Will Scotland's tabloids dare to back independence campaign?
The Record and the Sun both have the power to influence the referendum, says Julian Calvert
FEW THINGS are most closely scrutinised by media watchers than The Sun’s headlines at election time. “Will the last person in Britain please turn out the lights” is often seen as crucial to the outcome of the 1992 UK General Election, while the gloating follow-up, “It was the Sun wot won it,” led to a host of imitators.
Less well known outside Scotland is the front page that appeared in the Scottish Sun in May 2011 when voters in the Scottish Parliament elections were told to “Keep Salm and Carry On”. To the surprise of very few, the SNP went on to win a thumping majority at Holyrood.
That was a landmark moment for the nationalist cause, which has been far more successful at winning over voters than newspapers, most of them owned by London or foreign interests.
With less than 200 days to go until the referendum, the big question is whether the SNP will receive such high-profile endorsement this time around. Will the Scottish Sun stay in the fold, now that former Scottish editor David Dinsmore has been put in charge of the UK operation? And with new Daily Record editor Murray Foot rumoured to be amenable to independence, is there any chance that it could abandon its staunch unionist Labour support?
The hunt for red-top supporters
As recently as the early 1990s, the Record dominated the Scottish newspaper market to an extent rarely seen in the western world. It was selling 800,000 copies daily in a country with a total population of about five million.
Thereafter its sales gradually declined until a landmark moment eight years ago when it was overtaken by Rupert Murdoch’s Scottish Sun on the back of an aggressive price-cutting strategy.
The Record still trails the Sun, but these two red-tops still sell nearly 460,000 copies each day. That is about two-thirds of all the daily papers sold in Scotland, so their electoral backing remains incredibly important to both sides.
Off the Record?
Whatever Murray Foot’s personal views, it would be a huge surprise if the Record switched sides. But it’s not as inconceivable as, say, if it backed the Conservative Party, a brand widely seen as toxic in Scotland since the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s government.
Last Tuesday the front page featured the visits to Aberdeen by both the UK and Scottish cabinets. At first glance it was certainly good news for Alex Salmond as headlines called David Cameron a “Tory toff” running “a cabinet of elitists who hammer the poor while lining the pockets of their millionaire pals”.
The SNP leader, by contrast, was praised for meeting real people and posing for selfies. Was this support for Salmond, or just a chance to kick the Tories which proved too tempting to resist?
That day’s editorial piece said the First Minister was “always sharp on the propaganda front”, but that is fairly faint praise. Stories on the facing pages said only 17 per cent of voters in the north of Scotland favoured independence and quoted economist Paul Krugman’s vow that keeping Sterling with the Bank of England would be “a disaster”.
Later in the week columnist Bill Leckie reviewed a bad-tempered TV debate between Scottish Labour leader Johan Lamont and the SNP’s deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon with a uniquely Scottish sarcastic put-down: “Is this the quality of leader we’re meant to entrust our futures in? Aye, right …”
He laid into both sides. Mr Salmond himself was spared, but Leckie said he needed to raise his game above the “rubbish” that was dominating the debate.
In a similar way, an opinion piece earlier that month also grudgingly praised Salmond as “a wily operator”, before attacking his “political games” on currency and telling readers: “He’s asking you to put your money where his mouth is.”
In short, the Record’s stance is not clear-cut – the SNP’s Joan McAlpine has a weekly column, after all. But despite the paper’s obvious discomfort about the prospect of being seen as on the same side as old Etonian Tories, it’s still very hard to see it taking the plunge into the yes camp.
Can we count on you, my Sun?
And what of the Scottish Sun? Making a pragmatic choice about the best person and party to run the government is one thing, but urging its readers to vote yes in an emotive issue where views are very entrenched could prove quite different.
Earlier this week political editor Andrew Nicoll attacked Salmond for not coming up with a “plan B” on currency, saying: “He’s not bothered about living in a world without money, a world where we would all get paid in knitwear and live chickens.”
Other sections of his article were more even-handed, questioning statements by Home Secretary Teresa May and Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander. But the points about currency and legal advice about EU membership being “totally made up” were clear and telling.
The powers that be at the Scottish Sun might just have decided that readers will be urged to vote yes on September 18. But if so, most of their staff seem not to have been let in on the secret yet.
And a quick look at how Murdoch’s papers have leaned in the run-up to all recent elections would show that there is one consistent factor – he doesn’t like to back a loser. This week's Ipsos Mori poll showed only 32 per cent said they would vote yes, with 57 per cent voting no. Unless that changes dramatically, a decision to risk alienating so many of its readers would be, to recall that infamous headline about Frank Bruno, bonkers.
Julian Calvert is a senior lecturer in journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University. This article was originally published on The Conversation.