UK Politics

How Scottish Nationalist control-freakery led to the gagging of a journalist

BY Iain Martin | tweet iainmartin1   /  20 August 2016

When J.K. Rowling rates a writer it is a good indication that that person is someone worth reading. So it is with Stephen Daisley, digital political correspondent for STV (Scottish Television) who is respected and retweeted on social media by the Harry Potter author.

‎Daisley’s approach is at times unorthodox. On Twitter he is obsessed with pug dogs but beyond all the glorious silliness is a fierce political intelligence. His analysis and commentary is highly perceptive and insightful. It often makes uncomfortable reading for politicians, and at times for his fellow journalists, which is all to the good.

In recent weeks Daisley has gone quiet. His comment pieces have stopped appearing on the STV site. The Herald reported that ‎he had been “gagged” after noisy complaints from SNP MPs John Nicolson and Pete Wishart, the former keyboard player in Runrig. Wishart is an energetic user of social media, expressing his views with vigour. In this endeavour he makes his sidekick Nicolson look like Isaiah Berlin.

The Herald story provoked a row on Twitter, with Wishart and Nicolson (a former journalist!) denying that at a meeting with STV executives they asked STV to silence Daisley‎ for being critical of the Nationalists.

The way the media works they wouldn’t even have had to mention it at such a meeting. STV will have known that Nicolson – a member of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee at Westminster no less – has been on Daisley’s case for a while. The MP produced a slew of late night‎ tweets on the subject, questioning Daisley’s right to express his views. That being the case, all Nicolson and Wishart would have to say at a face to face meeting with STV executives is some generalised guff about fairness and concerns about balance for the dots to be joined. ‎It’s a murky business.

There’s a word in Scotland – clype – that an unkind soul might think relevant here. A clype is someone who not only grasses someone up for a misdemeaour real or overcooked. A clype relishes the act of telling. I’m sure that cannot be the case with Nicolson. He’s an MP. He’s a grown man of 55 for goodness sake.

Whatever, Nicolson was not operating alone. Others – so-called cybernats – monstered Daisley regularly. They included an excitable former British ambassador and Nationalist who seems obsessed with MI5 and calls Daisley “far right”‎ which only makes sense in a parallel universe.

Simultaneously, some STV members of staff seem to have been complaining about Daisley’s criticism of the SNP. Within the channel’s operation are some very pro-SNP people (and some great, fearless journalists too.)

Once the story broke STV ‎denied that Daisley had been silenced as a result of the meeting with Wishart and Nicolson. But having been involved in similar rows I can tell you those denials are straight out of the non-denial denial school of comms. It was a very carefully phrased and particular form of words, containing classic media executive nonsense about STV’s output continuing to evolve and Daisley being part of the team.‎ That is code for “please make this go away.”

What is most troubling about this sorry tale is that the STV of old would have told MPs who tried it on either to go away or get stuffed.

That is not to say it was perfect back then. In the 1980s and 1990s the Scottish media was far too pro-Labour for its own good (with exceptions such as the ‎Sunday Times Scotland and the Daily Mail Scottish edition.) The SNP old guard in that era was very media savvy, using it to punch above its weight in the unequal battle with what was then the much bigger Scottish Labour party. The then leader Alex Salmond and SNP chief executive Mike Russell were highly skilled at cultivating individual journalists and echoing their concerns about the control freakery of New Labour. With Salmond all this got lost much later in the bitterness of the Scottish independence referendum, when he encouraged Nationalists to march (literally) on BBC headquarters in Glasgow. Perhaps politicians who rise partly on the back of a good relationship with large parts of the media find it less congenial when they are in office and under scrutiny on spending and policy decisions.

In a small country such as Scotland prone to suffocating consensus, underpinned by the political Establishment’s moral superiority complex, these tensions matter a great deal. If rigorous scrutiny of the kind Daisley provided comes under assault, the parties in power win.

That is particularly worrying when the traditional Scottish press has been devastated by the digital revolution to an extent unmatched in the rest of the UK. Editions of London-based titles are doing well but indigenous circulations have (in most cases) collapsed and the revenue model that paid for journalism has been destoyed. It was based on coverprice plus a monopoloy on local display, plus access to the London display market for cars, banks etc that depended on healthy circulation. At its peak almost twenty years ago Scotland on Sunday sold 125,000 copies, when Andrew Neil was publisher and John McGurk was editor. I was the Political Editor, although my tales of Scottish Labour infighting and the likelihood of devolution letting in the Nats had little to do with sales success. It was driven by new magazines and colourful sections, clever reader offers, cookery columnists, sport, serialisations and scoops.‎ It was terrific fun and via lunching on expenses I got a terrific wine education.

Anyway, all that is gone. I don’t even want to look at Scotland on Sunday’s circulation now. It is too upsetting to see what the internet has wrought on newspapers in a country that needs a strong press and robust journalism.

And it is there that STV has got itself into difficulties that are understandable when ‎all commercial media outlets, TV included, are fighting hard for attention, relevance and revenue. Digital created much more scope for instant analysis and commentary, with social media there as a tool for transmitting to new and old audiences in new ways.

For a channel such as STV this is a grey area, especially when the station has regulatory obligations on impartiality. But it wants to be noticed for more than straight reporting. It wants some freshness, verve and insight to pull in people (other journalists who tweet it on and general readers), which is where Stephen Daisley came in. He was providing sharp analysis, and most analysis crosses into comment to some extent eventually because value judgments are made. Basic reporting involves value judgments too, of course, but they are usually obscured by the basic application of balancing quotes and a language of straight news which says “this is a news report.”

Comment is different. You can’t perfectly balance a comment piece otherwise it becomes boring and unreadable. It’s a take, an opinion even if it doesn’t say “this is my opinion” in the first par. It involves making multiple calls.‎ The best the writer can do is try to be fair. On Twitter – where journalists do declare that their views are theirs and not those of their employers – journalists are often producing mini-comment pieces in 140 characters with no editor between them and the reader. In a fast changing landscape with journalism battling to survive, mistakes do get made (by all of us) in this area. If STV didn’t like some of what was appearing it has a responsibility to manage, guide and develop a highly talented journalist such as Daisley, not to shut him down.

The ongoing turmoil in media makes a company such as STV trying to reinvent itself vulnerable to the predations of the powerful ‎SNP and its more fanatical supporters. The company has tried a little too hard, unfortunately, to please the party, under the guise of having a more constructive relationship when the management thought the SNP might win the independence referendum, and when it spotted an opportunity because the SNP hates the British Broadcasting Corporation. It got so silly that STV put on “Hogmanay with the Sturgeons” (different name, but this is not a joke) in which the First Minister and her mother and sister told cosy tales of family New Years Eves of old hosted by a Nationalist (talented) comic actress. It was laughable, Eastern bloc stuff. It is inconceivable that this – Christmas with the Camerons for example – would have got past the commissioning process south of the border. No-one at the BBC, ITN, Sky or Channel 4 would have suggested it. If they had they would have been fired or laughed out of the office. In Scotland it made it on to the air.

Political parties need to be watched like hawks, especially when they have a dominant position as the SNP does. One may like some of the individuals involved or not but collectively they’re always at it, pursuing their agenda as is their right, doubly so when they want more than to win elections every few years. In the case of the SNP they want to break up a country, the UK.

Knowing that a majority of Scots do not – yet – agree with them, and that the leadership is riding a tiger, a wide but not deep coalition of far left revolutionaries , fundamentalist activists and former tartan Tories, Sturgeon has no option other than to relentlessly emphasise control and intolerance of dissent and difference. SNP MSPs, MPs and activists are banned – seriously, banned – from disagreeing publicly with the leadership.

Sturgeon – who has been complimented by Daisley on other matters, ironically – in this way has made the weather, and created the intolerant conditions in which figures such as Wishart and Nicolson can strut around policing the public sphere when they see something that is not in line with Nationalist thinking. They should not be allowed to get away with it.


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