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.
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.