Scadal sells. Tabloid editors know this. If they can knit a vicar, bishop, or politician into a scandal related story so very much the better. I mention this eternal verity not to excuse the deplorable behaviour of a former cabinet secretary in the SNP government, but merely to point out there are other motivations in play when journalists use a scandal to bash a government which is not to their taste. Or sometimes to screw the opposition.
As it happens, the Sun did go through a brief flirtation with the SNP as recently as the 2015 UK election. Well, bits of it did. In Scotland it urged a vote for Nicola Sturgeon, whilst its English editions wanted its southern punters to plight their troth to David Cameron. In other words, the motivation was principally to back whoever wasn’t Labour. Yet in the world of tabloid circulation boosters, politicians are temporary, scandal is permanent. Witness the column inches devoted to the televised coming out of telly host Philip Schofield this last week.
Every last angle is being wrung out of this tale of everyday gaydom, including dispatching reporters to talk to other folks whose partners have left a heterosexual union to pursue a lesbian or gay life. So in the case of Derek Mackay this has been the second time he has provided tabloid fodder; the first was when he opted to leave his own marriage and children 7 years ago.
But in order to sell scandal, the media concerned need to be assured of willing buyers. Readers, there is no shortage. Wander with me down the highways and byways of our fine nation and we will find punters knowledgeable about every jot and tittle of the Mackay saga, who will simultaneously be hard pushed to recall a single line of the budget so eloquently delivered by his junior minister. Politicians are very well aware of this; and rightly fearful of the consequences when one of their own is trapped in the tabloid headlights. The SNP government, in the jargon, has long been trying to “price in” the fallout from the Alex Salmond court case next month. The charges laid, and his robust denial of them, are destined to be unwelcome manna from heaven for certain media outlets, and indeed, given Mr Salmond’s high profile, the case will be minutely covered by the entire media. So, not for the first time, Nicola Sturgeon will find herself vicariously embroiled in news headlines generated by her male colleagues. She might reflect however that other political women, in other places, have had rather more intimate crosses to bear.
You will recall Hillary Clinton enduring a series of excruciating TV interviews following the serial indiscretions of her high flying husband, whose undeniable talent for politics was matched only by his lack of libido control. “He’s a hard dog to keep on the porch,” quoth his wife in one of the more masterly pieces of understatement. You may remember Segolyne Royal, the father of whose four children, Francois Hollande, moved not her but his latest mistress into the Presidential Palace in Paris, then proceeded to cheat on her too. Other women are living evidence of the power gulf between female employee and predatory employer. Consider those lining up to tell a US courtroom about some of the less savoury casting methods of Harvey Weinstein, or those former female Fox News employees whose maltreatment by former Fox CEO, the late Rogers Ailes, is now the subject of the current film Bombshell.
There is too another matter of sex and gender which has been bubbling away in the media, causing some bad blood between women inside and out of both Holyrood and Westminster. The reason you may have read less about what we might loosely term “transgender wars” is because anyone daring to raise their head above the parapet swiftly gets it shot off. The essence of the argument is the move to self identification of trans people avoiding the need for medical confirmation. Trans activists see this as no more than the overdue recognition of the human rights of a minority. Others worry that there is an implicit danger of women’s safe spaces being jeopardised. Senior SNP figures like Joan MacAlpine and Joanna Cherry have been targeted by trans activists as have those feminists who are accused of taking “the wrong side” in what is a complex debate deserving of more than kneejerk abuse. Even to write such a sentence is to wearily accept the certainty of a twitter onslaught.
Yet those of us who have marched for women’s rights and, indeed, human rights, these many long years, find it difficult to be harangued by people carrying placards saying “Trans Rights are Human Rights” as if we had somehow failed to notice or call out a particular area of discrimination. The uncomfortable fact is that building and maintaining a fair and equal society means accepting not any one sector has a monopoly on the moral high ground. And ensuring that in protecting the rights of one minority nothing impinges on those of another. The day this can be discussed in a venom free environment will be a much happier one.
So this is going to be a very bumpy few months, one way and another, for the Scottish Government. People may not have read the small print in the budget, but they will have concerns about public services as and when they affect their own lives. We are all parochially self absorbed in this way when it comes to gauging the success or otherwise of those we vote into government. On the plus side for the SNP administration, there is no sight of an alternative and competent front bench waiting in the wings. Whatever the question, you instinctively know Jackson Carlaw (CBE!) Richard Leonard or Willie Rennie is not the answer.
First published in the National 10.2.2020