“Open, accessible, transparent and nothing like Westminster.” That’s what we were promised for the Scottish Parliament. There was a dislike verging on the pathological of all things “Westminster”. The Speaker would be called the Presiding Officer; there would be no “honourable members”, just first names; and simple applause instead of the growlings of “hyarr hyarr”.
It is indeed refreshingly different in the chamber. But outside it is all too dismally familiar. The much discredited parliamentary lobby system is thriving at Holyrood. You will not hear about this in the press, for the press have a vested interest in such a system. Reporters who, quite rightly, ask tough, probing questions about all aspects of the government’s policy and ministers’ behaviour, are silent on this issue. But what happened to the on-the-record, on-camera briefings that we were promised? Why aren’t they open and available for all to see?
On every day that the parliament sits, the Scottish executive holds two briefings for journalists, at 10am and 4.30pm. An additional briefing follows the executive’s weekly cabinet meeting on Tuesday. A separate one is held on Friday afternoons to which only Sunday newspaper journalists are invited. Access to such events is restricted to journalists who have a Scottish Parliament security pass. Gaining entry without a pass is possible, but depends on an accredited journalist or civil servant signing in the visiting journalist. This niggling restriction does not bode well for the local newspaper reporter, not known in Edinburgh, who turns up without warning, to cover an issue with specific relevance to his/her area.
Briefings are usually taken by the First Minister’s official spokesman, David Whitton. He can be named, but increasingly journalists adopt the Westminster model, describing him by his title rather than his name. These events – held in a committee room in the parliament building – are “on the record, but off camera”. Print journalists can reproduce everything said in that room. Without sound or pictures, radio and TV journalists in effect cannot.
For a parliament that was set up with television technology an integral part of the building’s infrastructure, why has such a semi-secretive approach been adopted?
The explanation usually proffered is that with the appearance of a spokesman on television, in this case Whitton, he becomes the personality and face of the government and detracts from the authority of ministers. This is Alastair Campbell’s defence of the system at Westminster. But Holyrood is not Westminster. We all know who Whitton is. He has been seen often enough at Donald Dewar’s shoulder. He did at least one “on-camera” briefing during the coalition talks immediately after the elections in May. How strange that he can be identified as a spokesman for the Labour Party, as he then was, but not for the government, as he is now.
The tendency to hide from the cameras has been extended to ministers. At least two have held briefings in recent weeks where cameras were banned. One involved Susan Deacon, the Health Minister, dealing with the issue of women who hadn’t been recalled for cervical smear tests in Tayside. To be sure, it was a problem that required sensitive handling, but why bar the cameras? Is it to spare the blushes of an inexperienced minister or nervous civil servants? Why couldn’t television viewers see what actually happened, and how the news was made public, rather than the sanitised interview?
The real reason for the executive’s masquerade of shyness is that it is easier for ministers and their spin-doctors to manipulate the media. Much of the adverse coverage stems from inexperience. But now experience is being rapidly gained. Spin-doctors are learning that by their body language, by the way they emphasise or downplay words and phrases, they can influence how the newspapers report something. You cannot do that when camera lenses and microphones are fixed on you. And you can always try and manage the electronic media by threatening not to give them one-to-one interviews if they don’t play your game.
Clever stuff, isn’t it? Actually, it isn’t. The most pernicious aspect of Westminster’s lobby being learnt fast by the Holyrood press gang is the pack mentality. After each briefing another briefing takes place. Reporters huddle together and work out their interpretation of what was said. “Did Whitton mean that Dewar threatened to resign?” “Yes, that’s obviously what he meant.” “So that’s the line – Dewar resign threat.” Even when the following day’s headlines are all denounced as wrong, the reporters can stick to their line because there is safety in numbers. But if what was actually said is on videotape and can be seen by everyone, including newspaper editors, the scope for such creative interpretation by the press is dramatically reduced.
Meanwhile, TV cameras are expected to turn up and report an endless diet of meaningless ministerial visits, but when there is the slightest chance of anything significant being said, they are almost always kept outside the door.
The power of television is enormous. It is how most people find out what’s happening. Ministers in Scotland are short-changing them. Why can’t people see and hear what their government and their ministers are doing? After all, they voted for them, and the power of television put them there.
Fiona Ross reports for Scottish Television