Monday, 8 February 2010

Cooking up a story – but no-one’s swallowing it.

Most of you by now will be aware that Alex Salmond has suspended plans to have lunch in the Holyrood restaurant with guests who had donated funds to the SNP. The donations were made at a fundraising dinner held in a Glasgow restaurant by Scottish Asians for Independence.

Politicians have for decades been dining with donors, supporters and of course lobbyists in canteens and restaurants at both Holyrood and Westminster.

However the fact that Mr Salmond’s lunch guests had been determined through a mock auction at the Glasgow fundraiser led to headlines in The Herald newspaper on Friday along the lines of ‘Holyrood lunches for sale’.

The gist of the article was that this was tantamount to the auctioning of parliamentary resources and might break Holyrood rules because the lunch would take place in the Holyrood restaurant.

The SNP had made no attempt to hide the lunches for the simple fact that they broke no rules – MSP’s are entitled to dine with donors of their party at the Holyrood restaurant. Indeed the SNP later explained that they had held other fundraising events that offered the same opportunity for donors to have lunch with Mr Salmond.

However by Sunday the attack had changed from the Holyrood restaurant venue to a charge of ‘cash for access’. Quite amazingly the SNP were now being accused of selling access to ministers. Quite how having lunch in the Holyrood restaurant with Asian independence supporters who would have donated anyway is selling ministerial access is not explained – access to do what exactly, Alex Salmond doesn’t need to be persuaded of the merits of independence?

Both the Unionist opposition and The Herald appeared unsure on what attack to go with, do they run with ‘restaurant venue’ or is it ‘ministerial access’.... more on The Herald later.

Anyway, back to the new improved charge of ‘cash for access’; Labour’s Iain Gray suggested that The Herald article amounted to:
“extremely serious allegations over the systematic abuse of the First Minister’s office.”

So, a fundraising event with auctions that offer donors time with ministers is a “serious allegation” and having done it more than once is “systematic abuse”.

Iain Gray will surely have checked to make sure that Labour have never indulged in such behaviour themselves - won’t he?

Well Newsnet Scotland decided to have a quick look into Labour and auctions and we find that Mr Gray has just lunched, sorry launched a very large stone in a fragile glass house.

Newsnet Scotland has discovered that Labour have themselves auctioned off time with prominent MP’s in order to raise funds.

Former PM Tony Blair, deputy PM John Prescott, former spin doctor Alistair Campbell and current cabinet minister Nick Brown have all been offered up at auction to the highest bidder.

At a fundraising event in 2008 Labour held an auction where bids were invited for the chance to play tennis with Tony Blair; have John Prescott as your personal waiter or even dine with Alistair Campbell.

At the Labour conference in Brighton in September last year the BBC reported that Labour held a fundraising auction where the highest bidder was offered tea for two with minister Nick Brown.

There’s more questionable fundraising though:
  • This year the chairman of the Welsh Rugby Union has apologised for using WRU e-mail to organise a £1,000-a-plate pre-election fundraising event for Welsh Labour.
  • In 2006 Cherie Blair signed a copy of the Hutton Report into the weapons inspector's David Kelly’s death, which was then auctioned off to raise money for the party.
  • In 2007 a convicted rapist, said to have paid £10,000 for a table, was invited to a star-studded party fund raiser held by Gordon Brown – Brown later directed that no money should be accepted.
  • And of course we have the revelations that East Lothian council have for years been providing the local Labour party free use of council resources for their annual fundraising barbecue.
So, does Iain Gray condone this “systematic abuse” – we will have to wait and see.

However, what of The Herald?

Well, at the time of writing The Herald have produced an incredible nine articles thus far on a lunch that never happened. They have come in for no small amount of criticism over this and even went as far as to publish in their editorial a defence of their running of this story. This was a remarkable acknowledgement of the criticism the newspaper has received recently over their perceived adoption of an anti-SNP stance.

Their editorial contained the following paragraph:
“This is a very serious issue and The Herald will pursue it rigorously until it is resolved satisfactorily. Our doggedness has prompted accusations in Nationalist circles that we are anti-SNP. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We are an independent newspaper that scrutinises each party on its record in a disinterested way. A party that is in government comes under the greatest scrutiny because it holds the levers of power and is held to account because voters have put their trust in it to act on their behalf.”

Leaving aside the The Herald’s subjective claim that this is a serious issue they make a very misleading statement regarding accusations of partisan reporting.

It is not, and never has been The Heralds ‘doggedness’ on an issue that has led to very public and growing accusations of a drop in standards. It is what many perceive to be evidence of a manipulation of some news items whilst at the same time the suppressing or failing to provide prominence to other items.

One of the nine articles is penned by Tom Gordon and is headlined:
'going, going, gone ... inside the SNP’s ‘lunchgate’ auction.'

The article uses some quite disgraceful terms to describe the Indian restaurants location, the meal, the FM and deputy FM. Light hearted chat amongst guests is quoted as though inappropriate and jokes are quoted as though serious statements.

Pejorative terms are used in order to paint a less than flattering image of those who attended; in short the article is a clear attempt at cheapening both the event participants and the event itself.

The FM and deputy FM are described as not being there for “the £6.95 curry”, we are told about the SNP candidate Osama Saeed’s “struggling campaign”. The Labour candidate is described as being “Blessed with his father’s charm” and “campaigning full-time for months”.

The event is described as a “tawdry hustling for cash”, we are told that “Salmond was seen handling a cheque for £500.” And that auctioneer Yousaf’s “patter wasn’t subtle” (unlike The Herald campaign eh?).

Quality journalism it is not and one is left thinking about the Herald’s own editorial line that said “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

However, what of claims that The Herald is anti-SNP and that this is in fact a well timed and orchestrated campaign to deflect the public’s gaze from Labour’s expenses woes.

Well, the lunch story might actually be a very good opportunity to demonstrate what people are talking about.

Well before the announcement on Thursday 4th Feb that Scottish Labour MP Jim Devine was one of three Labour politicians to be charged over the expenses scandal, many nationalists had openly predicted that if such charges came to pass, then a story would surface in the Scottish media that would serve to deflect public attention away from this very, very bad news for Labour.

Unlike the David Marshall £500,000 expenses story that the media in Scotland had effectively buried, this story was national. The English press and London media coverage meant that it would have to be reported in Scotland - and prominently at that.

The only way to mitigate the damage to Labour would be for another story to emerge, one that would enable the SNP to be presented in an equally bad light – were these forecasts accurate?

Well, let’s assume [for the sake of argument] that The Herald does not have an agenda – it has one goal only and that is a desire to increase circulation. The Jim Devine story was a present from heaven for such a paper, a Scottish MP charged over expenses meant that the front page was taken care of for days.

Moreover, Devine’s dramatic interview on Channel Four news was not just icing on this metaphorical cake but actually served up another huge story with the allegations that a senior Labour whip had advised Devine to submit the expenses claim in the way he did – who was the whip? and what did senior Labour ministers know? [English media are running with this as I write].

Any Scottish editor should have been rubbing his hands with glee; here was material to run some huge banner headlines for a full week. Remember the circulation surge experienced by The Telegraph when it decided to expose the expenses goings on – well here was the Scottish angle, ripe for harvesting.

A relatively small story about a fundraising auction and lunch in the Holyrood restaurant could have been shelved for at least the weekend, to run it risked diluting the bigger story and losing impact – there was also the danger that the lunch ‘scoop’ impact would be lost.

What The Herald therefore did was bizarre in the extreme and makes almost no business sense whatsoever.

They effectively killed the larger more dynamic Devine story in Scotland by running a lunch story. In doing so, they simultaneously alienated even more potential and former readers who may have actually returned to the paper.

So, what possible explanation can there be for what seems like one of the worst editorial and business decisions ever.

If we rule out what looks like gross editorial ineptitude then the only possible explanation is that the decision was meant to kill the Devine story … and it worked.

It will be interesting to find out what the decision has done to The Herald’s lamentable circulation figures.

The sanctimonious editorial contained the line:
“A party that is in government comes under the greatest scrutiny because it holds the levers of power”

Yes, that is why Newsnet Scotland will be scrutinising just such a party as we approach the general election. The Scottish media’s continued assault on reason will do more to harm democracy than to preserve it.

The Herald was the best daily newspaper in Scotland by a country mile in April 2007 – it’s rapid descent this last couple of years is the saddest aspect of the overall decline in Scottish journalism.


Steve said...

hi, commented on Brian Taylor's blog and won't repeat it all here. In summary, just because the other parties are worse (much worse), and just because the media is rubbish and heavily biased, doesn't mean the SNP were right to sell a lunch with the First Minister to the highest bidder. Let's face it, they won't be doing it again.


Anonymous said...

The "MacConnell Aghast" story did it for me. After nearly forty years of being a Herald reader (although only The Sunday Herald since 2007) I decided to call time on this sad travesty of a once half-decent paper.

Back in the eighties I used to read both The Scotsman and The Glasgow Herald. Now I have had to give up on the entire Scottish press (except The Largs And Millport Weekly News.)

Those of us who wish to read serious investigative journalism without political bias simply have nowhere to go. The owners of the Scotsman and Herald seem to regard their papers as vehicles for the promotion of one political party rather than commercial enterprises.

To deliberately alienate not only SNP supporters but also anyone with a modicum of intelligence and political awareness seems to be a form of commercial suicide.

BTW I don't buy "the lunches haven't happened" defence, but my overall feeling is that this is yet another contrived story in what is becoming a dreary litany of attempted smears against Salmond and his ministers.

newsnet said...

Yes, both of you have a point over general fundraising activities and perhaps the venue could have been thought through better.

However the general thrust of the article is the timing, prominence and importance given to it by both The Herald and the rest of the Scottish media.

It is at best a supplementary political news item of no great importance.

The other aspect is the very clear hypocrisy of Labour who have behaved in exactly the same manner themselves at fundraising events and the Scottish press have never made an issue of it in the manner they have done so here.

Thanks for commentating and please help the newsletter by mentioning the blog if you should comment elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Do you have Twitter or Facebook set-up for here? Personally don't use these but many do. Can act as another free way to get traffic.

Any time you have a new article here, interesting articles on other sites, replying to other messages, etc, then just make a brief new post with link.

Of course people don't have to "add" you. They can still be reading the info links without adding. Twitter is more open so anyone can see it without ever singing-up.

NConway said...

I to read the Scotsman until they were so anti SNP at the first scottish elections I then started reading the Herald as it gave more than one view point ,which gave me a balanced view.However i gave up on the Herald and eventually the Sunday Herald in 2008 and I now get my news via the internet from sites such as this and other political commentators.

takhisis1 said...

What i find interesting abou this so called debacle is that in Thursday's metro was an article saying that Margarety Beckett had just done the same thing re: Westminster dining room yet nothing happens. Surprise! Surprise

newsnet said...

Thanks again for the comments:

"Do you have Twitter or Facebook set-up for here? Personally don't use these but many do. Can act as another free way to get traffic."

No, I'm not familiar with them but will have it looked into - thanks for the advice.

Anonymous said...

Steve I think you miss the rather obvious point that the donors were already having dinner with Alex Salmond.

How can you pay cash to access someone you are already meeting?


The SNP has done mockm auctions like this for years.

I personally was once sold at a YSI auction.

Maybe I shouldn't have said that - if Tom Gordon is reading it will give him the opportunity to accuse the SNP of being involved in slavery!

newsnet said...

Anon said:
"How can you pay cash to access someone you are already meeting?"

A very good point.

Anonymous said...


I have been posting links to your Blog on various Facebook pages. Hopefully you will get a few people signing up. Would be good if you had your own Newsnet Facebook site though. You can link yourself in to loads of people and organisations.

Keep up the great work. I enjoy reading your blog and comments on the BBC forum.

R Campbell

newsnet said...

"Would be good if you had your own Newsnet Facebook site though."

Thank you - and I promise to look into this facebook/twitter stuff !!

You wouldn't think that I was a software developer would you.

Anonymous said...

The Herald was the best daily newspaper in Scotland by a country mile in April 2007 – it’s rapid descent this last couple of years is the saddest aspect of the overall decline in Scottish journalism.


Anonymous said...


Congratulations on putting forward a very valid point. Whilst everyone expects the governing party to come under greater scutiny, it doesn't mean that the opposition are to be supported. It is obvious and becoming increasingly more obvious, that the Labour Party are using their friends throughout the media to 'get their stories out'. It doesn't have to be factual nor accurate. The media seem to think that it is their job to criticise the SNP Government, rather than report on their decisions/actions. It is so blatently obvious, that no matter what the SNP does it will never be reported in a good light. You only have to look at their fawning over Labour's latest prank, BAN THE BUCKFAST. This is based on matters reserved to Westminster, why no critique saying it can;t be done and concentrate on what can be done to tackle alcohol misuse?
Again, when you look at their opposition, fanned by the media, to allowing Councils to chose to use the modern/way forward of advertising Public Information Notices on the web. They appear to be saying that Councils should subsidise the newspapaers and wont tell us which frontline services to the tune of £6million will be cut, assuming that all Councils used the web rather than the papers. It is time that the Scottish media reported on the events in Scotland, not their opinion. It is a sad day that Scots have to read "english papers" to find out about events happening in their own country which are unreported by our own media.

D Laird said...

My mother always taught me that two wrongs can never make a right. I still believe that she was right.
D Laird.

newsnet said...

Both wrongs ought to be reported in the same manner though.

Also, an even bigger wrong ought not to be suppressed by the smaller one.

Bella Caledonia said...

Excellent article.

"What’s at stake is the funding of the Scottish Labour Party, and the closed-loop of Scottish media and political forces are in over-drive to attack the Scottish Government and the Scottish National Party.
What’s also at play in the battle for Glasgow Central is the asian vote. If the nationalists win they can lay claim to a totemic Govanesque urban victory. If Labour win it they can portray the Nats as a party of the regions, without significant Glasgow backing."

More on this story here:

Anonymous said...

This is a very good analysis of the overall structure of editorial policy in the Scottish media, and I would include broadcast media in that too. Reporting Scotland also regularly engages in this type of thing.
The Scottish media really needs to be monitored quite systematically.
I still read the Herald and the Scotsman, annoying as they are, since it gives me the chance to know 'what they want me to think', but they really must think that we are all idiots.
The Sturgeon smear was more of the same stuff, although the audience reaction to Friday's Brian Taylor Perth Question time on Radio Scotland suggests that public opinion is not entirely disposed towards taking its cues from the mainstream media.

Anonymous said...

Gave up on the Scotsman years ago and the Herald went as well, what neither of them seem to realise that treating people as idiots doesn't really make one want to read them. I may be SNP leaning but what I want is the truth, warts and all about ALL Political parties including my favoured one. Manufacturing rubbish articles and being pro one is not what the media is supposed to be about and as for the BBC, enough said.

Anonymous said...

Just want to thank Newsnet Scotland for their superb newsletter. This is the second one that i have received although i had for quite a few months been on your blogspot for a while. What convinced me to request your newsletter was the sheer dedication of 'online ed' with his 'drive' for the truth to expose off all things the hyprocrisy of labour and the so called Scottish media with their blatant non reporting and misinformation on behalf of labour.

I gave up on newspapers in Scotland a few months ago as i will not add to their income anymore for working against me or the greater good of Scotland and its people. This Newsletter and the real journalism at work puts them all the msm in Scotland to shame. I hope this publication goes from strength to strength and this is the new future for Scotland at long last breaking the media stranglehold over Scotland.

newsnet said...

Thank you people to for the recent comments, it is hard work putting the newsletter together - we have no resources to speak of.

The lead story in this months edition (Scotland Office/Murphy) was down to incredible research carried out by a volunteer. It would not have been possible to produce this story otherwise.

We urgently need volunteer researchers and amateur/trainee journalists who want to help out.

A kind comment though is always welcome and makes the effort worthwhile.

Thanks again.

Newsnet Scotland

Joycmac said...

For the record, I'd just like to point out a reply I got from the editor of the Scotsman on a complaint made to him - do the Herald and the Scotsman have a script to follow, and if so, who gives it to them?

"We refute that XXXX in any way favours of one party or another, but it is true that the actions of the party in government will come under much more scrutiny than those in opposition. It is certainly the case that the SNP has had more light shone on its actions since coming to power in 2007, something which the more zealous amongst its following have had some difficulty in understanding."
Sound familiar?