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Giving the mainstream the cold shoulder?

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Journalists in Scotland have been expressing annoyance being excluded from what was described as the launch of the SNP’s council election campaign.

Some of the print reporters who were not invited, turned up anyway and asked why. It was all down to space apparently, according to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. And their manifesto was actually going to be launched next week and they’d all be invited.

Hmm. At one event last month, Covid regulations were cited by the Scottish Government as the reason for the print media’s exclusion which seemed rather odd given pictures from the event showed rows of business people in the audience sitting close to each other.

It’s easy to see why many journalists think there is a growing pattern of excluding the print media from events and only allowing more controllable TV and radio to attend.

Now if you’re a SNP supporter who hates the dreaded MSM (mainstream media), then you’ll probably have a laugh and loudly applaud this but wasn’t it the SNP who accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of hiding when he would only do a photo op on a recent visit to Scotland?

It’s not been the best start to the year for the Scottish Government so it’s perhaps understandable that they would limit the opportunities for the media to challenge them. Every political party also has the right to try do that and engineer the coverage in the most positive way possible but proper scrutiny is essential in a democracy.

The Courier (Dundee) announced that it wouldn’t carry a word of the SNP launch while others simply highlighted the hypocrisy. Maybe that won’t worry the SNP too much as they are likely to be on course for another electoral triumph.

I have some experience of what it’s like as a journalist to upset a political leader during an election campaign. On a lovely sunny morning, 25 years ago this very week, Tony Blair strode onto a stage at the Institute of Civil Engineers in London holding aloft a copy of the party’s election manifesto.

I recall Blair looked a little nervous. Labour were right to be nervous because after years of waiting this would be their best ever chance to get back into power and they didn’t want to mess it up. The launch went well, the assembled media were generally pretty positive and it looked like everything was on track for Labour as Blair flew to Scotland for the launch of the Scottish manifesto the next day.

I was on that flight too. After a fair bit of badgering, I’d secured an interview with Blair for the Scotsman where I worked at the time as political editor. It would be his first print interview of the campaign, a great scoop for us.

Back then, Scotland was a Labour heartland and devolution was the centre point of the campaign. The Tories had opposed it for years; Blair despite his scepticism was offering the chance of Scottish and Welsh parliaments. The Scotsman had been a long term advocate of devolution, a factor I used shamelessly to try to get his press supremo Alistair Campbell to agree an interview.

The night before, Campbell had called me and without introducing himself and barked: “If I let you interview Tony can you assure me there will be no theological bullshit about devolution?”. I told him I didn’t even know what that meant.

The next day, as the plane lifted off, I was summoned forward by Campbell and as Blair scoffed a salad, his first food of the day apparently, I asked him a whole host of questions of which devolution formed a small but important part.

The Scotsman was, however, always going to focus on devolution and the next day we ran with a story that he’d tried to assuage English voters who might be concerned that he was giving the Scottish Parliament tax varying powers. Blair had used the phrase “it’s like any parish council”, a clumsy and poorly thought out reference to the fact that in principle, these very English institutions can raise taxes, for example, to clean up dog poo.

This went down very badly. “Blair compares Scottish parliament to a parish council” ran one headline. He hadn’t but a media grateful for any “gaffe” from the famously on message Blair went full throttle. The next day the Scottish launch was dominated by it and Blair was furious. Campbell was furious. I was quietly quite pleased. A couple of days later in the Westminster Press Gallery, the affable Labour spokesman Dave Hill greeted me in front of the press pack with; “Ah Mr Penman, Labour’s favourite journalist”.

I was sent to political Siberia for a few months. Campbell would either ignore my question at briefings or attack me for what I’d written. It didn’t really last because having secured a huge majority they — mostly — forgot about it and to be honest, it didn’t really affect how I did my job.

Labour back then, and many parties since, sought to manipulate or ignore the national media as much as they can. Pre-97, Labour knew much of the national media was still supportive of the Tories so they cleverly gave quite a bit of material to regional papers in the belief they would get less scrutiny and get their message more directly to voters. That can backfire as when David Cameron “wrote” a number of almost identical pieces about how much he loved various regions in England. The duplicity was called out by the very media they hoped would be grateful for some crumbs from the No10 table.

Advisers will tell you that in this day and age, the MSM is less relevant. Social media gets directly to those they want to influence but it also rarely offers any real scrutiny. Does it matter if they’re ignored? I think it does.

There is a serious aspect here. If the SNP is really trying to exclude some of the media from council election events, would they try that during a new independence referendum when the scrutiny would go up a few notches? I cannot imagine they would, and from what I can tell, the FM often seems to enjoy taking on the press, but every time someone gets away with it, I worry that it emboldens those who think bypassing the media is a good idea.

Maybe it all was a bit of a mix up. Maybe space was at a premium. Maybe some journalists are sensitive souls who should lighten up. I am no longer a journalist — sensitive or otherwise — and now work with clients who can be very suspicious of journalists. In some cases they may have good reason to be but I rarely suggest the best approach is to pretend they don’t exist.

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