Aside from a splash on the front page of Friday’s Scotsman and some pointed coverage focusing on the astonishingly personal nature of exchanges twixt Rupert and Alex, the response to the Scottish Goverment’s publication of all of its media engagement and correspondence in the last four years has been muted. That’s the problem with full disclosure: not only does it overwhelm, but it also draws the potential sting from an issue.
Just as rubber neckers slow down when passing a motorway accident all the better to get a closer look, once the crash site has been passed, it’s foot to the floor and on to the next destination. Move along now, nothing to see here.
Well, not quite. Aside from further confirmation, if it were needed, that our First Minister can have his head turned by the great and the powerful, his contact with the media since coming to office in 2007 has been pretty even-handed. Indeed, more so than either the Prime Minister or the UK Labour party leader, whose engagement has been much more loaded in Murdoch’s favour. Mandy Rhodes, the editor of Holyrood magazine, does appear to have her own pass key to Ministerial time and thoughts. The burd is bemused by this one: with its target audience of the 129 MSPs and a smattering of public affairs specialists and political junkies, I would have thought our First Minister’s time might be better spent trying to get his message across to say, the hundreds of thousands of listeners to Scotland’s commercial radio stations. But then what do I know.
The slight whiff of scandal surrounding an exclusive dinner for Sun journalists and executives post election was quickly neutralised by the realisation that the SNP and not taxpayers paid for this little celebration. Indeed, the only folk who could – and might well be – nonplussed by this are SNP activists and donors. Some have already been grumbling at the fact that campaign monies were expended on flying Joan McAlpine to Barbados to conduct an exclusive interview with Sir Sean for the Sun; this dinner will ensure they continue to wear their hairshirts into autumn. The puritans who think only coalface-related campaign expenditure is legitimate will no doubt be lining up their questions for the party’s Treasurer at this year’s conference.
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspects of this disclosure concern what is revealed not to be there, rather than what is. Scotland’s First Minister appears to have been in the huff with Scotsman publications for much of his first term in government. A meeting was held with then Herald editor, Charles McGhee, in November 2007: his counterpart at the Scotsman had to wait until 2011 for similar engagement. Was there really no reason to meet with the editorial team or journalists from half of Scotland’s quality newspaper output at all in four years?
And in yet another of those puzzling nationalist conundrums, Scottish outposts of UK media, as well as international journalists, garnered more of the First Minister’s attention, than purely Scottish operations, though you can see the charm offensive on the Scottish Sun gathering pace from 2009 by the number of times David Dinsmore appears on the list. While on one level, given the SNP strategy of portraying Scotland as a nation in all but constitutional reality and showcasing the country on the world stage, such activity makes sense, it is still puzzling why so much of our own domestic product – given its travails in recent years – has largely been bypassed by the SNP.
But then maybe the fault is not the SNP’s but the media operators themselves. The list of media contacts by other Ministers in the Scottish Government is threadbare: few interviews or meetings, with some Ministers having no contact at all. There has been a long-held suspicion/belief within SNP circles that the leader sucks all resources into his own axis, leaving only scraps available for other leading lights. But this is not just about the SNP: it’s about the Scottish Government and it has potentially immense communications resources at its disposal, if deployed appropriately, and not simply used to churn out releases.
Ultimately though, a message can only be sold if there are willing purchasers. It would be really interesting to know how many times interviews and meetings were sought and denied, and also, offered and spurned. Just how interested is the mainstream media in devoting real resources to engaging with and finding out more about our Government and the people who populate it, as well as providing real in-depth and perceptive coverage of the politics in this country? As much as has been allegedly applied by some outlets into illegally hacking and tracking the activities of celebrities and other figures in the public domain?
Casting back to 2007, here was a first time SNP government with new faces running the country, yet only a handful were apparently deemed worthy of interview – at any point during their term in office – by any journalist and any outlet, to find out more about them personally or to contextualise a big political topic of the day. Fast forward to 2011 and the regular media setpieces bemoaning the state of our democracy: voxpops around key marginal seats gleefully uncovered apathetic voters in their droves, who knew little and appeared to want to know little of the politics that suffuses their lives, and politicians who dispense it, even in an election. I can see a causal connection here, even if the media cannot.
Consequently, the media must assume its share of the blame for the populace’s disengagement with all things political. Transparency is after all a two way mirror and if the mainstream media cannot be bothered to use the exclusive looking glass it has to peer positively and negatively into politicians’ lives and activities, then it is failing in a fundamental duty to the collective audience it serves.