Glorifying Mancini while ignoring the Murrells won’t stop its slide
Debating whether the National should have run a front page mocking up the Italy manager Roberto Mancini as Mel Gibson’s William Wallace seems as pointless now as arguing over whether Billy Gilmour should have been picked to play against the Czechs at Hampden. Like our national football coach Steve Clarke, the editor of the National had to make a judgement call. But not a very tough one in Callum Baird’s case. His tiny, ragged editorial team – which has never been able to field anywhere close to 11 full-time members in its newsroom – had nothing to lose. Almost seven years since its launch, ‘Scotland’s only pro-independence newspaper’ is normally invisible on the nation’s newsstands and can boast of only 12,000 digital subscribers among the five million-strong populace to which it yearns to bring Freeeedom!
With counter sales and commercial income having plummeted for publications across the planet due to the pandemic, Mr Baird really must have thought this could be his paper’s final hope – for survival. And there was next-to-no risk of alienating any significant number of loyal readers. This brash blatt’s main target audience has always been the blue-and-white woad brigade, the sort of primeval patriots who need their blood and soil nationalism watered on a daily basis. Damn few of them were ever going to be offended by a slightly risqué Anglophobic sales stunt during what folk in the newspaper trade call the silly season – and they’re a’ deid.
A far more deserving source of outrage is how the National responded to the huge story that broke less than 48 hours after England’s glorious defeat at Wembley – Police Scotland launching a formal criminal investigation into alleged defrauding of independence supporters by the chieftains of the Scottish National Party. Disgracefully, this seismic story did not make its front page the morning after it shook the land.
Were it applying anything close to proper news values (something it never does) the National would not have gone for Mr Gove in this print edition but for the SNP’s chief executive, Peter Murrell – who just happens to be Nicola Sturgeon’s hubby. Its main headline should have been:
WHAT HAVE YOU GOT TO HIDE, MR MURRELL?
WHERE ARE YOU HIDING, MR MURRELL?
Had its editor been sufficiently bold (and journalistically principled enough) to do that, he would have shifted a helluva lot more copies of the National off Scotland’s newsstands – and had thousands more flocking to the paper’s usually pallid and tiresomely partisan website.
It really is depressing when one needs to buy a copy of the rabidly Unionist ‘Scottish’ Daily Mail to get proper in-depth coverage of the crisis now engulfing our governing party.
The Mail not only splashed that absolute belter across its front page, but devoted an inside double spread to a (sadly far too gentle) profile of Mr and Mrs Murrell which must have misled some dozy inhabitants of Middle Scotland into believing their marriage is semi-normal.
Hardly a good look for a party leader who stakes her reputation on transparency. But what is she supposed to do? Sack him? Have a quiet word at the breakfast table about his future in the party?
Jonathan Brocklebank, Daily Mail
Whilst salivating Unionists were feasting on all of this, readers of the National had to make do with a few crumbs of information as purposely bland as any official Police Scotland press statement – which is what its presentation of the story largely was.
Tucked away on page 5, this is what is known in the news trade as burying a story. Note the lame headline – missing the key word CRIMINAL – and how the pull-quote projects the party line.
Worse still, this skittery item wasn’t supplemented by a backgrounder explaining the cops’ decision to investigate or any opinion piece anywhere in the paper placing it in a wider political context. But readers of this rag were treated on the day in question to an interminable think piece by the ubiquitous Kevin McKenna crowing about the spectacular publicity goal the National had scored with its Mancini poster page.
Having worked as a senior editor on several of Scotland’s quality newspapers – when the word quality meant something – and having headed up several leading journalism schools across these islands, I could at this point engage in a long and learned disquisition about why the National is so awful. But it’s a glorious day and I want to go out in the sunshine so I’m going to confine my explanation to just two reasons: RICHARD and WALKER. As the founding editor of the National, he set the tone for his creation’s political coverage from the outset. It was this newspaper design wizard who ensured that its small platoon of scribes engaged in as much suppression of scandals on behalf of the Sturgeon regime as the Murrells’ own vast, superannuated army of spinmeisters. In fact, the National newsroom in Cambuslang (relocated from Glasgow city centre recently to cut even more costs) has often seemed like nothing more than a grubby adjunct of that propaganda operation.
When the Sunday National was launched almost four years after its daily sister title, I sent an email to Mr Walker (someone I managed as the founding deputy editor of the Sunday Herald) telling him, with all the tact and diplomacy for which I am adored across the news industry, that it was shit and he’d better quickly get his editorial act together. Here is a short extract:
By far my main main disappointment was the political coverage, which seemed like a print version of an SNP party political broadcast. I completely get that you’re keen to hook your core target market…but the Sunday National cannot just ignore the storm clouds gathering above Scotland’s governing party and simply play to an applauding gallery. Now, more than ever, the SNP needs critical supporters.
Mr Walker replied promptly:
I take your point about the political coverage…It’s a tricky one because there’s more than enough criticism of the SNP in other newspapers and I know (because they have told me) that many of our readers find it difficult to accept continued attempts to criticise virtually everything the SNP does. So first we need to establish the context of our reports and that criticism is well-founded rather than knee jerk. I think we will do that over the coming months. Give us time.
Richard Walker and his pals got plenty time to make it better and they blew it – big style! As well as keeping close tabs on its readers’ donations to the indyref2 cause, the National could have provided compelling, penetrating coverage of the SNP’s uncivil war, which would have had Sturgeonistas and Salmondites alike spilling their porridge every morning. Instead, this poor, pathetic impersonation of a newspaper endeavoured to sweep both the Scottish trial of the century – and the biggest crisis at Holyrood since the advent of devolution – under a big, tattered, tartan rug. All the while recycling on its front pages SNP press releases about how indyref2 is imminent – if you just vote for Nicola once more!
No wonder its hacks command scant respect among even the lowliest SNP activists – as Richard Walker discovered to his sore cost when he relinquished the editorship of the Sunday National to seek to become the SNP candidate for Ayr in the recent Holyrood election. Bidding him farewell as he headed off to the political battleground, the aforememtioned Mr Baird rhapsodised:
Richard Walker is an inspiration – a genius newspaper editor…He has been nothing but a tireless campaigner for independence ever since I met him…If selected as a candidate and elected to the Scottish Parliament, we’re sure he would be a huge asset to the Yes movement at Holyrood, just as he has been here.
For some strange, inexplicable reason, members of the Ayr branch of the SNP weren’t swayed by that gushing testimonial. The “genius newspaper editor” lost out in his bid for the party nomination to some South Ayrshire councillor.
So, now you know why the National is so awful: its editorial philosophy, strategy and content were shaped in large part by a goofy gink who was never going to challenge our shady Nat chieftains. Then he had his beady eyes set on a cushy seat at Holyrood for himself – which he failed to secure after years of editorial punch-pulling. Now it’s far too late for the National or the National Party to retrieve their reputations for probity and trustworthiness. They’re going down together.