Put up or shut up, Johann Lamont. You have full disclosure from the SNP - and there was nothing to hide.
Let Labour do the same, both for the McConnell administration and at Westminster level. Nae chance - but then perhaps Labour and the wee Baron of Glenscorrodale do have something to hide ...
The contrasting treatment of this minor story by the Scotsman and the Herald are instructive, especially when compared with Newsnight Scotland’s coverage of the matter.
The Scotsman has no doubt that this is the big story, leads with it on page one, while virtually relegating the real big story, the Eurozone crisis, to the business section, with only a single column on page one pointing to this. It devotes all of pages 4 and 5 to it.
In stark contrast, the Herald leads with the £50m global meltdown, and has an objective headline below it, Salmond reveals News International Meetings.
Newsnight Scotland’s Isabel Fraser interviewed Johann Lamont and Stewart Hosie on this last night, and, as always, asked all the right questions of both. The programme started with an objective and fairly detailed summary of the meetings and correspondence between the First Minister and News Corp executives, setting the scene.
Isabel Fraser opened by asking Johann Lamont what Labour meant by accusing the First Minister of Scotland of “highly questionable behaviour”.
Johan Lamont said that it was “remarkable” that 40% of all Alex Salmond’s media contacts in the last four years were with News International, and he met with them on more occasions than other media groups, but she then retreated into admissions that all – or most – politicians had courted Murdoch, and came out of it badly. She touchingly thought that “a line had been drawn under it” by Ed Miliband, and piously hoped that Alex Salmond “would recognise that he had an inappropriately close relationship” with News International.
Isabel Fraser then administered the Vulcan death grip.
“So what you are saying in effect is that Alex Salmond’s behaviour was as craven and as sycophantic as Tony Blair’s, Gordon Brown’s, Ed Miliband's, Ed Balls' – the list goes on and on from the Labour Side”.
Johann was not exactly tickled pink (Labour’s favourite colour these days?) by this, and gave the muted reply that nobody came out of this well. She then, however, grabbed the spade again and began digging furiously. Other First Ministers – Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell – did not behave in this way. The way she took the bait reminded me of spinning for mackerel, or as Americans say, shooting fish in a barrel. The line was snapped taut instantly by Isabel Fraser, who reeled in calmly.
She detailed Jack McConnell’s meeting with News International executives or journalists – three as Finance Minister, one as Education Minister and ten as First Minister. “Are you saying that is inaccurate?”
No, replied Johann, but it was not 40% of all media contact in his time, nor was he offering opportunities to go to the Ryder Cup at taxpayers’ expense.
Isabel Fraser picked up on this in her first question to Stewart Hosie. Some of the offers made would have been paid from the public purse, but were they actually about developing a personal relationship between the First Minister and Rupert Murdoch or James Murdoch?
Stewart Hosie chose to focus initially on the level of disclosure by the Government – not just one year of meetings between the FM and News International but four years of the contacts between the entire Government and all parts of the media.
Like for like year, Alex Salmond met nine time compared to Ed Miliband’s fifteen times and David Cameron’s twenty seven times.
The entire Scottish Government met with News International in four years on less than half the occasions that Labour met with them in a single year in opposition.
Labour were up to their necks in hypocrisy. At a time when the Scottish government had been incredibly transparent, we still don’t know a single thing, other than the information that Isobel Fraser had just read out about Jack McConnell, nor about the meetings held by Labour in 2007, 2008 and 2009 when the Operation Motorman Report was sitting on Gordon Brown’s desk.
(Operation Motorman was a 2003 investigation by the Information Commissioner's Office into allegations of offences under the Data Protection Act by the British press.)
Isobel Fraser returned to her question – could Stewart Hosie clarify what his thoughts were on whether or not it was appropriate for the First Minister to offer hospitality to Rupert Murdoch at the taxpayers’ expense?
The Ryder Cup wouldn’t have been at the taxpayers’ expense, replied Stewart Hosie. Looking at all of the correspondence between the FM and News International – all of it – it was about jobs, economic development, inward investment, and it was about promoting Scotland abroad. One would have thought that the general public would expect their First Minister to be seeking media outlets to promote Scotland.
Isabel Fraser: “Johann Lamont – will now Labour publish all correspondence, and all details of the last four years between Labour Ministers, Labour Prime Ministers and Labour advisers?”
Johann Lamont: “Well, I certainly think that Ed Miliband has made it clear that he recognised that there was an inap … it was … we have … we’re in the wrong place, I think in relationship – all of us, across the board, in relation to News International.”
Isabel Fraser: “Will you publish the sort of information that allows the public to make an assessment of the nature of that relationship in the way the SNP has done today?”
Johann Lamont: “Well, I understand that the SNP gave the information, which was under Freedom of Information Act – clearly, under if under Freedom of Information request, the same information would be provided. I don’t think that there’s …”
Isabel Fraser: “Well, why wait for that? If you’re acting in good faith, why actually wait for that – why wait for that trigger? Why not just say ‘We want to put a line underneath this …’ – just get it all out there.”
Johann Lamont: “I don’t want to sound defensive about something that’s not within my remit.” (simultaneous cross talk) “It feels very much to me at this time, in order to build trust – rebuild trust - with people you do have to be transparent. There will be a bit of to and fro’ing amongst the parties on this question – who has been open and who has not. But at the heart of this, for too long, people – given our experience in ‘92, when the party realised what happens when you’re up against something like News International – and people realise you have to have a relationship with newspapers – we understand that – but there was a recognition then that it’s gone to far. I now think Alex Salmond should recognise that there was a mixing together of two things – a bit about jobs, but an awful lot about Alex Salmond on the world stage.”
Isabel Fraser: (to Stewart Hosie) “Do you now think that Alex Salmond has to recognise that the relationship was inappropriate?”
Stewart Hosie: “I think the transparency the Scottish Government showed today in publishing all of this material is first class – that’s the best disinfectant for any allegations. I think it’s time Labour came off their high horse and publish the same over the last four years.”
In just under nine minutes, Isobel Fraser and Newsnight Scotland got to the heart of this matter, in contrast to the Scotsman, which succeeded only in demonstrating why politicians get paranoid about the press, and why its circulation and influence are inexorably - and probably terminally - declining.
To those Scottish nationalist critics who think the BBC is the Great Satan, I ask where they think objective coverage of this story, and a forensic questioning of the party spokespersons would have come from, if not from the BBC?
But we are left with the fact that television journalism, powerful though it is, can be ephemeral in a way that print journalism is not.
Why is it left to a rank amateur like me – a blogger with a political agenda, but trying to be objective – to try to capture the essence of this vital analysis by Isabel Fraser and the Newsnight team in print when we have professional print journalists and supposedly ‘quality’ newspapers to do a proper, balanced analysis and ask the right questions?
(I know the answer – it’s the bloody Union, stupid – and the referendum.)
If I may join the assembled masses of commentators offering advice to the Scottish Labour Party, may I suggest that Johann Lamont does her homework before she comes on television, and that she strives for a delivery style that owes less to Lord Prescott’s fractured syntax and more to better models from her party, however hard to find they are these days?