Media: A tale of shameful abuse

Scottish newspapers were quick to attack Connery and the SNP. But was their judgement hasty?
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Scotland, as you may be tired of hearing, is different. Its politics have long been a variant species of the British genus and this week face transformation. Its media are - how best to put this? - rather protective of their particular idiosyncrasies.

To understand the Scottish press you have to understand scale and newspaper lore. The latter holds that Scots have always been avid consumers of newsprint, reading more papers than the British average and more, no doubt, than is good for them. The former involves the rather commonplace observation that Scotland is a smallish country of 5 million-and-a-bit souls, a political and media village.

Think of it like this: The Scotsman posts daily sales of around 85,000 - peanuts when compared to a London daily. Yet measure the title's reach on a per capita basis and a different story emerges. For The Scotsman to have an equivalent impact as a title available across the United Kingdom it would need to sell some 850,000 copies.

Not bad, for a broadsheet, but nothing compared to the tabloid Daily Record, Scotland's best-selling daily and, beyond question, the most powerful newspaper in its market in the UK. With about 650,000 sales a day, the Daily Record could be matched for influence only by a London tabloid selling 6.5 million copies. As big guns go, they do not, relatively speaking, come any bigger.

The Daily Record, part of the Mirror Group, is a Labour newspaper. This is a fundamental of Scottish political life, like Donald Dewar's stammer or Alex Salmond's grin. The relationship between party and paper is intimate, if not always easy. Having spent six happy months last year working for the title and its rumbustious editor, Martin Clarke, as a kind of in-house political maverick, I should know. The Labour party was not exactly overjoyed with the arrangement.

Cometh a Scottish election, however, cometh the light of understanding. The Daily Record, having been critical of the Labour hierarchy in the early months of Clarke's editorship, has swung into line. Its mission, forswearing all subtlety: to stop the Scottish National Party, now the main opposition party north of the Border, by any means possible. If that involves turning over the Nat-supporting Sean Connery, alias the Greatest Living Scotsman, so be it.

In tabloid terms, it was not much of a monstering. As opinion surveys showed the SNP faltering badly, the Daily Record found itself in possession the Thursday before last of an eight-day-old snap of the actor cornered in Los Angeles by paparazzi. The artwork showed the 68-year-old star lunging, as is his wont, at the assembled cameras. The splash headline inquired: "You've Seen the Polls then, Sean?"

The point was plain. Connery was due in Edinburgh the following Monday to promote a new film and, more important for the Daily Record, to give a speech at an SNP rally. This was bound to attract publicity, possibly even positive publicity. A pre-emptive strike to prevent a possible Nationalist recovery was, it seems, called for.

But what of it? We have all seen The Sun, The Mirror and the Daily Mail at work, and at their worst, during elections. Besides, as the cliche primed and ready for the occasion had it, politics is a rough old game. If Mr Connery did not like it, he could always go back to Barbados. That would have suited the Daily Record, and Labour, nicely.

But say it one more time: Scotland is different. At its absolute worst, the SNP may have the support of one in every four Scottish voters (in reality, it will poll well over 30 per cent in a four-party race) yet not a single Scottish newspaper is prepared to give it editorial support. The broadsheets attempt to play fair; the pops go for the kill. All are united in opposition to Scottish independence.

To an innocent from abroad, this might look awfully reminiscent of state power and state media. The truth is a touch more complicated. It would be a breach of confidence, for example, to lay bare the private politics of the Daily Record journalists but the fact is that, out of earshot, some of them react to Blairism in the way music-lovers react to Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Equally, The Scotsman is no vehicle for a grand conspiracy. It does its job as well and as fairly as it can. The SNP's apparent collapse in the polls was, in the end, a fact to be reported. The parallel truth, however, is that editorially the newspaper is opposed absolutely to independence. It has supported devolution, as an intellectual position, for over 20 years. It intends to see the experiment through to the end.

Yet you could say the same about the Glasgow Herald. The difference is that this newspaper ran up against New Labour's paranoia and was deprived of the party's campaign advertising as a result. This fact was not much reported south of the border but it is a consequence of having the Millbank machine on your doorstep. The message, mirrored by the Daily Record's pogrom, is clear: even the mere appearance of sympathy for Nationalism is not to be tolerated.

But as the Scottish papers report admiringly on the efficiency of Labour's machine, of how it has outgunned the Nationalists and how it has compressed its "message" to a few choice utterances, a reasonable question arises: is the Scottish press a witness to this game or part of it? And what may we make of a Labour Party, now in its pomp, that spent some 20 years and more complaining bitterly about the Tory-dominated London media?

At this point, things get interesting. Last Monday, Connery turned up in Edinburgh as scheduled and managed, in a five-minute speech, to roast the Scottish press. "I have never in my life witnessed or experienced such shameful abuse by this Scottish media," he said. "I am ashamed of it and I am angry. I know the game was to provoke me. Well, you succeeded." Labour took its courage in its hands and attempted to dismiss the walking icon, while the SNP announced it wasn't going to play with the press any more and would take its message "to the people". The Scottish papers arrived instantly at the happy consensus that this was pure foolishness. Mr Connery, meanwhile, was plainly no politician, poor man.

Nevertheless, the Daily Record thought it wise to run an editorial just to make it clear that it had never considered entrapping the actor and that the offending photograph taken by "locally based freelances" - had simply turned up on the day before its Friday publication. Just like that, "but hardly our fault".

Of course not, and scarcely the problem. "SNP in freefall" is a headline impossible to ignore because it conveys an important truth. Yet another, equal, truth is that the Scottish press, collectively, has been busy admiring the apparent triumph of a Labour party it not so long ago excoriated as the sleaziest bunch of incompetents ever to disgrace politics. The same Daily Record, as it happens, got itself into a lather of patriotic indignation last year when Scottish Secretary Dewar denied Connery a knighthood.

Here's the twist. Once Connery had left town the Herald was running its latest poll: the SNP had jumped seven points in the first vote for the partially proportional elections; in the second it had cut a 13-point Labour lead to three. Some- times, just sometimes, the messenger manages to shoot himself.

Ian Bell is a commentator with

`The Scotsman'

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