The rise and rise of the unattributed quote

From the Observer 28 July 2002

There are times when politics approaches blood sport. All last week, before his sudden decision to resign, poor Henry McLeish looked like a hunted fox, increasingly terrified by the baying of the media pack.

The press, of course, was perfectly within its rights to pursue the matter tenaciously. McLeish and his advisers signally failed to deal with it promptly, openly and fully. But some aspects of the media pursuit left me feeling uneasy.

By chance, the evening before the resignation, I was at Stirling University to hear Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, deliver the third Hetherington Memorial Lecture. Rusbridger's theme was political language. He demonstrated how an open discourse between media and politicians has become virtually impossible. Indeed, the relationship has become an arid kind of game in which the politicians stonewall their inquisitors.

Rusbridger showed a clip of Jeremy Paxman pursuing Robin Cook over the euro just before the election, with Cook refusing to discuss anything beyond the famous five tests and declining, by means of increasingly desperate circumlocutions, to answer any broader constitutional questions. He knew that Paxman was trying to lure him into making a major gaffe and he chose the path of impenetrable discretion. The chief losers were the viewers, deprived of any possibility of a sensible and illuminating discussion.

Rusbridger linked this sterile intercourse to the general decline in the standing of politicians and increasing electoral apathy. It has led to another evil – the rise of the unattributed quotation which now litters political reporting. Sometimes remarks put in the mouths of anonymous ‘senior sources’ or ‘Ministers’, one suspects, may have been invented to support the particular thesis being advanced by the journalist.

Editors who take seriously their duty to separate facts and comment face real difficulties in trying to beat back this infestation. Because they are so afraid of being hounded if they say anything interesting on the record, politicians now speak their mind only when off it. And politicians and spin doctors, of course, do not hesitate to perfume or poison the press by feeding it with unattributable information. Rusbridger himself is trying to enforce the rule observed by the New York Times, that unattributed quotes should not be used if they are pejorative.

No such constraint affects much of the Scottish press, whose pursuit of McLeish was in one or two cases gratuitously vicious. The Daily Mail and the Scotsman, of course, are identified with the conservative nexus hostile to devolution itself, but it was still sad to see how far the Scotsman has abandoned its traditional sense of fairness.

By Wednesday night, of course, McLeish’s position had become untenable. He was brought down not by some Iago, whose motto ‘We cannot all be masters, nor all masters cannot be truly follow’d’ expresses the wafer-thin nature of political loyalty, or even by the dagger wielded by his enemy David McLetchie, who shed crocodile tears over the corpse, but by a strange and almost inexplicable degree of personal incompetence.

Confessing to one unacknowledged sub-tenancy could have been passed off as misfortune, two as carelessness. But five – and then, as the Herald discovered – six made Henry’s incantation of ‘muddle, not fiddle’ impossible to swallow.

No doubt there are extenuating circumstances of which we know little. Like many MPs, Henry employed his first wife as his secretary. She managed his constituency affairs before her tragic death. A couple of years ago the Commons fees office changed the rules; funds which had gone into a general pool became tied to specific purposes. Henry, perhaps preoccupied with his new life at the Edinburgh Parliament, appears to have paid no attention.

Yet the fact remains that he had seven months in which to resolve matters after a constituent nursing a grievance, who had conducted his own investigation, drew the matter to the attention of the press. He and his advisers must have been aware of the situation’s potential gravity after his fumbling performance on Question Time more than a week ago. What they had persisted in treating as a molehill eventually became a mountain and on its slopes his political career perished. The inescapable conclusion was that if he couldn’t run his constituency, he could hardly run the country.

Behind the affair lies an unpalatable reality. The Scottish press’s reporting of the Parliament has been concerned with the frailties of personalities and Ministers. By contrast there is a general failure to cover its legislative business. Those who are interested must rely on the internet which, unless the press raises its game, will increasingly become a means of bypassing it. The indifference to the day-to-day affairs of Parliament is, of course, also true of Westminster where sketch writers deal with Commons business as a kind of comedy.

Some of our papers have another agenda – to discredit the Parliament itself. This affair was made at Westminster, not in Edinburgh, though that was where the fox was finally run to ground, but damage has been done. Above all the Parliament needs a period of stability.