Tom Peterkin: Bute House invitation a welcome move

The Holyrood press pack have long been lobbying for a press conference with the First Minister. Picture: Contributed
The Holyrood press pack have long been lobbying for a press conference with the First Minister. Picture: Contributed
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An invitation to Bute House was welcomed by the press corps, writes Tom Peterkin

For some time the Holyrood pack has been lobbying for a press conference with the First Minister.

In contrast to her predecessor Alex Salmond, who held such events reasonably regularly, Nicola Sturgeon had appeared reluctant to host frequent briefings with what has become known as the mainstream media.

At a lunch hosted by the Scottish Parliamentary Journalists’ Association and attended by Sturgeon, the lack of First Ministerial briefings was noted when she was asked to open herself up to more scrutiny from the press.

To her credit, Sturgeon pledged to try and meet with the press more regularly. So it was that this week the “At Home with Nicola” invitations finally dropped through the letterbox and the press corps duly arrived at Charlotte Square armed with their cameras, notebooks and questions.

Sitting in the Bute House drawing room as the First Minister took to her podium, it was impossible not to observe the contrast in style and tone offered by Sturgeon when compared with ­Salmond.

In the main, Salmond appeared to enjoy jousting with the press, favouring a bullish and jocular style, mixed with thinly disguised contempt for his opponents.

He was unable to resist chuckling at his own witticisms while making his point with little in the way of humility and with an unmoveable conviction that his way was the only way.

Many of those at Tuesday’s press conference were struck by the tone adopted by Sturgeon, which was far more conciliatory – even ahead of yesterday’s debate on Syrian airstrikes.

Sturgeon was calm and measured when discussing this highly emotive and sensitive issue that has set the SNP implacably against David Cameron’s plans for military action.

As she reaffirmed the SNP’s intention to vote against the Prime Minister, she had the grace to describe her disagreement with Cameron as “an honest difference of opinion”. Furthermore, she went as far as praising the way the Prime Minister had handled the issue.

“I should say I thought the tone adopted by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons was a very good one. He went out of his way to seek and address the concerns that had been raised. He did make progress in doing that,” said Sturgeon.

Admittedly she said made those remarks before Cameron made his ill-chosen plea to his MPs not to vote with a “bunch of terrorist sympathisers”.

Nevertheless, it was very hard to imagine Salmond giving Cameron any such credit or acknowledging, as Sturgeon did, that she did not question the Prime Minister’s motivation.

Salmond was content to chew the fat – an indulgence which was often welcomed by inquisitors but which also saw press conferences over-run.

His loquaciousness contrasted with Sturgeon’s brusque and businesslike style, which ensured that the press conference began and ended bang on schedule.

That’s not to say that Sturgeon’s love of efficiency precluded the possibility of a First Ministerial joke. Her attention was drawn to the independence supporters who have set up camp outside the Scottish Parliament to campaign for a second referendum. “What would be your advice to the Holyrood campers?” she was asked. “Wrap up warm,” was the pithy reply, delivered without a hint of self-congratulatory laughter.

It was an answer that led to the hacks wondering whether it gave them licence to go for a “Nicola says Carry On Camping” headline. Whether it did or not there was certainly an earnest hope that Sturgeon carries on giving press conferences.