On Friday morning (21 February) the front page of the Herald announced that the PCS union was going to back a pro-independence stance (“Boost for Yes camp as trade union to back independence”). Lots of pro-independence people I knew were very happy. I was immediately highly suspicious.
There were three main causes of my deep suspicion. Firstly, I’ve spoken at a couple of PCS Yes events and am friendly with some of the organisers and they didn’t ever express any confidence (never mind expectation) that they were going to win a pro-Yes vote. Secondly, even if this was true, it is unusual to run as fact a story speculating on something about to happen the next day but with barely any caveats. Thirdly, the journalist who wrote the story is known for a strong, personal, anti-independence stance making it strange that this story was prematurely promoted.
Of course, this sort of stunt is standard issue media management black-ops. If you face a story which is going to be negative (such as an entire trade union which could not muster a single branch anywhere in the country willing to put forward a pro-Britain resolution) then try to create an artificially positive expectation for the other side so when they fail to meet that expectation it looks like a sort of failure. The standard forms are to overestimate your opponents poll lead so a losing result looks ‘closer than expected’ or to brief that an opponent is going to get a remarkable promotion so when they get just a good promotion it almost looks like a snub.
It’s just that in this case there is much that is odd.
The Herald considers itself a ‘newspaper of record’. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t ever do campaigning work or take a political stance, it just means that generally if the Herald publishes something you expect not only that it is ‘based on fact’ and ‘justifiable’ but that it represents ‘an accurate portrayal of events’ and ‘the best information available’. So the Daily Mail might be willing to print a story which distorts reality based on one source that has some credibility but the Herald is supposed to check the reality presented by that source against information from other sources to establish whether it represents the best and most accurate possible version of reality.
Friday’s Herald story cites only one unnamed individual who is credited as “a well-placed source”. You do not have to question the good faith of that source (as in ‘he genuinely believes aliens are coming for him’), you just have to check with credible sources whether aliens are really coming. I did a little investigating before writing this. I have checked with Yes Scotland which did not brief that the PCS vote would come out for Yes, largely because Yes Scotland knew it wasn’t going to be a Yes vote. I checked with the people in the PCS Yes campaign and they say they didn’t brief that there would be a Yes vote because they too knew the likely outcome and they do not believe the briefing came from PCS. I’ve checked with Trade Unions for Yes and it didn’t come from them. And I asked someone in the SNP and they do not know who is the source for the story.
It is worth noting here why no-one was briefing for Yes. Anyone who had gained the impression that there were 30,000 people at the meeting on Saturday misunderstood; the votes were mandated by branches so most (if not all) votes had been decided in advance. Both sides – and PCS officials – all knew the very likely outcome.
This is important; there were a handful of credible, reliable and reachable sources including the official sources in the union and in the campaign which could have been approached. All would have discredited the story in advance. There are plenty of other informal sources which could have also advised – they could even have phoned me. Again, all of these would have cast firm doubt on the veracity of the story. That is because the story was not then and was never going to be true.
The word ‘expected’ couldn’t even be squeezed into a story that abandoned all circumspection for glorious certainty about the future – certainty that was patently wrong. So the first par did not read “One of Scotland’s biggest unions is expected to become the first to back the campaign for independence” but rather “One of Scotland’s biggest unions is SET to become the first to back the campaign for independence”. All hint of speculation appears to be removed. Again, this is odd.
But this is the oddest thing; while I have explained above that expectation management is a standard part of the toolbox of media management and political strategy, traditionally it is the opposing campaign that is supposed to engage in this sort of spin. At a push you might expect a tabloid with little interest in its reputation for veracity to muck around like that. In this case the Herald – once Scotland’s most trusted newspaper – appears to have printed as its front page lead a story that turned out to be wildly inaccurate, a story which it could easily have caveated to reduce the impact of its inaccuracy and above all could have been quickly and easily demonstrated to be inaccurate prior to its publication had any standard journalistic practices been followed (such as double-checking a source and checking facts with the official organisations being written about). The only benefit that was gained by these actions on the part of the Herald accrue directly and solely to Better Together. Sunday’s news ought to have been ‘No camp humiliated by total PCS rejection’; thanks to the Herald, other newspapers felt free to write ‘blow to Yes campaign’ headlines instead.
Indeed certain Sunday newspapers appeared to form a human shield round their beloved Better Together suggesting that the No campaign ‘outfoxed’ the Yes campaign. The argument is that they voted tactically to prevent a Yes vote. Except that they still couldn’t get a single motion from a single branch or a single speaker from the floor willing to advocate for the Better Together position. And those who think that a campaign ever willingly manufactures a zero result apparently know nothing about politics; tactical zeros are what you brief in desperation when you are going to lose very badly.
The point is that the Herald is supposed to be better than this. This is all difficult for me – I’ve been a Herald buyer for nearly 25 years and a Herald reader since I started reading newspapers. The worst you might say for the Herald in that time was that it was perhaps a little worthy, occasionally a little boring but always credible, serious, fair, accurate and balanced. Which is to say it was a newspaper of record. It is now quite a long time since I felt that way about the Herald. People on the independence side get the impression that the Herald is a better ‘newspaper’ and they cite Ian Bell and Iain McWhirter as evidence. But they’re columnists – just like Lesley Riddoch, Gregor Gall and sometimes I write for the Scotsman. In my view the politics pages no longer carry any greater credibility than the Scotsman, the Telegraph or the Daily Mail. You probably get a more balanced view of the world from the politics pages of the Record than the Herald these days.
In the last year I have questioned my Herald subscription a few times. I bought that paper for the facts – just the facts. I no longer feel I get them reliably or consistently. Worse, at times my £1.20 (actually I subscribe digitally since there are no deliveries where I live) feels like a donation to Alastair Darling. To find myself reading front page stories that are not true, that anyone could have known were not true and that appear to be untrue to the benefit of one political campaign is another serious jolt to my confidence in the Herald.
I hope there is a serious internal inquiry going on into how this happened. I hope this will result in the Herald restating a mission as a newspaper of record. This isn’t just ‘tartan bollocks’ stuff (a prize among Scottish journalists for the least true story of the year), it feels intentionally manipulated. Scotland deserves the Herald back.