The Scottish media: What is the extent of Labour’s influence?


The question we pose must have entered the minds of many visitors to Newsnet Scotland this weekend.

On Friday Newsnet Scotland exposed what appeared to be an attempt by a senior Scottish Labour party official to smear an ordinary member of the public.  The member of the public’s ‘crime’ was to have pursued a Freedom of Information (FoI) request relating to former Scottish Labour party leader Wendy Alexander and the illegal donations scandal that led to her resignation in 2008.

The attack took the form of an email sent to at least three journalists who work for Scotland’s two quality newspapers; The Herald (one) and The Scotsman (two).  The contents of the email contained false allegations and a potentially disastrous case of mistaken identity including the naming of several friends of a person completely unrelated to the FoI case.

The official who sent the email is the former Head of Communications for the Labour party in Scotland.  At the time of the episode he was an advisor to the former Secretary of State for Scotland, Jim Murphy, who is now the shadow UK Defence Minister.

It is clear that, in the context of Scotland’s political landscape, this was a significant story.  The Labour party appear to have contacted several Scottish based journalists and provided them with information gleaned from the internet in anticipation that the material would be used in order to attack the integrity of a member of the public.  The terms used when searching the internet are also quite revealing.

Just how big this story is can be gauged by looking at what happened to another senior Labour official who merely SUGGESTED running a smear campaign, Damian McBride.  Mr McBride was sacked in April last year after it emerged he had been involved in a PLAN to run a smear story about political rivals.  The plan never got off the ground, but details of the plan leaked out and the press, mainly in England, had a field day.

If this was the coverage and result after a mere plan was exposed then what could we have expected if the story had broken after the smears had been sent out to journalists?

It is just such a situation that we have exposed; Scottish based journalists were contacted in order to provide them with information presumably to be used in attack articles.  Of course the most shocking thing about this particular attack is that it wasn’t an attempt at smearing political rivals (although the SNP were also the subject of innuendo in the email), this was an attempt at attacking an ordinary member of the public.

And the biggest scandal of all of course is that the media in Scotland are refusing to report the story.

Double standards and influence?
Not so long ago Scottish newspapers were replete with stories about so called ‘cybernats’ and their apparent propensity for abusing Labour politicians.  Newspaper columnists, journalists and broadcasting pundits spoke of the ‘nationalist attack dogs’ who roamed the wild internet plains pouncing on innocent journalists and Labour politicians going about their daily business.

The aforementioned Jim Murphy was at the centre of one such episode when two online critics were ‘exposed’ by the ever vigilant Scottish newspapers after Mr Murphy was described in less than flattering terms (the ‘C’ word was used).  When it emerged that one of the men worked in the office of an SNP MSP, accusations of SNP orchestrated ‘black-ops’ found their way into newsprint.

After another episode, BBC pundit and former Labour party Press Officer Lorraine Davidson wrote in her Times column: “The Scottish Labour Leader Iain Gray yesterday pointed out that he warned Alex Salmond earlier this year that an SNP supporting website was targeting him and making untrue allegations about him. He demanded that the Nationalist leader “get a grip” of the cybernats.”

Daily Record reporter Magnus Gardham wrote: “They [the SNP] insist the “cybernat” bloggers are not party members and, therefore, beyond their control.  But official denunciations have been, at best, half-hearted.  It may be the party are reluctant to speak out too loudly for fear of drawing attention to a deeply unattractive streak in Nationalism.”

These and many other articles demonstrate the seriousness with which the Scottish media treat attacks on Labour politicians.  That such lampoonery and abuse has been heaped on politicians of all hues by members of the public the length and breadth of the UK for years, doesn’t matter.  Indeed at around the time of these reports there was a facebook page called ‘I hate Alex Salmond’ that used the same vulgar terms about Mr Salmond – it didn’t make it into the media though.

So, given this level of interest whenever a member of the public, or an SNP staffer, either smears or verbally attacks a Labour politician then it is reasonable to expect attacks on members of the public by Labour party officials to be even MORE worthy of coverage.  It’s the dog bites man/man bites dog scenario – and in this case a member of the public being the target of a smear instigated by a political party is most definitely unusual and newsworthy.

Here we have just such a scenario but instead of newspaper reports, broadcasts and condemnation from media commentators we are faced with total silence.

And that dear reader is what will probably continue to happen to this story.

It will not be reported, not in any Scottish newspaper or in any BBC broadcast.  Reporting Scotland won’t mention it nor will STV, they won’t discuss it on Newsnight Scotland nor on The Politics Show.  Brian Taylor’s blog (that still censors out any mention of Newsnet Scotland) will also steer a wide berth as will his big debate.

The media in Scotland are not interested.  If they ever get around to covering this episode it will be due to an English newspaper picking up the story and they will be forced to cover it.  In much the same manner as they demonstrated in the Purcell affair the Scottish media race towards Labour bad news as fast as a hare runs towards a greyhound.

What of the three journalists who were in receipt of the original smearmail?

Thankfully they didn’t run any smear story against the individual – a small mercy.  However they also didn’t feel it necessary to run a story on ‘the Labour smear gone wrong’, maybe they wished to protect their source from himself.

However just imagine what would have happened if such an email from a senior SNP politician’s office had found its way into the hands of these same journalists.

This apparent reluctance to expose the unpalatable side of the Labour party in Scotland might explain just why a senior Labour party official felt comfortable sending out such an email in the first place.  It also calls into question the relationship between certain Scottish journalists and the Labour party.  It has not gone unnoticed that Labour’s recent difficulties over the council tax have coincided with apparent leaks from Cosla resulting in articles attacking the SNP.

The upshot is of course that it now looks as though there is no main stream media organisation in Scotland who will take the side of the individual in the event they are unfairly attacked by the Labour party.  Far from dissuading Labour from trying this kind of smear attack again, the failure of our media to hold them to account will have served only to embolden them – they may have previously suspected they acted with impunity, now they know they do.

The saddest thing about this is that the media were supposed to protect the public from unscrupulous politicians – not to turn a blind eye when our citizens are singled out for attack.

So, with no mainstream media outlet willing to run with this story the only people who are aware of this episode are the intended victim, the Newsnet Team and the 10,000 odd people who have visited this site and read the intended victim’s account.

In refusing to expose Labour, the Scottish media have in fact exposed themselves.