The mysterious turnaround in the Scottish ‘quality’ press – what can be at work?
Even six months ago, if I had commented “almost totally anti-SNP, unionist in instincts, biased in news coverage to another party, mainly lacking in objective journalism, never provides space for nationalist viewpoints” I would have been talking about the Scotsman.
If I had written “Supports one unionist party in editorial comment and biased towards that party in opinion articles, but not anti-SNP, and relatively objective in news reporting, an occasionally presents a nationalist view point”, I would have been talking about the Herald.
Of late, I can virtually reverse these judgements.
With the always honourable exception of its superb Letters Page, the Herald has dragged the proud traditions of objective political journalism into the mire of blatant bias in news coverage and opinion towards Labour and unionism. William Randolph Hearst would be proud of it: Rupert Murdoch and Fox News would be happy to have the Herald in its stable. It provides a regular platform for journalists with links to the Labour Party: it almost never accords a similar platform to the many fine journalists with nationalist views.
Let me make my case from yesterday’s editions of both papers, the day after John Swinney’s budget for challenging times.
The Scotsman headline -
Swinney spreads the pain of £1.2bm cuts
Eddie Barnes Political Editor
For seven paragraphs and some 250 words, Eddie Barnes gave a factual and objective summary of John Swinney’s measures. Only at paragraph eight did the ‘but’ appear, and it began an equally objective account of the opposition and union responses to the cuts, moving to pages four and five and a double page spread. It was headed with an opposition quote in inverted commas -
‘Swinney’s running election campaign, not country’
This was fair enough in the light of the front page headlines: the entire structure of the two-page spread was completely objective news reporting and analysis. There was even a short piece in the right-hand column about internet and blog views. The detailed objective coverage and analysis went on through to page 11, with various journalists and commentators setting out the arguments for and against one of the most important Scottish budgets in modern times.
This was journalism, not political polemic: it was objective news reporting and comment, with opinion clearly labelled as such when it occurred.
The Herald front page -
The top of the page was given over to a news item about secret talks to take over Rangers football club. That in itself says something about the Herald’s journalistic priorities, but we’ll move swiftly past that, and put it down to Glesca jist bein’ Glesca. (The more sinister interpretation would be the ‘bread and circuses at a time of national crisis’ theory, just in case the Royal Wedding wasn’t enough on its own!)
The headline beneath it was -
Swinney delivers a Budget sidestep
This is a loaded, pejorative statement, straight off the bat. Where the Scotsman delivered an objective news report at a time of national crisis written by one man, political editor Eddie Barnes, the Herald needs a trio - maybe to ensure that any blame is evenly spread – Brian Currie, Robin Dinwoodie and Gerry Braiden.
It leaps straight in with two paragraphs of criticism before it gets anywhere near reporting what the Finance Minister actually said, with phrases like “John Swinney was last night accused of dodging the tough decisions …” and “Opponents accused him of delivering stop-gap policies …”
As any jazz or pop musician will tell you, the introduction matters - it sets the tone for the piece to follow. (Louis Armstrong’s introduction to West End Blues is regarded as a musical masterpiece in its own right.) This intro certainly set the tone. Six paragraphs are devoted to the criticisms of the Holyrood opposition leaders, and the relentless negativity persists, but with some attempt to actually detail what John Swinney actually said set out in the last few paragraphs. However, in the bottom paragraph, leading us into the page two and three spread, we return to an attack on the budgets measures by the General Secretary of the STUC.
The headline across pages two and three is -
‘20,000 public sector jobs on the line, union warns’
The whole of the page two article beneath it is a list of criticisms, when we still have had no objective summary of what the Finance Minister actually said, nor of the measures proposed, except through the mouths of his carefully selected critics. Three photographs appear of critics, Mary Taylor, Lucy McTernan and Fiona Moriarty.
In a box on page three, we finally get some fact – The Budget in Numbers, as a list. This is quickly offset by an opinion piece, Sketch by Ian Bell, deploying what passes for humour in such pieces, and a token attempt at balance. But its core message was clear – the SNP was playing politics with the Budget, trying to gain electoral popularity ahead of the May 2011 elections. There was a note of fear in this – fear that it might actually work.
If I may offer my version of Ian Bell’s message, it is this -
The SNP Government and John Swinney - in the face of a UK economy destroyed by the Labour Party, and a ConLib Coalition determined to protect the rich and powerful and attack the poor and vulnerable in their attempts to tackle the deficit - have tried to protect the sick, the vulnerable, the pensioners and the low paid from the full weight of draconian cuts to the Scottish Budget made by a coalition of two political parties totally rejected by the Scottish people in May 2010, in favour of the party – Labour – that had spent 13 years destroying their hopes and dreams.
If we remove Ian Bell’s pejorative lead-in to his paragraph on these measures, “Yesterday the plan was to cling on to anything …”, they are, in his words “a council tax freeze, travel for the elderly, the abolition of prescription charges”.
And we may hear the fear in his voice – and in the inner sanctum of the Herald – when he concludes by saying “voters might remember whom to blame and whom to praise.” I hope they do …
There is something rotten in the state of politics and the press in my native city, Glasgow, and there has been for a long time.
The Purcell debacle, the questions over the ALEOs, of links between PR companies, newspapers and local government, the criminal prosecutions, the resignations, and the catastrophic decline in objective reporting in the print media have only been alleviated in part by probing journalism by BBC, by ITV and by the new media of blogging and tweeting.
There is a kind of inchoate panic afflicting the UK unionist Establishment in the midst of its paranoia and confusion over Europe, its criminal and doomed foreign wars, its sleazy, venal, corrupt Parliament, and the results of its economic greed.
That panic is intensified by the ever-present threat that its fading, discredited empire might finally lose one of its last subject territories, Scotland, and that instead of providing cannon fodder for foreign adventures, and being some kind of northern theme park and playground for rich southerners, this proud nation that has punched above its weight intellectually, culturally, scientifically and ethically might regain its confidence, its autonomy and its integrity among the nations of Europe and the world.
It is profoundly sad that the Glasgow Herald and the City of Glasgow seem to be rejecting that future, and seem to be gripped by the same panic.
It is deeply encouraging that The Scotsman seems to be at last recovering its reputation and its journalistic integrity, after losing its way for a time.