Press Ganged

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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.

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  1. Les says:

    Printed press. No Scottish ownership.

  2. Steven Grubb says:

    I gave up reading the Herald years ago. Switched to the Guardian, although some of its recent comment on Indy have been uninformed dross. And yeah possibly spun.

  3. As with most shenanigans from BT this will in the long run backfire as those in the PCS who fought for impartiallity see how they’ve been badly ubused.
    There is also no need for top down recommendations for YES – indepepndence will be won one-to-one.

  4. Andrew COWE says:

    Scotland won’t get its Herald back whilst people still buy it despite these shenanigans. Like any other commercial enterprise, people need to speak to them in the only language they understand – money.

    They no longer get mine. So at worst, even should nothing change, at least I know I’m not paying for this propaganda.

  5. Spot on Robin! This is utterly discreditable.

  6. I gave up the Herald gave it two more chances then finally two years ago gave up completely.

  7. Thistle says:

    Stopped buying the Herald a while back because of its anti-indi dross. Biggest disappointment has been the Guardian which is no more than a poorly informed unionist rag.

  8. xsticks says:

    The whole of the ‘Scottish’ press is indulging in political prestidigitation. They don’t have much else to work with. There will be no truth to be found in our press until after the referendum. If the truth gets out they will have lost for sure, and they know it. Don’t buy, don’t click. Cripple them financially. They deserve to fail.

  9. DougtheDug says:

    I used to be a loyal Scotsman reader but I gave up on that in the reign of Andrew Neil and switched to the Herald but in the end I also gave up on the Herald as an unreliable and biased source of news.

    A one-time avid reader of newspapers I don’t read any now.

    I find it strange that people still refer to a “Scottish Press” when it became a “North British Press” a long, long time ago.

  10. Frankie Tervit says:

    I am writing this in a personal capacity as someone who is an activist for Yes and a PCS rep. I am proud of the way PCS conducted the consultation with members to decide what position PCS should take in this important decision of the future of our country. The consultation culminated in a special conference yesterday, with every Scottish branch having held debates among the members at AGM’s the length and breadth of the country and was done in a very comradely manner. PCS in Scotland covers areas such as HMRC, DWP, Ministry of Justice, Scottish Govt and the MOD including a branch within Faslane.

    The result of the debate yesterday and the three propositions for delegates to decide upon:

    1. PCS should take no campaign position – 18,025

    2.PCS to campaign for a YES vote – 5,775

    3. PCS to campaign for a NO vote – 0

    The result shows that PCS members utterly rejected austerity forced upon the public, and the better together campaign. Not one speaker spoke in favour of staying within the UK and stated their members were in favour of a yes vote but wanted the union to stay neutral to allow PCS to interrogate and advance the members wishes. The biggest surprise for many of us was that not a single vote went to the No camp and this was given a cheer in the conference hall and delegates took to twitter to have the #noisnowhere hash tag.

    The neutral position does not mean that PCS will sit back and allow the debates to go on their merry way. PCS will use their make your vote count campaign and start preparing hustings events the length and breadth of the country to invite debate, they will also demand answers from both Yes Scotland and Better Together on issues such as Job Security, Pensions, Pay, Terms & Conditions and will publish the answers. I have been given an assurance that if answers are not forthcoming then this will also be published. The majority of the members debating were Yes leaning but thought the neutral position was the best way to educate and examine both arguments and also understood that this was the way to win in September.

  11. Firmly Yes says:

    The “popular” press are still running scared of the Leveson inquiry and it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that Westminster has promised relaxed regulations in return for having the papers firmly set in the no camp.
    Just my opinion.

  12. xsticks says:

    Thank you Frankie. You have enlightened me with regards to the PCS position. I applaud the stance that PCS is taking and I look forward to their interrogation of the opposing sides in the debate and the publication of the findings. I think they will turn out to be key in this journey of ours. Brilliant.

  13. David Agnew says:

    what I can say is that we had a branch meeting and three options were put forward yes, no and neutral. The feeling was overwhelmingly that it was not the unions job to campaign for any side in this debate. The unions position was to represent its members regardless of how they might vote. The decision was overwhelmingly in support of the branch recommendation that the union stay out of it. I was one of those who wanted a neutral stance and I will be voting yes come the day. But I felt it was not the job of my union to get involved and I was not alone in that position. The no camp i am pleased to say was not well supported at all.

  14. I don’t think readers were fooled by the Herald story and in fact at least one person posting on Wings accurately predicted the Herald’s second headline long before the actual declaration of the result. I was among a number of people who, in BTL comments, accurately explained how this story had been stitched up by the Herald and the No campaign. Thinking about it further, my suspicion that this was a stitch up by Magnus Gardham and Paul Sinclair and that no member of PCS was involved.

  15. Time to launch a newspaper that draws columnists from the excellent websites and presents news not propaganda.

    It’s the right moment, and if it can have a strong web presence – partly by linking through to Bella, Wings, Bateman, Newsnet and Commonweal, in the way Peter Bell does, but also Lesley Riddoch, Peat Worrier, Bright Green Scotland, et al – then it could really help turn the tide.

  16. Ken MacColl says:

    I started reading The Scotsman back in the days when it had small ads on the front page and kept with it for many years through the days of Dunnett, Baur and Taylor but gave up when Andrew Neil came on the scene and I switched to the Herald. I stopped buying that on a regular basis three years ago and tried out the “Scottish” versions of the metropolitan broadsheets but their profound ignorance on Scottish affairs were a turn off . After some favourable impressions of the Sunday Herald I recently took out a digital subscription for The Herald but I soon realised that this was a major mistake and that Magnus Gardham -political editor – appears totally incapable of responsible or honest reportage. The Friday article on the PCS is only another example among many.

    I suspect that the Scotsman is already doomed and the chances of the Herald surviving the referendum campaign must now be slight. At a time when our broadcast media is supine and trivial we are dependent on the web and the net for a genuinely varied range of opinion. Ironically we live at a time when information has never been easier to access and the old lies are forever retrievable and on the record – but seldom in the Record.

    As the fat man says so regularly, “toodleoothenoo”

  17. Fordie says:

    Yes, I also used to buy The Herald daily and the Sunday Herald and SoS. Now I buy none. Their lack of neutrality which then moved to bias was sickening. Compounded by the almost entire lack of coverage of our Scottish Parliament. (Same is true re. the last point of BBCS and STV news Mon-fri). They cannot call themselves the Scottish press. Also have given up on the Guardian.

    Thanks to Frankie for a truthful insight.

  18. I followed a link in a tweet and was taken to the Liberal Democrats for Independence Facebook page on which was written the comment below. I copied it and tried posting it under the Herald article but it never made it past the moderators. It will come as no surpriise to anyone why it didn’t make it,

    “That PCS Vote

    It is rare that we at LDVotersforIndy get genuinely angry. This is one of these rare occasions.

    The PCS is the Union that represents many UK Government civil servants. People who work for the departments such as the DWP and HMRC. When you work for such departments you agree to certain standards. For a start you are expected to be non-political as you have to carry out the work of the government of the day. You are not even allowed to stand political for office if you are a civil servant.

    Over the last month the PCS has been asking its branches whether the Union should back a YES vote, a NO vote or remain neutral in the coming Independence Referendum. It should be noted at this point that the PCS does not back any political party.

    I am aware of two branches in the north of Scotland that told its delegate to vote for the Union to remain neutral today. Both these branches had more people in favour of a YES vote than against but they felt it was right and proper for the Union to remain neutral. What did not happen is NO voters’ siding with neutrals to stop the union backing a YES vote.

    However today on twitter the deputy editor of one of Scotland’s Sunday Newspaper is reporting that the YES side was out foxed by the NO side. In other words NO voters voted for the union to remain neutral in order for it to stop it from backing a YES vote. This simply did not happen.

    It would be silly to claim there are no individuals in the PCS who back a NO vote but not one Scottish branch did in a free democratic vote amongst its members.

    Despite what the papers might tell you”.

  19. douglas clark says:

    Would I be right in saying that the Sunday Herald is as near as we get to a pro-independence broad sheet?

    There appears to be a huge difference between it’s approach to news and it’s daily sister.

  20. Yesnaby says:

    A very helpful and balanced analysis. Thank you. Even if the ideal of a “newspaper of record”, free from partisanship on every occasion, is perhaps as improbable as an impartial state broadcaster, one would hope that over the longer term its reporting will balance up: favouring not one “side” or the other, but the best interests of those who do buy it.

    Presumably those who do buy it regularly will be used to making their own judgments on what they’re being asked to believe. A screaming headline may generally be offset by the substance of what follows, but this case seems more like sheer manipulation. As you say, we shall see how the editors even things up.

    But if the Herald’s circulation is weakening, I wonder how its advertisers feel about associating themselves with editorial imbalance. I suppose the owners, and the advertisers, must know how far they can go. Mud sticks, of course.

    Perhaps someone might know whether its advertisers are also starting to feel uneasy?

  21. Mark Harper says:

    The Herald/Disqus have also recently started manipulating the comments section by not displaying the amount of negative votes a comment receives. This hides the disdain most people heap upon comments supporting the No side. The reason given is:

    “In an effort to encourage a more positive commenting experience, the number of Downvotes and list of users who have downvoted will no longer show on comments. Though these downvote numbers will no longer display, all downvotes will continue to influence the sorting order.

    If you have downvoted a comment, the arrow will turn red, confirming your action.”

    “In an effort to encourage a more positive commenting experience”? Bullshit!

  22. Margaret says:

    Agree with Robin’s comments. Remember too that the story was challenged on the day it came out so if anyone says it was sour grapes from Yes about the result, remind them that it was challenged before the vote had happened. http://tattie-scones.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/is-there-dirty-tricks-campaign-ahead-of.html

  23. Sadly, as numerous other commentators have noted, it is the so called quality newspapers that have most let the public down by their inability to report regularly and consistently in an objective balanced manner.
    But as a Glaswegian it dismays me most when it is The Herald that is found wanting.

  24. Stevenson says:

    Public service broadcasting (if that still means anything) may, unfortunately, be the main media casualty of the referendum debate. Most analysts relate support for independence since the ’60s to the decline of institutions that gave the Union meaning. The BBC may join the list if it does not begin to produce balanced, informed and serious coverage. The uncritical acceptance of Barosso’s comments and the failure to report subsequent rebuttals from very credible sources were the low point so far.

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