As someone who’s kept them as pets for over 20 years, I know a thing or two about rats. Intelligent and affectionate creatures, individuals nevertheless have very distinct personalities, and occasionally you’ll get a timid and/or grumpy one. Those take a lot of care, patience and attention to bring out of their shell, and until that point they may try to escape and hide in the tiniest, darkest, most inaccessible corner of the house.
When found, and with all escape routes blocked off, these tiny creatures become incredibly ferocious. They have very long, razor-sharp teeth and move with astonishing speed, and won’t hesitate to attack something hundreds of times their size. Any long-term rat owner will have a few small but permanent battle scars.
And so to today’s Scotsman.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the paper has completely lost its mind this morning.
Its lead story is an attack on our Panelbase poll, which made the front page of the Sunday Times yesterday and was reported in the Independent as “an authoritative new survey”, as well as being covered fairly in countless other media.
Under the headline “Doubts on poll for Yes vote”, the piece by David Maddox opens with the following two paragraphs:
The Panelbase poll – which was commissioned by pro-independence blog, Wings Over Scotland, run by Bath-based Stuart Campbell, who supports independence but claims to be separate from the SNP – puts the Yes vote on 41 per cent and No on 46 per cent.”
Alert readers will of course have noted the weasel words in the second paragraph, coming as close to defamation as the paper dares without actually opening itself up to legal action. But it’s the first one we’re concerned with.
The only justification for the claim that the poll’s “credibility” has been “questioned” follows by way of a series of quotes from a post by noted psephologist Professor John Curtice for the What Scotland Thinks blog yesterday.
In them the academic points out that since both Yes and No votes have increased by one point over the last Panelbase poll (for Newsnet Scotland three weeks ago), the gap has remained unchanged, and that therefore:
“The poll thus cannot be cited as evidence that there is now a nationalist bandwagon moving continuously and relentlessly towards the 50% mark.”
We have no complaints whatsoever with those comments. They are, as is the good professor’s wont, painstakingly factual and impartial. (Some nationalists have been known to accuse Prof. Curtice of bias, but this site has never been among them.) But what they absolutely DON’T do is “question” the poll’s “credibility”.
The very last paragraph of the article, tacked on as a seeming afterthought (indicated by the prefix “Meanwhile”, denoting something separate from the main thrust of the piece), contains a quote from Alistair Darling’s interview on yesterday’s Andrew Marr show, described by the pro-Labour New Statesman as “rattled”, “tetchy” and “like an embattled football manger giving a post-match interview after a bad result”.
Darling inaccurately described the poll as “something of an outlier” (while also contradicting himself by noting that it was the same as preceding ones), but stopped far short of criticising the poll’s methodology or impartiality. By quoting the impartial Professor Curtice for the vast bulk of the piece and mumbling the Darling line as it walks away, the Scotsman is unmistakeably trying to give readers the impression that it’s the psephologist who has cast doubts on the poll.
We’ve sought reactions from both Panelbase and Prof. Curtice and will bring them to you as soon as we get them. But the Scotsman wasn’t done yet.
A second story, also by David Maddox and the main front-page splash on the print edition, leads with a headline stating as an absolute fact – not even single quotes around the word “threatened” – that an unnamed Labour MP and his staff have been menaced by “rogue supporters of Scottish independence”.
The piece notes that “The politician said he is only maintaining his anonymity because of concerns for the safety of staff in the constituency office, who have also been the focus of abuse in recent days”, which would seem to be a somewhat self-defeating exercise, because as far as we’re aware only one Labour MP has publicly alleged any abuse directed against his constituency office in recent days.
(The piece also quotes the mysterious unknown MP using the phrase “out of control”, which became a popular hashtag last week among Yes supporters mocking similar allegations made by Ian Murray MP, who was also highlighted for some dubious claims about his previous career on his website.)
The story is built entirely from innuendo, with not a single solid fact cited. Phrases are, however, carefully chosen and deployed to suggest serious and unusual police involvement. Let’s look at them closely.
“Police Scotland confirmed officers are being sent to patrol the area where the MP’s constituency office is located, following the threats.”
Note that the article doesn’t claim the patrols are a result of the threats. One would imagine that anywhere that was the sort of place an MP’s constituency office would be likely to be located would be an area the police would be regularly patrolling anyway.
“A police chief has written to the MP asking if he would like to carry out a crime survey on the issue.”
As you would expect the police to offer to do for any such complaint.
“The officer told the pro-Union politician that police would be keeping an eye on the situation with ‘priority patrols’ in the area where his office is located.”
See above. “Keeping an eye on” things is pretty much the definition of what all police patrols, everywhere all the time, do. It’s what a “patrol” is.
“The MP has also been offered a meeting with the chief inspector of his local force area to discuss the problems he and his staff are having with the offensive comments.”
Again, that being the bare minimum the police would be expected to do in the wake of any allegation, particularly from a public figure. It doesn’t say that the police have found there to be an actual issue. By way of example, when quoted on the Ian Murray allegations last week, a Police Scotland spokesman was reported by the Scotsman’s sister paper the Edinburgh Evening News as saying:
Readers will note the careful – some might say “deadpan” – wording of that sentence.
The entire Maddox article – which then goes on to reprise Alistair Darling’s recent bleatings about legitimate criticisms of anti-independence businessmen – is, we must concede, a masterpiece of gutter journalism, expertly using innocuous phrases to inflate a nothing story into something far more dramatic without actually saying anything that’s technically inaccurate. Readers are left with an impression of danger that’s totally unsubstantiated by the slightest shred of evidence, comprising only unproven allegations by an “anonymous” source.
Coupled with the poll story, the piece strips the last remaining flimsy thread from the Scotsman’s disguise as a serious newspaper. The two articles are naked attacks on the Yes movement, spraying indiscriminate and reckless allegations which smear dedicated, impartial, professional organisations and individuals as well as this site, which is unashamedly and openly partisan.
Ironically, it is precisely the sort of “monstering” the paper claims to abhor.
[EDIT 11.55: The Scotsman has hastily rewritten the piece, changing both the headline and the opening paragraph to remove the claims of the poll’s credibility being in question, although it’s left in the snide lines about this site.]