John McLellan: Ding-dong rings alarm bells for press standards

Tabloids slugging it out in traditional fashion, writes the editor of The Scotsman

The worthies currently wringing their hands about newspaper standards might have something new to worry about, or rather something very traditional – a good old-fashioned popular paper ding-dong.

In Scotland, the heyday was probably the 60s when the Daily Record slugged it out with the Scottish Daily Express. Then, the gloves were really off in the 80s when the Scottish Sun began to flex its muscles.

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Now the Daily Record is in the thick of it again, spurred on by the way the Sun has been the focal point of the Rupert Murdoch-Alex Salmond love-in.

Having angrily seen the Sun handed an exclusive for the first appearance of its new Sunday edition, the Record got wind of a stunning scoop for the new paper’s second outing – the revelation that Labour MP Eric Joyce had a fling with a teenage girl who had been helping in his Falkirk constituency office.

The Record learnt the girl had told all to the Sun and had been whisked away in time-honoured fashion to make sure that rivals couldn’t get to her and steal the scoop.

Unfortunately for the Sun, the Record was confident enough to run the story without speaking to the girl or without Joyce’s admission. In fact, at first it looked very much as if the Record had gone out on a limb.

Even Labour’s Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, was persuaded there was more than a little truth in the story and quickly cut Joyce adrift. The only thing lacking was the girl’s side of the story – which duly came on Sunday when the Sun’s exclusive interview eventually appeared. But by that time interest had waned. Indications are that from a launch sale of around 360,000 copies, the new Scottish Sun on Sunday has already lost about 20 per cent of that to fall behind the Sunday Mail.

But then no-one at News International thought that all they had to do to get the News of the World’s sale back was to launch a seventh day of the Sun. Replacing Britain’s most successful title after the biggest newspaper scandal in living memory was never going to be an overnight job and with only a week’s notice to get it organised, it’s hardly surprising the going is tough.

A rough wooing

The Record’s bid to appear more SNP-friendly got off to a flier, with a typically inflammatory column by new star signing, Joan McAlpine MSP, lured, as Scotsman readers will know, from these pages to spread her word to the electorally crucial Labour-supporting masses of the West of Scotland.

How those readers will have taken Ms McAlpine’s assertion that the Union of England and Scotland is akin to an abusive marriage is anyone’s guess, but surely she was not presuming that the imagery of violent relationships in which a submissive female is kept down by a domineering male was something with which Daily Record readers could relate? Hardly the best way to endear her to her new audience.

Redundant advice

Amidst all the brouhaha of the Leveson inquiry, there has been no shortage of advice to Lord Justice Leveson and this week it was the turn of the former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, Blair Jenkins, to offer his tuppenceworth.

In his role as media guru to the Carnegie Trust, he has produced a report with the less-than ambitious title “Better Journalism in the Digital Age”. It’s very difficult to disagree with that aim and among his recommendations are “a new industry-wide code” and a “new and more evidently independent press regulator with more substantial powers to investigate”. Leveson and Lord Hunt of the PCC might just have got there first.

Set to go much further, however, is the joint committee under John Whittingdale MP looking into privacy and injunctions. The committee’s report is due out in a fortnight and the word it is will recommend the swallowing up of the PCC by Ofcom, the statutory body which among many things is meant to make sure your TV is worth watching, your letters get delivered and your phone lines work. It’s also funded by the taxpayer.

So not only would the government take some control over freedom of speech and expression, but you might have to pay for it. Maybe there is a case for a distinctive Scottish system after all.