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 …