On the day of the launch of CommonSpace we got a tweet from a journalist claiming that our digital news service looked like it was just a hatchet job on Jim Murphy. That this view was arrived at in one day rather misses the point of news (you can’t investigate things that aren’t happening and this was Jim’s big day…). That it came from a journalist who spent much of the last year doing hatchet jobs on the independence movement seems to suggest some lack of self-awareness. That he does not seem to spend time using his social media presence to attack other media outlets for real hatchet jobs suggests his issue isn’t with the practice but with the cheek of questioning the establishment view.
And yet none of that bothers me at all. Because despite the ferocity and outright unpleasantness of the vast bulk of the Scottish media during the independence campaign, I agree with the general point that the job of the media is (in part) to challenge and test power, wherever it lies. What bothers me is the outrageous hypocrisy of claiming this higher ground of ‘public interest journalism’ as a defence of monstering one side without so much as questioning blatant falsehoods from the other. I would be the first to accept that the case for independence was not perfect and that it was right that the holes in that case should be tested – aggressively if need be.
But when the case for the union was based on slogans which were directly contradicted by almost all the available data and evidence but barely a doubtful question is put to it, something is deeply, deeply wrong. How many times could a unionist politician appear on the BBC and say ‘but if Scotland banned nuclear weapons they’d only move a couple of hundred miles south’ without an interviewer pointing out that not a single credible source in the world believes there is a possible site for nuclear weapons within a couple of hundred miles south of Faslane.
There isn’t an answer to that question because the counter is still ticking. To this very day Jim Murphy is free, unchallenged, to tell the people of Scotland via the BBC that if Scotland had banned nuclear weapons they’d simply have been rehoused just across the border. It isn’t true. It isn’t nearly true. The only almost feasible site is in the very south of England and faces not a chance in hell of being cleared of its current civilian and commercial use as would be necessary.
As Wings Over Scotland points out he can appear on TV and inflate the membership figures of his party by 6,000 over the figure briefed by his party a few days earlier and not an eye lid is batted. For a year we independence supporters were told that being asked difficult questions (relentlessly, over and over again) is the price of democracy. So in which system is Jim Murphy operating?
This is not about nasty or personalised politics but is a simple question as to why ‘Murphy news’ is reported differently from ‘other news’. Let’s take his front bench team reshuffle. There were two people in that group which were from a left background (Neil Findlay and Drew Smith). One was very visibly demoted, the other sacked. Both of them are heavily supported by a trade union sector which campaigned against Murphy. Not worth a line of mention anywhere? Or what about those photos of him out jogging at the weekend. Can you imagine an independence-supporting politician sending out a calling notice (alerting the media to a pre-arranged stunt) for such a blatant PR exercise and it being run straight in many newspapers (though some did at least indicate that it was a PR set up)?
So I’m bothered about all of this? Strangely, not really.
What I think it really tells us is just how very worried establishment voices in Scotland are. They are enormously vested in Murphy. Some believe him to be their only hope. They are repeating precisely the mistakes they made during the referendum – by reporting what they want to be true (Britain is great/Murphy is a genius) and not reflecting what is actually happening (people know Britain is a mess/Murphy is enormously divisive and untested in this kind of role), they are creating a condition in which Scotland can slip away from underneath them and they won’t understand why. Failing to do anything to expose the weaknesses of a politician does not make those weaknesses go away, it just make the person concerned unprepared.
Let’s have a look at a couple of questions that are relevant. There is almost universal agreement that Murphy is a great presentational politician. While I have some doubts about this (he may be a strong backroom operator but he does not score well with the public when he appears in person), I have no doubt that he is an accomplished operator in the early Blairite mould. This is particularly true where he is backed by overwhelming power (such as by the Scottish media during the referendum campaign that sought to turn him into some sort of folk hero or from Blair himself in his role of stitching up Scottish constituencies as special projects officer in the run-up to the 1997 election). But it has always been a hit-and-run skill set.
Take a closer look at Murphy’s career from age 18 and something else becomes apparent (his wikipedia entry is informative…). In that time, other than being MP for Eastwood, I can’t see a single role that he has held for more than three years in a row – and that goes all the way back to a degree course he failed to complete. This marries closely to the Blairite philosophy of politics in which presentation trumps substance, talking is more important than learning, and role X and role Y are just variations of the same basic press release. There is plenty of evidence that Murphy is very adept at saying things with an absolute certainty that get him through periods of interrogation but little to suggest that he has the ability to deliver.
This is reflected in his front bench team reshuffle. With months to go before a general election and under a year and a half to go before the crucial Scottish elections, he has a complete team of spokespeople every one of which will be reliant on reading out briefings produced for them in a brief they have had no time to learn. Murphy seems to think this is how it is done, because that’s how he does it. In reality, understanding a brief through some experience is important and having solid relationships with key stakeholders in that policy area is equally important. You will always have some of the team who are finding their feet. But all of them? The SNP approach of keeping people in roles for long periods was sometimes seen by the media as being conservative (since there was little reshuffle speculation to keep their political gossip pages full) but it was undoubtedly effective.
I fear that Murphy thinks that government is really an acting role in which your job is to work out what will play well and recite what you are told is going on by civil servants or party researchers in a manner that best fits the bill. His assumption appears to be that this is fine because when the pile of press releases finally falls over under the weight of its own incoherence, you’ll be in another brief anyway. Unfortunately, this won’t work for him when he’s in the front line covering the entire role of government. Making it up as you go along, performing a u-turn when last week’s convenience turns into this week’s liability, digging yourself out of a hole using only the power of bluff – this is a catastrophe in the making.
Where there is little evidence that Murphy lives up to the media hype is in empathy – in both directions. The media may salivate but public opinion on Murphy is not positive. He’s seen as shifty and insincere. In return, his version of ‘ordinary people’ seems to me to suffer from that vague Blairite contempt for the ‘bog-standard punter’. So Labour loyalist Guardian commentators may gasp at his ability to communicate with the ‘ordinary people’ (The Spectator gave him an award). But from where I’m sitting his pitch to Scotland looks awfully like a Russ Abbot sketch – stand on an Irn Bru crate, wear a Scotland football jersey, eat a Tunnocks’ Teacake. So bad (I think) is his misreading of the mood in Scotland that he has taken to using the word ‘patriot’ like it is the talk of the steamie across the country. He’s even proposing to put it in the Labour Party constitution. The only times I’ve head anyone going on about being a patriot in Scotland it was always a member of the Scottish establishment pretending to be ‘au fait’ with the locals. I really do think he is misreading the mood quite badly. Those Labour have lost don’t want to be ‘more Scotch’, they want out of London-based financial corruption. So far Murphy offers them nothing but platitudes of distinctly the wrong type.
And then there is his politics. The media can’t not mention that he is not particularly liked in the trade unions and is not known as a social democrat. But they can mention it as little as possible. In reality he is despised by the trade unions (even some of the most loyalist Labourites among them talk about Murphy in utterly unrepeatable terms) and he is on the far right of the party (certainly in geopolitical terms and broadly in economic terms). It really does matter – given the choice, Murphy appears to choose political ground as far to the right as is permitted. Of course, he knows that won’t work in Scotland. Others think his shift to the left was elegant and canny; it looked like something out of the Ministry of Funny Walks to me.
So that’s three themes that I believe will be fundamental to Labour’s future in Scotland. First, Murphy has always presented as a shallow and fitful politician building castles in sand. Can he make the move to being a credible, solid leader of substance? Second, Murphy has a feel for what journalists want but does he really speak effectively to Scotland – and in particular is he capable of reaching the disillusioned Labour-Yes voted simply by donning the political equivalent of a See You Jimmy hat? Thirdly, how effectively can he hide or rebrand his right-wing tendencies? Will the cracks show?
I hope this hasn’t been a hatchet job but a calm exploration of certain aspects of Scottish Labour’s leader’s track record, reputation and personality. It seems to me to raise genuinely legitimate questions about the assumption he is the ‘action man’ Henry McLeish believes him to be or the astute political operator almost all the media presents him as being. I have very strong doubts and I suspect that once he is in the Scottish public view on a daily basis there will be some very problematic cracks in the facade that has been built around him.
Or to put it simply, Jim Murphy is one of two things. He is either a brilliant campaigner capable of travelling Scotland with only a crate to stand on where he took on and defeated the independence movement with his passion, oratory and ability to connect with ordinary people. Or he is an over-promoted PR man who travelled Scotland on an ego-trip attracting only the interest of the national media a small team of apparatchiks he brought with him, shouting incoherently as shoppers walked by and collapsing in melodrama when someone threw an egg at him.
I guess we’ll find out – and if no-one else will ask the questions, I hope CommonSpace will.