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Showing posts with label Scottish journalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scottish journalism. Show all posts

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The laziness of Scottish journalism

I had planned an extended blog this morning on ‘Labour’s Last Redoubt – I’m an internationalist!’ But it will have to wait until later today, because one or two items in todays press require a quick response.

I have defended the media, especially the BBC and print journalism on a number of occasions against those who think that all media are biased against nationalism and Scotland’s independence, and that it doesn’t really matter anyway because bloggers and alternative media are going to supplant them anyway. This has led me to point out, among other things, that political bloggers and alternative media in fact feed upon media and the press, and would have rather thin blogs without them.

But I have also complained of the lack of any real investigative journalism in Scotland, and the reliance of television and the press on the same old circle of panellists and commentators – the usual suspects. An exception to this can be radio, and often the key story and insight of the week comes from radio, especially Radio Four, where the real story of the week before last broke on the Today programme on defence, and the nuclear issue for the UK of Scotland’s independence.  Here I must say that a blogger’s role in recognising the significance of this story and teasing out the elements of the debate appeared to have triggered the belated wider awareness of its significance. That blogger was me, and the blog was Nuclear bases, subs and Trident on Today programme

Anyway the press, including today’s newspapers, have belatedly latched on. Do I claim credit? No, but I claim a role. And by the way, guys, your analysis is still superficial and has still failed to grasp what really matters in the defence story. Earn your corn, for God’s sake!


A few weeks ago, I attended an SNP meeting in the old Broughton School, now Drummond Community School in Edinburgh. The meeting, on 15th December 2011, was addresses by Angus Robertson MP and Derek Mackay MSP, the two central strategists in the SNP’s independence campaign.

The meeting was no secret, and it was made clear that there was no restriction on attendance – it was not a closed meeting, and branch members were encouraged to bring along non-party guests who might be curious about the SNP and its independence strategy. The open invitation included the comment “This is no ordinary meeting as we will map out how we will help secure Scottish independence.” Indeed, Angus Robertson asked the large audience, around 250 to 300, if they had brought an outsider, e.g. a non-party, non-affiliated voter who might be interested - and if not, why not?

There was no security, no requirement to show an invitation, and those attending were simply invited to sign a guest book. At no point in the meeting was confidentiality requested or suggested, and I remember looking around and wondering where the press people were, because although I assume they weren’t formally invited, there was nothing whatsoever to have prevented them attending. I am certain that Angus Robertson and Derek Mackay operated on the assumption that, like any political meeting these days that is not enveloped in iron security measures – and probably most of those anyway – that it would be reported, and indeed probably recorded surreptitiously. There ain’t no secrets no more, if you will forgive the double negatives …

But today’s Sunday Herald, pages 6 and 7, over three weeks after this meeting took place, bursting with excitement, presents a report of the meeting billed as EXCLUSIVE BY PAUL HUTCHEON. Eat your hearts out, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward!

Paul Hutcheon breathlessly reveals his Deep Throat -

At a meeting held at a school in Edinburgh last month, details of which have been leaked to this newspaper, psychologist Claire Howell was present alongside Robertson and Mackay.”

The article goes on in similar vein, with a rash of quotes in inverted commas, to maintain the spurious air of secrecy, one which was totally absent in the structure and tone of the meeting.

Not one word of the ‘exclusive’ presented anything that was not already in the public domain. If Paul, or any other journalist had taken the bother to find out that the meeting was scheduled, they could simply have attended as an interested party – no slouch hat, raincoat, and heavily-muffled face would have been required, Paul.

Of course, for the Sunday Herald, surrendering yet again to its tabloid instincts, the story is the ‘guru’, not the open content of the meeting. After all, if you have a three-week old ‘exclusive’ from a ‘leak’ from an open meeting, you do have to try and make it look like something. Journalism is a hard game these days, and anything is better than getting off your arse, out of the office and doing some real digging.


Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The gentlemen of the Press - again …

The Scotsman backed the SNP just before the May 2011 election on the basis that they had the best team and were best equipped to lead the country, which the Scotsman, despite its title, had to reluctantly concede was called Scotland, not Great Britain or the UK.  In this, the paper was running behind the manifest thinking of the Scottish people, as revealed by the rapidly changing opinion polls. In a declining market for print journalism, it doesn’t do to back a loser, as the Scottish Daily Record and the Sunday Mail are painfully discovering.

But the Scotsman doesn’t believe in an independent Scotland, and as they awakened on May 6th to the full implications of the SNP’s historic victory, the magnitude of its majority and the implications of its renewed and strengthened mandate, the unionist panic started. It rapidly shifted gear to combat this new threat, adopting an approach to news reporting pioneered by the Herald, and already used by Scotland on Sunday, that of news bias by headline.

This involves taking a story, often a low-key report by a government body, economic think-tank or obscure, dry-as-dust professional commentator, often an academic, and selecting out of context a comment or fact and blowing it up into an anti-SNP, usually anti-independence headline and sub-header. The news report that follows in the small print then goes on to present a reasonably factual and objective account of what was actually said, thus paying lip service to objective new reporting. This approach is as old as journalism, and can be tracked all the way back to the Hearst yellow press in the United States.

Now it may be argued that this is simply the realities of headline writing, and that all newspapers play this game to sell papers in  highly competitive, challenging marketplace, and that of necessity, something punchy must be plucked from the news report to highlight content and draw readers. Indeed they do, but it is what is plucked and how it is presented that distinguishes the tabloid from the broadsheet, to use a now-outmoded term for quality newspapers. By what they pluck shall ye know them, and there appear to be a bunch of unionist pluckers in the Scotsman editorial team in these heady, referendum lead-up times.

Lest I seem unfair the the Scotsman, let me say that by giving regular space to a fine journalist, Joan McAlpine, who is also a prominent SNP supporter and who is now an MSP, they do offer a trenchant nationalist voice from a respected Scottish commentator to their readers. On the other side, they offer a platform to Michael Kelly, a man of whom prudence demands that I personally say little, for fear of attracting m’learned friends, except to comment that Joan McAlpine is miles better than the former Lord Provost of Glasgow.

Is there a model for me of what the Scottish Press should be, what it could be? Is there a model for me of what a Scottish political editor could be, of what political editors should be?

Yes, there is - the Scottish edition of The Times and Angus Macleod. I confess to having neglected and overlooked this fine newspaper in the past, associating The Times vaguely with its reputation as the Thunderer, with thoughts of Holmes and Watson perusing it over tea and muffins in Baker Street. From typography and layout to content, both news and features, this is an admirable example of what a newspaper should be, what a Scottish newspaper should be, and what the true values of news and political journalism could and should be.

Something’s gotta give, however, as the old song says -

I can’t afford the luxury of three daily newspapers. I’ve abandoned the i, the Independent’s inspired new entrant, after an initial infatuation with it, because of the almost total absence of any acknowledgement of the existence of Scotland and Scottish affairs, in which it mirrors The Independent’s editorial policy. And now, either The Scotsman or the Herald must be relegated to online reading.

Since my wife likes the Herald, and since it still has the finest Letters page of any newspaper, I fear The Scotsman must be the one to enter cyberspace. In these straightened times, £300 a year, or thereabouts, ain’t to be sneezed at …

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Herald hits a new low in political reporting - the Politics Show Leader’s debate

As I begin to write this, I ask myself two questions -

Why do I still buy the Herald?

Does anything the Herald says about Scottish life still matter?

The answer to the first question is residual loyalty to what was once a great Scottish newspaper - one that I have read for over fifty years - and for occasional superb contributions from  Ian Bell, Harry Reid and Iain Macwhirter.

The answer to the second is almost certainly no, given its declining circulation, its almost complete abandonment of basic journalistic standards, especially in news reporting, and the exponentially growing of television and the new media.

But, with the nagging feeling that I am wasting time that could be more productively used elsewhere, I feel that I must comment on today’s page 7 report on yesterday’s Politics Show Scotland leaders debate, chaired by Isabel Fraser.

In yesterday’s blog, I offered clips from this debate and my commentary, which are opinion, from the perspective and allegiance of a committed Scottish nationalist and SNP supporter. But the televised debate itself is a matter of visual and audio record, available to anyone who wishes to view it and draw a conclusion.

The Herald offers two pieces on page 7, one by Robin Dinwoodie, which is presented as news by the Herald’s chief political correspondent, and an opinion piece - Comment by Brian Currie.

The headline for the Dinwoodie piece was typical of the Herald’s style of bias by headline - selective and unrepresentative of the debate - Salmond under attack for fighting anti-secrecy law.

In an objective news report, it might have been Holyrood Party Leader’s in vigorous debate on The Politics Show, but if I adopt the Herald’s style, it also might have been Opposition Party Leader’s under attack for their opposition to minimum pricing for alcohol, or even Iain Gray under attack for blocking minimum pricing, or perhaps Salmond and Scott attack Goldie and Gray’s proposals for minimum sentencing for knife crime.

My preferred headline, adopting the Herald’s modus operandi, might have been Holyrood Opposition Leaders fight like ferrets in a sack while First Minister remains calm and objective.

Dinwoodie devoted the first 450 words or so of a 750 word article to the freedom of information question referred to in the headline, which essentially involved the Government trying to protect the principle of civil servants offering advice in confidence to ministers, something supported and defended by every government of whatever political colour. As the FM pointed out, the actual costs of an LIT, far from being a secret, had been announced to Parliament by John Swinney. In spite of the opposition parties and the Herald’s desperate attempts to make a story out of this, we may be reasonably be certain that the voters won’t give a damn about such arcane points of government.

What they do manifestly care about is the blight of alcohol and violence in their communities and what their government is doing to protect them, the issues that were in fact central to Sunday’s debate, but which Dinwoodie and the Herald glided smoothly over, as well they might, since they showed the poverty and expediency of the opposition to the SNP’s minimum pricing proposal, and the Labour and Tory simplistic and unworkable proposals for minimum sentencing for knife crime.

And then we have Brian Currie’s little opinion piece. His general theme was that much of the debate was an unedifying squabble, and I agree wholeheartedly with that.

But in his third paragraph, he says -

Regrettably, Tavish Scott, Iain Gray and to a slightly lesser extent Alex Salmond and Annabel Goldie continually tried so hard to drown each other out during the BBC Politics show yesterday that many of their exchanges had all the merits of a bar-room rammy.

The inclusion of Alex Salmond in this bad behaviour is, quite simply, untrue, and a blatant distortion of the facts, as anyone watching this programme would testify. He was an oasis of calm and courtesy throughout, and despite being continually interrupted by the others, refrained almost entirely from joining in, although he could not resist a couple of pertinent and amused comments as Goldie and Gray fought like ferrets in a sack. Iain Gray, repeating his lamentable performance on the STV Leaders Debate, continually interrupted the First Minister.

But Currie, forced to comment on the embarrassing and at times chaotic behaviour of the three opposition leaders, - which was there for Scottish viewers to see - felt he had to tar the First Minister with the same brush, because the quiet dignity, courtesy and objectivity of Alex Salmond throughout doesn’t sit well with the caricature of him that the Herald wants to present.

What Scottish viewers saw - and can see again - was a microcosm of what has gone on in Holyrood for four years - an expedient, policy-bereft opposition, ill-informed by their masters in Westminster, engaging in blind, opportunistic opposition to almost anything the SNP government tried to do, only held together by Alex Salmond’s mastery of the politics of minority government and his statesmanlike recognition of where the real interests of the Scottish people lie.

Again, a poor, poor show by the Herald.

But this newspaper matters less and less to the people of Scotland, as demonstrated by its inexorably declining circulation, and the people have found their own channels to the truth, something rarely present in the Scottish print media today.