Secret Scotland: Scrutiny, accountability, and the media
First thing on the morning of Friday, 8th April, an email landed in the inbox of every newsroom in Scotland, inviting political correspondents to the SNP’s “CAMPAIGN LAUNCH” - in full caps, to be held at an unspecified time and location in Glasgow.
However, upon enquiring with the SNP’s press office, print journalists were told they were not welcome at all. Furthermore, the local election campaign launch was not actually a campaign launch, and was in fact a “cost-of-living visit”.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was subsequently accused of trying to “dodge scrutiny” by Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who held a virtual media huddle to coincide with the SNP’s event.
Journalists from the Herald and the Scottish Sun managed to doorstep Sturgeon outside of the People’s Pantry in Govanhill, where the First Minister attempted to blame the exclusion of print journalists on “capacity issues”, before adding: “I think probably if you go back over the last couple of years, in particular, I'll have answered more questions from the press than any other politician in the entirety of the UK, which is right because that's my job.”
The incident, and the political row that followed, was indicative of a wider shift in attitude those in power hold towards the press.
Both the SNP and the Conservative Party have controlled Holyrood and Westminster for more than a decade, yet have gone to great pains to paint themselves as opposition parties, under siege from a hostile establishment and media.
Examples of the UK Government bending the truth and holding the press in contempt are infamous and myriad – from partygate, Rwanda, Brexit, and most recently the Archbishop of Canterbury – but the Scottish Government frequently takes aim at the “toxic” politics of Westminster, despite sharing many of its shortcomings.
The SNP has now been in power in Scotland since 2007, and has grown into the dominant force in Scottish politics, but still has a fraught relationship with the media. The Scottish Government is notorious among lobby journalists for being difficult to work with, with enquiries being responded to too late for publication deadlines, or with statements that don’t answer the questions put to their press team and almost always by email.
The SNP has also neglected to hold a Spring conference this year – usually an opportunity to put a party in the ‘shop window’, and an opportunity for journalists to scrutinise the party and ask questions on behalf of Scottish voters. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that polls show the SNP is on for a record result in May’s council elections. When you have nothing to gain from speaking to the press, or even your members, and everything to lose, why open your party up to scrutiny?
Robin McAlpine, director of pro-independence think thank Common Weal, said the SNP runs a “very secretive government”, and although avoiding scrutiny may suit the party in the short term, over time its reputation will be eroded.
McAlpine said: “If they’re going into this, thinking that this is a one-off campaign for local government, there’s an unassailable lead in the polls, and barring a disaster they’re going to walk in, keeping all the payroll happy because everyone will get their council seats back - fine, but: nothing happens in isolation, and the outcome of that strategy, in the most direct possible sense, is discussions like these about scrutiny.
“Restricting media engagement may help win the SNP an extra percentage point or two in this election but playing the short game can lead to losing the long game. This election doesn’t exist in a vacuum and reputations accumulate. They’re so far ahead that any gain they get from avoiding scrutiny during this campaign just isn’t worth further ramping up the perception that they run a secretive government.”
Recently, the Financial Times revealed how it battled the Scottish Government for more than 18 months to reveal the size of a 25-year taxpayer-backed guarantee provided by the Scottish Government to the business of metals magnate Sanjeev Gupta in 2016.
Following an initial Freedom of Information request in February 2020, Financial Times journalists were denied by the Scottish Government, citing “commercial confidentiality”, before finally winning an appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner.
Emails released as part of a separate FOI request found that Scottish Government employees knew the refusal was on shaky grounds, but still refused to reveal that Gupta had received a £586m guarantee.
One email, from the government’s Head of Policy and Casework in the Freedom of Information Unit, reads: “Here is the long-awaited decision in the Lochaber smelter appeal. Unsurprisingly, the commissioner has not upheld our [grounds for refusal] arguments, as we have been predicting since at least the review stage.”
And in February it was reported that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) had submitted a draft report, which was critical of Scottish education, to the Scottish government in January 2021. The government then sat on the report until after the May elections that year. The Scottish government’s excuse was that “global relations would be at risk”.
The CalMac ferries fiasco, too, has sunk the SNP’s credibility with the press.
In recent weeks, an Audit Scotland report into the awarding of the contract, which highlighted “multiple failings” in the procurement process, has reignited debate, and suspicions.
The Scottish Government then could not give a straight answer about who signed off on the calamitous deal – with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon implying disgraced former transport minister Derek Mackay was responsible, despite being a junior minister who at the time answered to then-Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities, Keith Brown.
While the relations between the Scottish Government and the press may be fractured, its popularity among voters remains extraordinarily high. The SNP won its fourth term in power at Holyrood last year albeit just short of a majority and is on track to win a record number of council seats in May, seemingly unaffected by the ferries scandal, which exposed serious questions about SNP decision making, fiscal responsibility, and accountability.
With social media, the party can reach its supporters directly. For better or worse, qualified journalists working in reputable newsrooms are not always the go-to source for information, with politicians and governments able to communicate directly with voters. What do a few bad stories about incompetency and secrecy matter, when hundreds of thousands of social media users will unthinkingly share your message, whatever it may be, so long as it furthers the core goal of independence?
James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh University, said: “There will always be tensions but when a party has a large active following, especially now combined with social media – and this combination is a big change in Scottish politics – then the relationship will alter.
“Social media is double edged for party leaders – they can bypass the traditional media to a greater extent than before, as less reliant on traditional media to get message across (though this is often exaggerated – there’s still a lot of life in the traditional media) but also means the party leaders do not have the same control.
“The SNP has invested heavily in social media. While its communication skills in this respect are impressive, those involved show little understanding of the complexities of governing and public policy and see and present politics in binary adversarial terms.”
What the Scottish Government takes away from the under-funded and under-staffed Scottish press – it appears to give with the other. The Scottish Government employs a large team of former journalists, attracted by the higher pay scales, security and smaller workloads in the public sector, so much so that on any given day there may be more journalists in St Andrew’s House than in the parliament’s media tower.
Sweeping cuts to newsrooms, and social media platforms that demand minute-by-minute coverage of the day’s political talking points, has left journalists scrambling to reach web hit targets with little free time to investigate stories and cultivate contacts – instead, they must rely on press releases.
“One of the things I think quite amusing,” said McAlpine, “is I would now put reaction quotes into my press release.
“I would quite often send a story, with three pre-arranged reaction quotes from friendly bodies to back it up. The whole thing is pre-packaged, and can be turned around right away and published online.
“If I had done that 20 years ago, I would have got a polite rejection. Well, maybe not that polite.”