If you’re pushed for time, we’ll give you the answer up front: when it’s in the Scottish media. But a closer analysis of yesterday’s and this morning’s press and broadcasting provides a full and and illuminating picture of the reality. The fact is, the nationalists aren’t paranoid – their own country’s media really is out to get them.
Those of us watching events unfold yesterday afternoon were a little bemused when various sources started tweeting summarised results, which showed Labour as the biggest winners. To anyone comparing the results to those of the last election, those gain/loss figures were perplexing. Set against 2007, the SNP had gained 61 seats, not 57, and Labour just 46 rather than 58. (In both cases almost entirely at the expense of the Lib Dems, who lost nearly 100 seats. Hardly any seats anywhere in the country changed hands directly from Labour to SNP or vice versa.)
We couldn’t at the time, and we still can’t now, find any published record of where the numbers for the second interpretation derive from.
The rational assumption, of course, would be that they arose from a comparison of the results on May 4th to the situation on May 2nd, ie taking account of all the council by-elections, defections etc that had gone on since 2007. But if that’s true, where was everyone getting those numbers from? We’ve scoured the internet for a statement of standings on May 2nd without success. Let’s assume, however, that they’re correct.
What that would mean is that in, say, Glasgow, the media’s headline figures were counting all the seats previously occupied by Labour councillors who’d left the party over their deselection for the 2012 election just weeks before the polling date as Labour “gains”, which would be patently ridiculous. (Labour won the seats at the last election, they weren’t lost in any subsequent by-elections, and the seats were in “official” Labour hands for 95% or more of the intervening period.)
And yet it’s exactly what happened.
Labour started 2012 with 48 Glasgow councillors. Although a total of nine had resigned by the eve of the election, most on the grounds of not being selected to stand again, many of those stated that they’d continue to vote with the party despite their notional “independent” status. So claiming that Labour’s post-election total of 44 represented an increase of five is a bit of a stretch.
Nevertheless, in the basest technical sense it’s (we’re assuming) true, so it’s slightly misleading spin at the worst. But the spin has turned into outright lies in a number of this morning’s papers. In the Scotsman, Eddie Barnes runs a rather odd piece headlined with the 57/58 figures, but which further down gets both numbers wrong while at the same time making a more disturbingly inaccurate statement:
“With all the counts declared, the SNP had won 424 seats, up 55 on 2007, with Labour on 394, up 57 on the last time.”
Our emphasis, there. Subtly, the spin has morphed into a flat-out untruth, with Labour explicitly stated to have won more seats than the SNP compared to the 2007 election, which is false no matter how you interpret it. (It’s also not actually quite true that “all” the counts have declared – Dunoon’s vote was delayed due to the death of a candidate and is likely to return another SNP seat next week, but we’re being picky now.)
Barnes, though, isn’t the only one to be getting his sums in a mess. Over in the Herald, Iain Macwhirter (who recently appears to have completely fried his brain with vein-popping rage over Rupert Murdoch) can be found asserting that the SNP “was crushed 44 seats to 27” in Glasgow, which is a slightly odd way of interpreting a net gain of five seats in the city compared to 2007, or seven seats compared to May 2nd. But rather more worryingly, he also claims that:
“Labour also did well in places like Aberdeen and Fife, where they gained seats. Over in the capital, Labour leap-frogged the SNP to become the largest party.”
We’re not sure what the rules of leap-frog were when Iain Macwhirter was a boy, or if perhaps Scotland had a different capital back then, but Labour already had more council seats in Edinburgh than the SNP before the election, no matter which date you count from. It started on Thursday morning with 15 seats to the SNP’s 13, and both parties won five to leave their positions relative to each other completely unchanged.
(If you take the 2007 election as the benchmark instead the SNP did even better, gaining six seats to Labour’s five.)
These untruths may be minor in isolation, but each one forms part of a much bigger media spin (with STV, as is increasingly often the case, the only honourable exception), one that’s aimed at presenting Thursday’s results as some sort of great Labour fightback and a turning of the tide against the SNP. Extraordinarily, the Scottish Daily Mail went so far as to describe the SNP’s gain of 61 seats as a “battering“.
Yet what actually happened was that a sitting government, presiding over significant forced spending cuts, having recently passed some highly controversial legislation particularly unpopular in Glasgow, and in the middle of a fabricated media storm of smearing, has doubled its lead over its main opposition compared to the last election (and gained ground on Labour in Glasgow no matter how you measure it). And even if you set the national metric to two days ago rather than 2007, when the last result is in Labour will almost certainly have gained precisely 0 seats on the nationalists.
(And perhaps more significantly, most commentators are now concluding that the SNP actually overtook Labour in the popular vote, which Labour won in 2007.)
“Labour stops the rot” would therefore be the most generous possible interpretation any neutral observer could put on this week’s election results. Not for the first time, we bemoan the apparent shortage of such voices in Scotland’s media.