Mike's Media Monitor

By The Drum, Administrator

November 16, 2005 | 5 min read

For long enough, it seemed like another case of the tail wagging a dog‚ the latest example of a disgruntled individual succeeding in getting the Scottish media to not only jump to command, but ask: how high?

Already, mythology has it that the fall of Scottish Tory leader, David McLetchie, was as much down to the behind-the-scenes lobbying by a fellow Tory MSP as it was his own unaccounted-for taxi receipts. Why? Because a newspaper editor seemed poised to publish email correspondence between himself and Brian Monteith, alleging it was proof of the latter conspiring against his former leader.

Whatever the truth of Monteith’s actions, in behaving in the way he did, Iain Martin – editor of Scotland on Sunday – has also taken an enormous gamble with that most precious – if not wholly honourable – of practices: the use and occasional quoting of unnamed sources. In the end, Martin does not get the exclusive he desires; it was Monteith, not the newspaper editor, who made sure they were to appear in the public domain. But there is no doubt Martin was the catalyst.

To say political correspondents in particular have been left gobsmacked is to put it mildly. Said Monteith himself: "I know a number of political correspondents in London and Scotland who say they are bewildered that this could happen.” And why bewildered, exactly? Simply because the correspondence was assumed to be off the record. The assumption may have been wholly on Monteith’s part and, so therefore, more fool him. But what Martin will have done is to raise suspicions in the minds of those who are reasonably comfortable speaking off the record to the media – among them politicians – but would run a mile at the first suggestion they might be identified.

And for reporters, that will threaten a potentially rich seam of information. Monteith, whose political career lies in tatters, is understandably enraged. He has been branded as someone who was briefing against McLetchie, feeding lines for journalists to follow up. In other words, a traitor.

But the Sunday Herald – which has spearheaded the investigation into the taxi receipts that did for McLetchie – has categorically stated Monteith had nothing to do with the story. Indeed, it has gone further: no-one was briefing against McLetchie; the story idea was generated from within the paper.

Monteith’s belief is that Martin has undermined his own credibility and that of his paper. He says: "When the day comes that [SoS publisher] Andrew Neil tires of Iain Martin, how easy is it going to be for him to find a job?”

The chronology unfolded a bit like this: Monteith is corresponding with Martin about various things. He asks, in passing, when will the Scotland on Sunday leader column call for McLetchie to resign (Monteith claims this is not treacherous, that it’s possible to both admire McLetchie’s achievements and also believe it’s best for him and the party that he steps down).

When McLetchie does step down, Alan Cochrane, in the Daily Telegraph, stops just short of naming Monteith, who eventually has his fears confirmed that the emails may be published in Scotland on Sunday. It’s not lost on him that Cochrane and Martin are close allies – Cochrane had clearly had sight of the emails. Monteith decides to pre-empt the inevitable fall-out. As he tenders his resignation, he makes the full email correspondence public. Adds Monteith: “If I was briefing against McLetchie, I would have contacted more newspapers than Scotland on Sunday. And I would not have been unhelpful to the paper, as I was, when it tried to firm up a story about McLetchie that it published on October 16.”

So, now the spotlight is on Martin. Monteith and Martin are guilty of at least one thing: failure to clarify what was and what was not on the record. Common practice is that everything is on the record, unless otherwise stated. So, it could be argued that Martin was acting within his rights.

However, Monteith would say that his relationship with Martin had been so long-lasting (and trusting), that everything was off the record, unless otherwise stated.

But this is not just a sobering lesson in the need to explicitly define the terms of any correspondence or conversation with a journalist. It’s also an insight into a world where the media and politics are mixing so closely that one feels it can make demands of, take liberties with, or make assumptions of, the other.

Even if it was an off-the-record remark Monteith made to Martin, he obviously felt he was able to manipulate the media agenda. Meanwhile, why did Martin sit on the emails ahead of McLetchie resigning, as he did? Ought he not to have seen they contained a news value, while McLetchie was still in office? Did he allow a friendship with Monteith to obscure his judgement?

But the episode throws up yet another interesting perspective. The history of devolution has thus far seen some very big names toppled by what could be reasonably described as minutia. We've got so much into a habit of blowing our leaders over with a feather – whether it’s office rent (Henry McLeish) or taxi receipts (McLetchie) – that maybe our media has created a rod for it own back.

After all, which newspaper editor will nowadays risk turning down a piece of information that, on first inspection, might seem like trivia, when in actual fact it could – with a bit of digging – become a smoking gun? It also begs the question whether we are still so immature as a self-governing nation that our minds are incapable of challenging our leaders on the big issues instead.

Mike Wilson is a director of the media website, www.allmediascotland.com


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