The Derek Mackay scandal and the power of the press - John McLellan

There we all were on Wednesday wondering what tricks SNP finance secretary Derek Mackay would have up his sleeve in the Scottish budget he’d be delivering the following day. The nation held its breath.
Disgraced former finance secretary Derek Mackay. Picture: JPIMediaDisgraced former finance secretary Derek Mackay. Picture: JPIMedia
Disgraced former finance secretary Derek Mackay. Picture: JPIMedia

At least that’s the impression you would get if you moved in political circles, but of course the reality is that the vast majority of people don’t care what’s in the Holyrood diary and wouldn’t recognise Mr Mackay in the street if he approached them with a mobile phone in one hand and a choc ice in the other. And that, it now appears, was what the 42-year-old father of two was banking on as he sent 270 increasingly flirtatious messages to a random 16-year-old boy he had spotted on social media.

But the boy’s mother knew who he was and took the information to the Scottish Sun and by Thursday morning the whole of Scotland knew exactly who, or rather what, the until then “Mr Nice Guy” of Scottish politics actually was. Before the breakfast dishes were washed up, Mr Mackay had resigned and was suspended by the SNP.

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If the SNP’s new spin doctor-in-chief, ex-Daily Record editor Murray Foote, thought the job would be all Tory-bashing and policy-punting then the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s response that Mr Mackay’s behaviour “fell seriously below the standard required of a minister” underlined just how much the SNP needs to learn about crisis management.

The detail of Mr Mackay’s behaviour has been well explored elsewhere, but the role of The Scottish Sun, and indeed the whole of the popular Press, merits further mention.

The very existence of the Red-Tops provides a vehicle for information which other publications might find sordid, but on this occasion proved completely in the public interest. I have no way of knowing if the mother in question would have taken the story to The Scotsman or The Times, but she knew The Sun would be more than interested.

Understanding what grabs mass attention is why politicians are drawn to popular newspaper journalists; Alistair Campbell for Tony Blair, Andy Coulson for David Cameron and now Murray Foote for Nicola Sturgeon.

Ironically, the story came on the same day as speculation, in the sniffy Guardian of course, that The Sun was losing its verve was seemingly validated by the announcement of editor Tony Gallagher’s departure for The Times as deputy editor, a move unthinkable when the paper was in its 80s Kelvin MacKenzie pomp.

The Mackay scoop shows the Sun, certainly its Scottish edition under Alan Muir, still has what it takes.

But it also demonstrates that when it comes to setting a news agenda there isn’t anything quite like a proper Red-Top scandal, but also that the Press still has the ability to quickly move a story which will topple the powerful in a matter of hours. Mr Mackay was still sending messages to the boy this week, but had this been a BBC investigation it would have taken months to get through the Corporation’s ethical labyrinth.

Such a display of Press power also helps counter the growing belief that in the digital age, mainstream newspapers don’t matter, or somehow they can be by-passed and the public reached through social media alone. But when the excrement hits the air conditioning, as it did on Wednesday night, how can some semblance of control be regained if the lines of communication have been cut?

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Even organisations deemed hostile need to be managed, which is why it was a mistake in 2014 when the SNP excluded the Scottish Daily Mail, Scottish Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph from First Minster Alex Salmond’s resignation announcement after the referendum.

It was also disappointing to say the least when Downing Street took a leaf out of that SNP playbook this week by only allowing selected journalists into a briefing with chief EU negotiator David Frost about the forthcoming trade talks.

The uninvited Parliamentary Lobby members were ushered back out the door, including all the Scottish Press representatives, but the invitees took as much umbrage as the excluded and walked out in solidarity so the wheeze back-fired spectacularly because whatever Mr Frost had to say remained in his head and the headlines were dominated by the clumsy attempt at media management. Not just newspaper headlines, but the broadcast bulletins, the BBC’s mobile news feed and social media.

All parties quietly brief sympathetic journalists, and in fairness the SNP learnt from the Salmond episode and hasn’t, to my knowledge, tried that stunt again.

Although regarded as having one of the best social media operations it hasn’t been at the expense of relationships with mainstream organisations and understands an effective political machine needs both. Indeed the Scottish Newspaper Society’s annual Westminster reception has always been sponsored by an SNP MP, this year once again by Tommy Sheppard.

In London, chief Number 10 adviser Dominic Cummings seems to think otherwise. “In SW1 communication is generally treated as almost synonymous with ‘talking to the lobby’…. With no election for years and huge changes in the digital world, there is a chance and a need to do things very differently,” he wrote in his recent blog. “We do not care about trying to ‘control the narrative’ and all that New Labour junk and this government will not be run by ‘comms grid’.”

Which is fine, but relationships are still needed and for the Tories in Scotland no more-so than now because the 2021 Scottish elections have a UK-wide significance, and anything which gives news organisations a reason to be negative is pointless, petty and potentially damaging.

The SNP will now make every effort to ignore the very existence of Derek Mackay, and on Thursday morning’s meeting of Edinburgh Council the local SNP leader referred to the Scottish budget being delivered by Public Finance Minister Kate Forbes as if nothing had happened.

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Even with polls showing support for independence nudging above 50 per cent, the reality is the SNP is in a mess; its finance minister disgraced, its leader distracted to say the least, its membership agitating for a vote it cannot hold, and its key policy of separation now underpinned by an EU policy which would put up a real border across the Cheviots.

As Number 10 plans how it communicates with the Scottish public, now is not the time for it to think the Scottish Press doesn’t matter and The Scottish Sun has just shown why. Gotcha.