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Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Black Ink Art of Spin by Headline – or is it just about selling papers?

I take a keen interest in media, especially print media. I am one of a dying breed – a newspaper subscriber (the the Herald/Sunday Herald) – and I believe a free press is vital to a functioning democracy. Print media may not matter as much as it once did to political campaigns (some would argue that it never has!) but despite apparently inexorably declining circulation figures, it still matters to many, and it definitely matters during the one year run-up to the Referendum.

I am not a journalist, and have no direct experience of what goes on in a newsroom, except that gleaned from news, drama, films and television, but I have some experience in my industrial career of news management – or attempts at it – by major companies and organisations, usually through journalists in their PR departments who did have inside knowledge.

My views, for what they are worth on newsroom and newspaper values and objectives (and to some extent television) can be condensed into the following core beliefs -

1. The first duty of a newspaper is to sell newspapers, just as the first duty of a politician is to get elected, and the first duty of a manager to get appointed. None of the higher, more noble objectives can be pursued, none of the key values can be expressed, nothing can be achieved until the power to pursue and achieve them has been secured, and that position, that power is always under threat.

(Many supporters of independence – I won’t speak for the other side – seem largely oblivious to these simple facts.)

2.  Journalists, editors and newspaper staff don’t own the newspapers that employ them, at least in traditional print media. They are either salaried employees or freelances, they have to earn a living, and to earn a living they have to get their work published or carry out editorial functions, etc.

3. Those who have the resources to establish newspapers, or buy existing newspapers  must have one thing only - money.

They may not be journalists, they may have no media experience of any kind, nor are they required to have political values, ethical values or a political viewpoint. All that is required of them is that they conform to the law of the land, and as we have seen recently, they don’t always do that.

As proprietors, they may or may not try to exercise influence over editorial freedom, they may or may not espouse a particular political or social viewpoint.  Examples of both extremes of involvement exist, and just about every point on the spectrum between them. Editors must make their own decisions when they accept a post where their editorial freedom is or might be constrained.

4. Exceptions or at least partial exceptions to the above are the Guardian Media Group, and the BBC – a public service broadcaster.

5. Journalists, salaried or freelance, must accept the right of the editor to alter their copy.

Whether they challenge this or not depends on the reasons advanced for the edit, and their professional judgment as to whether it distorts what they want to say, and a realistic assessment of the likelihood of being published if they do. The journalist who constantly disputes an editor’s decisions is likely to have to find another newspaper – or maybe another job.

6. A journalist and by extension a newspaper, owes a duty to the readers, to truth as they see it, to objectivity and to facts – and to the society of which they are a part.

That does not mean impartiality, or that elusive and usually unattainable concept of balance. Journalists and newspapers have the right to espouse causes, to take a political stance.  Where would the balance have been in reporting the holocaust, had the information been available at the time had we not been at war? Would Hitler and Himmler have been given equal space and airtime? The distinguished journalist John Pilger would have been shocked had he been accused of ‘balance’ in some of his most famous reports.


Certain facts seem evident to me as a reader and a voter, despite my lack of direct newsroom experience.

From all their sources of information, newspaper editors must decide what stories to run, their relative significance and how they will be presented.

In the ideal world that many independence supporters aspire to – understandably, since they are trying to create a better Scotland that more closely approximates their ideals – there would be rigorous fact checking, an attempt to ensure that all viewpoints are equally reflected (the elusive balance), news would be presented as news, and opinion would be separately reflected as comment. Stories would be presented in accordance with their relative significance, i.e. big, significant stories would make the headlines and the inside spreads, and lesser stories be given fewer column inches and humbler placement.

At the highest level of the Fourth Estate, this ideal is sometimes approached, but rarely completely achieved. The Financial Times, for instance, deals with the hard business of business and finance, and charges a premium price to its mainly well-heeled readers for presenting fully-researched news, data, information and informed opinion.

The Guardian, run by a trust, has a long honourable record dating back to its days as The Manchester Guardian – a newspaper avowedly of the Left, but committed to telling truth to power, investigative journalism of a high order. The Times, a paper of the right (though it might argue that it isn’t) has high journalistic standards and is rarely cavalier with facts. And there are other honourable examples among the broadsheets and the regional press. The less said about the Telegraph under the Barclay Brothers proprietorship the better.


Here’s Hollywood’s version of a legendary editor, Ben Bradley of The Washington Post, discussing the embryo Watergate story. Hollywood hokum? In part, yes, but based on the real story as told by the reporters, so probably accurate in essence.

Bradley considers the facts, and the risks of running the story, confronting in the process the inescapable and unpalatable facts that he has to trust his reporters and they have to trust their source.

That’s a single big story. But what happens on any day in the wider editorial conference? I speculate, because I have no inside knowledge -

The editor gets his/her key staff together and considers the potential content of the paper for the following day – new, features, sport, etc. Let’s focus on say, The Herald and one item -  a political story.

The political editor and his/her team will have had a pre-meeting, checked facts, sources and made a preliminary assessment of significance, and the core story will be written, possibly with a tentative headline. The political editor will have a view of how big the story is, but the editor must decide, perhaps in the face of competing non-political stories – entertainment, world events, celebrity, Royalty – even sport, because if a sports story is big enough, it can make the front page. (Rangers ongoing saga!)

It should be noted that a paper has to run a front page story every day as its main story, regardless of whether there is a big news story or not. On a dry day for news, this can result in a relatively minor story acquiring rather more prominence than it deserves.

Catch a paper on such a day, give them a good story, properly researched and presented and a headline hook to hang it on and they’ll run it! (I have personal experiences of this in an industry context.)

Despite all the claims, however justified, of mainstream media anti-independence bias, this is a lesson YES Scotland and the SNP need to re-learn over and over again. Sadly, it is a lesson Better Together and the well-resourced and shadowy interests who bankroll them have learned all too well.

Back to my analysis and my political story scenario -

The political editor makes his pitch to the editor, and let’s say the paper is The Herald – it’s Wednesday and the Thursday edition for 12th September is under consideration. Two big stories are competing for attention: the ongoing crisis in Syria, with key talks imminent between Obama and Putin, and the Scottish Budget and the row over the Bedroom Tax impact. 

What does the editor, Magnus Llewellin, decide to run with? He opts for neither, but instead for a story from the Highland correspondent, David Ross, based on an Audit Scotland report, Renewable Energy. This report clearly has political significance, so Magnus Gardham, the political editor (who takes a keen interest, as he must, in the independence debate) would have been a significant voice in the decision to run it as the front page main story. Audit Scotland’s website headlines their story on their report as follows -

Scotland's strategy for renewable energy is clear but achieving goals will be challenging

What headline did Llewellin and Gardham decide to run?


What was it in the report that led them to choose this headline from the report’s comments, topics and conclusions that they could have chosen to offer as capturing its essence? What were the other influences and considerations that led to this choice of headline, and indeed to the choice of  this sober Audit Scotland report as the front page story?

Let’s look at what quotes they could have picked from the report summary by Audit Scotland -

“The Scottish Government has a clear strategy for renewable energy that links with other policy areas, and it has made steady progress so far.”

“Renewable energy projects are progressing more slowly than expected, due to the economy and changes in UK energy policy.”

“"Scotland's strategy for renewable energy is a good example of clear leadership and direction supported by integration across other policy areas.” Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland

“The Scottish Government needs to estimate how much public sector funding will be needed after 2014/15 to attract private sector investment and meet its goals for renewable energy.” Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland

Now, I could have crafted a punchy headline from any of those, and caught the sense of what Audit Scotland and Caroline Gardner actually said, e.g.

Scots renewables policy makes steady progress, but is hit by UK economic factors and changes in UK energy policy says Audit Scotland


Watchdog cites good example of Scottish leadership and direction on renewables, but calls for tighter funding estimates

“… cast doubt on Scots renewables policy” is a partial and misleading comment on the thrust and conclusions of the report in my view.

What led the Herald to choose this story over, say, Syria or the Budget for the front page?

What influenced them to choose this headline?

I can think of two alternative reasons that might have influenced the editors -

1. Renewables policy is vital to Scotland’s energy policy, jobs and industry infrastructure, Scotland leads the world in renewables, Scotland has unrivalled natural resources of wind and wave to exploit renewables, and alternative energy matters to Scotland, to the UK, to Europe and to the planet.

2. Any story that can be spun to attack the SNP Government, and by extension the independence debate, and any story that attacks renewable energy and by implication favours nuclear power is worth the front page.

If the editors were driven by the first reason, they made an odd choice of headline, and should have followed up with a centre page spread offering a full analysis of the report and of renewables policy.

If the editors were driven by the second reason – and I hope, as a lifetime Herald reader and a current subscriber that they were not – then it is a bad example of spin-by-headline, something that belongs in the tabloids, a relic of the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst.

They have just one year, as editors of a great Scottish newspaper – and as every Scot has – to decide how they can play an honourable role in the great debate, at this pivotal moment in Scottish history.

They might look to their sister paper, The Sunday Herald, to find a model of responsible journalism to equip them for such a role.


  1. Interesting piece Peter. I am also not a 'media-man' do have no idea about these decisions either. However, I suspect that you are close to the mark.

    As far as I am concerned, I do not expect the MSM in either Scotland or the rest of the UK to fall over themselves to promote independence. They are private companies and have owners who hold particular political positions. (I think it is a great pity that so few MSM titles are owned by Scots or Brits, but I guess that it the capitalist principle in operation).

    Notwithstanding that view, I nevertheless think that the MSM do have a responsibility to the truth and there has been precious evidence that they give truth much concern in the last 12 months.

    I also hold the BBC to a higher responsibility. They are the national provider and are funded by a tax on all households, irrespective of the political views of the funders (i.e. you and me). I know we differ on this, but would simply say that the same editorial process that you describe for the Herald must also go on in the BBC in Scotland. They choose which stories to run, and the 'slant' they put on those stories.

    I do NOT want slant from the BBC, I want a simple presentation of the facts on Independence, all the facts, with equal robust challenge to both sides of the argument.

    There are still twelve months to go. In my dreams I imagine an honest run up to the most important vote ever taken by Scottish voters. Am I believing in a fairy story?