By G.A.Ponsonby and Newsnet.scot reporters
A little bit of journalism died yesterday. Its demise was confirmed in the Daily Telegraph on its front page just before 10pm. The cause of death was contained in a memo apparently supplied by the UK Government.
For anyone still unaware, a smear campaign was launched against Scotland’s First Minister by the newspaper and seized on eagerly by the Labour Party. The smear was a claim by the Telegraph that Nicola Sturgeon wanted David Cameron to remain Prime Minister. The basis was a bizarre memorandum supposedly handed to the right-wing newspaper by someone in the UK Civil Service.
According to the Telegraph, Nicola Sturgeon had told the French Ambassador she didn’t think Ed Miliband was Prime Ministerial material. The UK Government memo said she expressed a preference for the Conservative leader.
The story took social media by storm. If true, it would undermine the SNP’s whole election strategy which was based around pledging to keep the Tories out. Which is why the “memo”, apparently written by someone not at the meeting, just didn’t ring true.
Questions began to be asked. Why were there no quotes from Nicola Sturgeon or the French Ambassador, yet there was a quote from Lib Dem MSP Willie Rennie? The First Minister herself tweeted last night that the story was “100% false”. The suspicions turned to fury today when official statements from the French Embassy comprehensively rubbished the Telegraph’s claims.
In the interim, senior figures from the Scottish Labour Party have seized on the smear and were busy issuing their own statements, many online. This is a bizarre episode. A Tory Government memo has found its way into the hands of a Tory supporting newspaper. The beneficiary was the Labour party in Scotland. Here we have the resurrection of the Better Together campaign.
Labour figures, with the honourable exception of former MSP Malcolm Chisholm, were still happily spreading the smear on Saturday, despite a published and televised denial by the French Embassy and the growing likelihood that this story is not what it might claim to be.
It is a sign of how desperate the British establishment is about the continued rise of the SNP, capped by Sturgeon’s impressive performance in the seven-headed party leaders’ debate on ITV just two days ago.
The Telegraph has history, of course. It sets out to smear the SNP at any opportunity. We have no less an authority for this than its “Scottish political editor”, Alan Cochrane, whose referendum memoir revealed the lengths a supposedly impartial journalist might go to in order to curry favour with the Tories, the Better Together campaign and reputedly his own boss, Scots-born chief executive Murdoch MacLennan, a diehard unionist.
The paper itself is facing a difficult financial situation, owned as it is by the debt-laden business empire of the secretive Barclay twins.
There seems little doubt that Nicola Sturgeon and the French Ambassador are telling the truth. Their denials ring true. Either the Telegraph is lying, or has been duped.
The Labour response on social media last night was clearly orchestrated to coincide with publication by a paper which is just as likely to turn on that party’s leadership, ironically, as the general election date draws closer.
As the French denials coincide with those of the First Minister, Labour’s insistence on sticking to the smear look increasingly desperate.
Jim Murphy, Kezia Dugdale and Ed Miliband have all repeated it and chosen to draw “conclusions” from it.
The French consul general in Edinburgh, Pierre-Alain Coffinier, has told the BBC today that Sturgeon had not expressed any preference for a leader.
He later told Sky News: “I don’t know where this comes from.”
That was echoed by the spokesman for the French ambassador Sylvie Bermann, who said Ms Bermann had met Ms Sturgeon in Edinburgh, but that the SNP leader had not expressed an opinion on who she would prefer as prime minister.
The UK memo, based on a second-hand account of the meeting between Sturgeon and the ambassador, even casts doubt on the Telegraph claim. Its (anonymised) author concludes: “I have to admit that I’m not sure that the FM’s tongue would be quite so loose on that kind of thing in a meeting like that, so it might well be a case of something being lost in translation.”
Today the story has moved on. With no corroborative evidence, save for a UK Government memo, and with both sides having denied the claims contained in the Telegraph article, we are left with the probability that the memo was either a mistake, or worse, had been deliberately drafted in order to harm the First Minister.
From wherever you look at this memo, it just doesn’t stack up. We now know that there was nobody from the UK Government at the meeting between Nicola Sturgeon and the French Ambassador. Official minutes make no mention of any discussion about the UK General election and who might become Prime Minister. The suggestion that Nicola Sturgeon would volunteer information that would effectively undermine her party’s general election campaign is fantastical.
The French consul general in Edinburgh, Pierre-Alain Coffinier, told the BBC today Ms Sturgeon had not expressed any preference for a leader. He also told Sky News: “I don’t know where this comes from.”
A spokesman for the French ambassador to the UK Sylvie Bermann confirmed that Ms Bermann had met Ms Sturgeon in Edinburgh, but that the SNP leader had not expressed any opinion on who she would prefer as prime minister.
Last week the editor of the Telegraph, Jason Seiken – recruited from the United States in an attempt to boost the Fleet Street title’s digital presence – resigned after just 18 months. His arrival and change of name to “chief content officer” bemused many journalists, and he was accused quickly of transforming the paper’s site into a refuge for “clickbait” – articles aimed at attracting click throughs and therefore increase traffic for advertising.
Apart from Cochrane’s ridiculous book, The Telegraph’s editorial reputation has suffered several blows recently, not least in its downplaying of the HSBC scandal, and a published indictment by one of its leading contributorsm Peter Oborne, as he resigned earlier this year.
The big story for any journalist wanting a real scoop might be: who drafted the memo, who gave it to the Telegraph and was any UK Government Minister involved?