The best of pals


Kenneth Roy examines the relationship between the Scottish media and the powerful

Is this news? Earlier this week, the Herald published it as news:
     A public service newspaper printed by the Herald and Times Group has won an industry award for its value to the west of Scotland.
     Health News, produced by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (NHSGGC), took gold at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Scotland awards.
     The paper, issued four times a year, is printed and distributed by Herald and Times Group, which also publishes the Herald.
     Each edition is themed on a health topic to allow members of the public ‘to develop a deeper understanding of health issues which affect us all’.
     Ally McLaws, director of communications at NHSGGC, said the changing landscape of healthcare provision was the modern day equivalent of the industrial revolution.

     There are several oddities about this story, apart from the dismissal of the dear old Herald as an also-ran of the group. The first is that the paper ran the story at all. ‘Has won an industry award’…’took gold’…are we not entitled to more precision? What did Health News actually win? My hunch is that it was a category award in some PR industry beanfeast attended by men in kilts, in which case it had no place in a serious newspaper. The most it deserved was a self-congratulatory paragraph in – well, Health News.
     Having decided to use the item, the Herald then proceeded to miss its only possible significance – the baffling statement by Ally McLaws, director of communications, that the changing landscape of healthcare provision is the equivalent of the industrial revolution.
     What on earth is that supposed to mean? The word landscape has been appropriated, as it so often is by bureaucrats, to describe something that is not a landscape at all, but a policy. ‘Healthcare provision’ – might that be a reference to Mr McLaws’s employers, the NHS? If it is, why not just say so? But the parallel with the industrial revolution is the real mystery. Mr McLaws thinks there is going to be a revolution?
     A serious newspaper – any newspaper – faced with this quote would have rung up the unlikely revolutionary and asked him for an explanation. But what did the Herald do? It printed the statement as if Mr McLaws had said nothing in the least remarkable.

Is it wise – I merely ask – for the Herald group to be openly celebrating its commercial association with a public body? How does it look?

     What is going on here? I will tell you, although you may have worked it out for yourself. The story in the Herald was only pretending to be news. It was really a trade announcement, a roundabout way of telling the world that NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and the Herald group of newspapers are doing business together. The fact that a real story was buried in there, and failed to be noticed, and that the Herald somehow missed the new industrial revolution being organised by Ally McLaws, makes the world a funnier place this weekend. Yes, we should laugh risibly. But in a controlled way. This is Scotland.
     There is a wider issue to be considered. Is it wise – I merely ask – for the Herald group to be openly celebrating its commercial association with a public body? How does it look? Should a serious newspaper not be distancing itself from PR people in particular and public bodies in general?
     We should declare an interest which will be familiar to all regular readers of this magazine. We believe that, in awarding a contract for the care of elderly people nearing the end of their lives to a private operator for profit, while withdrawing the funding from a much-valued hospice nearby, the Herald’s business associate, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, is guilty of an act of inexcusable folly.
     We had hoped that the Herald, with its long record of support for west of Scotland causes, would have backed SR’s campaign to save St Margaret’s. It didn’t. This surprised and disappointed us – and the hospice.
     No doubt there are, and were, sound editorial reasons for the paper’s lack of interest. An editor’s judgement must be respected and it is always final. But it is worth stating that, if the Herald had been half so enthusiastic about saving the hospice as it is about celebrating a business association with the body responsible for withdrawing its funding, the cabinet secretary for health, Nicola Sturgeon, would not so easily have brushed aside the all-party support for St Margaret’s and the second-largest petition ever to come before the Scottish parliament. The ‘landscape’, to borrow from Mr McLaws, might look very different.
     This week’s revelation that the health board and the Herald group do business is not entirely surprising. The closeness of the relationship was obvious at the start of the year when SR began asking awkward questions about the land deal at Blawarthill. Ally McLaws responded by sending an email to all the board members dismissing the significance of the Scottish Review and going on to boast of the many pages of editorial praising the wonderful work of the health board which the Herald’s sister paper, the Evening Times, was about to publish. Of course the Evening Times is entitled to publish page after page of uncritical stuff about NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. All the same, it did feel a bit generous.

The Scottish media, with their vital role of scrutinising the activities of the powerful, still seem too close to the powerful themselves.

     The matter underlying all of this is of some importance to democracy in Scotland. It is the apparent chumminess between the Scottish media and those in positions of power in public life.
     Earlier this year, the existence of an informal network of influence, Team Glasgow, was finally acknowledged after one of its members, Steven Purcell, resigned as leader of the city council. Councillor Purcell re-emerged briefly this week, if only retrospectively in the Scottish Review, when we were able to disclose that he was one of the civic leaders whose assistance the management of NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde thought of enlisting against the Labour Party’s Holyrood leadership.
     Another member of Team Glasgow was the then editor of the Herald, Donald Martin. Mr Martin said that he had been ‘glad to play a role in Team Glasgow along with other individuals who believed in co-operating for the good of the city’.
     Another paper in the group, the Sunday Herald, took a different view. It published an editorial containing the following devastating statement: ‘The suggestion that this so-called network includes leading figures from the media is now threatening to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the Scottish press.’
     Does Team Glasgow still exist? Does it still meet?
     Who knows? It has no constitution, no formal membership. Unlike the Scottish Socialist Party, it takes no minutes. But it is always worth remembering the wise words of the Sunday Herald about public confidence in the integrity of the press. The Scottish media, with their vital role of scrutinising the activities of the powerful, still seem too close to the powerful themselves.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.