for taking a stance on Scottish independence. My inclination is to support it.”

In fact, the Herald declared itself to be non-partisan and Ritchie’s disappointment is palpable: “How ridiculous and anti-democratic it is that not one newspaper of any significance in Scotland supports independence while some polls show that up to 50 per cent or 60 per cent of the electorate say they want it.” Oh, really? The actual election results, and this month’s Ayr by-election, showed otherwise.

The Scottish Parliament election raised the question of press partisanship in the starkest possible terms.

Ritchie’s (and the SNP’s) complaint is: “The entire indigenous Scottish press is opposed to the idea of an independent Scotland and always has been.” Those of us who have always supported home rule within the United Kingdom think that may have something to do with the freedom of the press to pick sides on important issues.

The Nationalists, however, were continually seething with frustration that a pro-unionist press refused to put across the separatist message. Presumably, in their ideal independent Scotland there will be no such thing as bias.

Russell complained during the election of a million copies a day being sold by the Daily Record and the Scottish edition of the Daily Mail, “all more or less telling the people not to vote for the SNP”.

Given what was at stake, namely the continuing integrity of Scotland as part of the Union, feelings ran high, and it should not have come as a surprise that the Nationalists were subjected to the most passionate polemical attacks. Personally, I plead guilty – but unashamed.

The SNP leadership made the job easier with its own tactical blunders. The “Penny for Scotland” ploy, inviting Scots to reject the one penny cut in income tax in Chancellor Gordon Brown’s 1999 Budget, met with predictable derision. The 007-style, just-in-the-nick-of-time arrival of Sean Connery backfired amid the irony of a tax exile urging Scots to pay more tax.

Alex Salmond’s denunciation of the Nato campaign in Kosovo as “unpardonable folly” was the wrong thing to say to a nation on a wave of concern for our boys over there. A major media event launching the “Budget for Independence” collapsed in chaos when it emerged that the Nats had got their sums wrong. By contrast, Labour’s campaign was (as Ritchie admits) “ruthlessly effective”.

Naturally, the SNP leadership opted for the obvious – the “shoot the messenger” strategy. It huffily cancelled all press conferences (in the closing stages of an election campaign!) and produced its own free newspaper.

For years, there had been suggestions that the Nats, with the backing of a millionaire supporter – perhaps Connery or the bus tycoon Brian Souter – might launch their own paper or acquire an existing title. In the event, their election tabloid, Scotland’s Voice, was an expensive flop. Daily, thousands of copies clogged the gutters in Glasgow city centre, thrown away by commuters after scarcely a glance.

Not surprisingly, the experience still rankles, and the SNP leadership’s hostility towards papers such as the Record has been carried into the post-election era. If it is any consolation to them, the Record‘s relationship with Labour – which has been described by a jealous rival as “umbilical” – is going through a rough patch.

While supporting Labour, the paper has reserved the right of robust criticism of the accident-prone Dewar administration and utter disagreement over the repeal of Clause 28. This has resulted in a bizarre series of events, which could only happen in a friendship that is being tested.

Tony Blair showed the prime ministerial displeasure by studiously snubbing the Record table at the corporate lunch during last month’s Scottish Labour conference – a slight that was as public as it was petty.

Two days later, Alastair Campbell, in classic control-freak mode, used the Herald (of all papers) to attack the Scottish media for “dishonesty” and acting like “Pravda in reverse”, while accusing the Record of writing “complete fiction”.

Campbell, it will be remembered, once relayed Blair opinion that the Scottish media are “unreconstructed wankers”. After his latest tantrum, this was coyly recalled by one of the more prudishly biblical Scottish broadsheets as “unreconstructed Onanists”.

The certainty is that, with a UK election in the offing, Labour and the Record will kiss and make up. In the light of the System Three poll of Scottish opinion, a rapprochement would be well advised. It shows that the SNP has overtaken Labour in voting intentions for the Scottish Parliament, with 37 per cent for the first vote and 34 per cent from the second vote, compared to Labour’s 33 per cent and 29 per cent.

More urgently, the poll is also Labour’s poorest showing in the Westminster vote in Scotland since 1992, the year of John Major’s surprise general election win. The 46 per cent Scottish vote for Labour in the 1997 general election has slumped to 40 per cent.

Come next year’s UK general election, Scotland’s biggest-selling newspapers will be back in the business of delivering barrowloads of Labour votes. The SNP will have its supporters in the Scottish media, but elsewhere the Nat-bashing will be unconstrained.

Meanwhile, although remaining rightly critical of MSPs and the accident-prone Scottish Executive, the Scottish press could be more careful not to invite public scorn for the Scottish Parliament as an institution. The politicians could also help themselves by eliminating the “numptie” factor.

But we can forget the paranoia. Press-politico relations in Scotland may be strained, but they are healthy. The politicians are simply frustrated that they cannot control the critical Scottish media – whether we have thistles or red roses up our backsides.