The work of the political journalist can be defined in a single question: what does she or he mean by that? The role of the hack is to push the politician to say something new, specific and revealing (and preferably unwise). The role of the politician is to remain ambiguous, to leave future options open, to snow the hell out of things. This, inevitably, creates a tension, which is resolved through the inexact science of interpretation.
The game of bait and trap has its place – think of the marvellous weekly interviews by Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson in The Times, which haver got all sorts of over-confident types into trouble (including Andrea Leadsom’s infamous “motherhood” comments). But too often it is little more than a game: the false premise, the slip of the tongue, the career in ruins. Is it truth? Does any of it actually make anything better? Who is it for? And if you’re now thinking I probably didn’t make much of a news reporter, you’d be right.
Recently, I interviewed Nicola Sturgeon for the New Statesman. During our conversation asked for her thoughts on holding a second independence referendum before the next Holyrood elections in 2021. She’d demanded one after the Brexit vote, and Scots, weary of the relentless indy shebang, had reacted negatively, and heavily punished the Scottish National Party in June’s general election. In response, she’d announced an ill-defined “reset” of her plans. Having had the long summer recess to mull it all over, what were her latest reflections?
The printed interview included this passage: ‘Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off? “The honest answer to that is: I don’t know.”’
Last Wednesday evening, with the presses rolling, my phone rang. It was an SNP press officer. He was to the point. “There’s an issue with your piece, Chris. You write that in response to a direct question, the First Minister said she ‘doesn’t know’ if there will be a second independence referendum. The Scottish newsdesks are very excited by this. The problem is she didn’t actually say it.”
Every journalist knows the feeling – the lurching heart, the clammy neck. Have I screwed up? Just how much trouble am I in? But I was puzzled. I was pretty sure of my ground. I’d transcribed it, I’d gone over it, she’d said it, she’d meant it. My spin doctor friend was at it. I said so. “Check your tape,” he suggested.
I did, and… oh… I hadn’t asked, specifically, “could it be off?”. I had asked whether her new position was really much different to her old one: “Is it simply that you’re not going to talk about [a referendum] for a bit but the timescale [for holding one] is roughly the same?” Her response: “The honest answer to that is: I don’t know.”
As presented, the piece was simply wrong. The SNP insisted the First Minister had only been expressing uncertainty about the timing of a second referendum, and not over whether one would be held at all. But why had I made such a simple error? The interview was a lovely thing, in which Sturgeon had been funny and personal, had taken some entertaining swipes at her opponents, and produced some thoughtful reflections on literature. In truth, I’d been much more interested in all of these things than in the tedious kremlinology and semiotics of the independence debate. I’d only really raised the subject out of duty.
Here, a week on, is the thing. I was right. I was wrong, but I was also right. In print, I’d framed the damn thing like a galumphing trainee would. But she had said what I thought she’d said, just not as I printed it. I’d asked whether she had been right to call for another vote on separation. Her response was as follows. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not. I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it [my italics] and in what timescale.”
The bait was taken and the trap sprung. According to her own words, Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t know whether – and not just when – there will be another referendum before 2021. But then, of course she doesn’t. How could she? It will depend on the polls – on support for her party, for the idea of independence, for her. It will depend on how the Brexit negotiations go, and what that does to public confidence in Scotland. And, of course, it will depend on the UK prime minister giving permission (which seems unlikely). The whole thing bangs around like a game of pinball.
But the rules of politics do not allow Sturgeon to say all that – to state the bleeding obvious; to tell the truth. She has an excitable pro-indy movement to manage, many members of which would not take kindly to the idea their dream might be vanishing over the near horizon. There is a public narrative to keep up: that independence is imminent, and inevitable. It’s sort of the point of the SNP. Oh, and the media would fall – did fall – on such an admission like lions on a fresh kill.
It all leads me to think that our national debate isn’t always well served by this Mexican stand-off between politicians and media. The politician can’t, or won’t, say what they really think; the journalist will do everything possible to catch them out, at times caring little about the deeper truth; the public, with good reason, have come to trust neither. Perhaps it has to be this way. Perhaps it can only be this way. Which is a sad thought.
Anyway, this week Pete Wishart, the veteran SNP MP, said there won’t be a second referendum before the next Scottish election, and that the party should go into that campaign seeking a new mandate for one. Sounds familiar, eh? Allow me one small air-punch: gotcha.