The debate on whether to reduce the present eight police forces in Scotland, or at least reduce the number to three or four, an idea driven by the urgent need to reduce costs, raises complex issues of major significance to law and order and the relationship between Government and the police.
It demands the fullest consultation with all interested parties over what would be a very radical measure with wide reaching implications. That is exactly what the Scottish Government is doing, but that is not enough for Labour in Holyrood, ever anxious to make life difficult for the SNP government, especially when it plans to address issues fundamental to Scottish society.
Iain Gray’s attack on the First Minister at yesterday’s FMQs was therefore depressingly predictable, especially with an election looming. This exchange could have been approached in two ways by a responsible Scottish newspaper. The first would have been a quick summary, along the lines of “Labour criticises the SNP Government of delay in reaching a decision on the rationalisation of Scottish police forces. First Minister responds by emphasising the need for in-depth consultation before reaching a decision.”.
The second would have been a balanced report of Ian Gray’s criticisms and the First Minister’s rebuttal, followed by a detailed examination of the issues involved. The Herald did neither, and Brian Currie’s ‘report’, together with Ian Bell’s sketch piece, illustrate all too clearly what has become of objective political reporting in the Herald, a sad thing to contemplate as we enter the Holyrood election run-up.
The headline and the sub-header set the Herald, i.e. the Labour agenda -
Salmond accused of dodging single police force issue
Labour leader Gray asks: When are you going to make a decision?
This kind of header tries to beg the question, in the clear hope that many readers engaged in a superficial scan of topics may never get beyond it, and are left with the idea of a First Minister dodging a crucial issue and avoiding a decision.
But just in case the reader goes further, the Herald hedges its bets, by presenting a virtually verbatim report of Iain Gray’s attack. 56 lines of Gray in a kind of one-sided Hansard. followed by 17 lines of Alex Salmond’s rebuttal, a more than three-to-one skewing of the argument.
In time terms, here is how the exchange went. Iain Gray’s opening questions took 35 secs. Alex Salmond’s response lasted 49 seconds. Iain Gray follow-through lasted 1m 6 seconds. Alex Salmond’s initial response pointed up the contradictions in Gray’s posture by citing Iain Gray’s equivocation on council tax. This lasted 1m 21 seconds. Iain Gray returned to his attack, and this lasted for 53 seconds. Alex Salmond’s reply lasted for 1m 30 seconds. Gray’s response lasted for 49 seconds, and drifted into a general attack on the Government’s record, but since the FM’s response, lasting 1m 13 seconds, addressed that aspect, I’ll leave both of them in.
Totting up, I get Iain Gray’s total contribution as 3m 23 seconds and Alex Salmond’s total response time as 4m 53 seconds: the FM spoke for 59% of the time and Iain Gray for 41%, although I must say, it seemed a helluva lot longer, as verbal turgid tedium always does. Contrast this with Brian Currie’s report, which in lines of text gave Iain Gray almost 77% and the FM 23%.
Taken together with the header and sub-header, this is blatant political bias, not objective reporting. It was not justified by considerations of relevance, of condensation, or the interests of objective political reporting. It was Fox-style, Murdoch-style, Palin style tabloid journalism.
However, the Herald’s idea of balance was partially served by Ian Bell’s piece, which did provide some insight into the reality of the exchange, but in the context of a sketch piece, heavy with humour and some sarcasm, one that could safely be ignored as peripheral and lightweight by its labelling, although in fact it wasn’t, and came closer to the truth.
How many voters watch Politics Scotland and how many read the political ‘report’ in the Herald I don’t know. What I do know is that it is vital for Scottish democracy, in the lead-up to what will be a pivotal election for the future of the people of Scotland, that the political arguments are presented fully and objectively in the news reporting of the media, and that only the opinion pieces reflect the partisanship.
The Herald, and the Scottish media in general breach these fundamental principles with depressing regularity, and the Herald is a serial offender.