HUSTINGS. Hot damn. Who’d have thought such a pedestrian part of the political process would make headlines across the UK? But of course, it’s because the media were excluded – initially – by SNP HQ. Now the leadership’s in partial retreat – allowing one media, one print and one photographic journalist to attend each husting and pool material for everyone else.

That’s unlikely to satisfy the media, which had full access to Conservative Party hustings last summer – or the membership who increasingly distrust all journalists and would prefer to probe candidates in private, without the risk of distortion. Especially since those candidates – so suddenly plunged into contest mode – have already produced hostages to fortune aplenty.

Of course, that tasty possibility is exactly what whets the appetite of most journalists who point out the next SNP party leader is also the next first minister, giving everyone skin in the game.

Those at least are the official lines being drawn.

But there are plenty of others.

Why is the SNP also so reluctant to live stream its own hustings – even in private – to give online access to its entire membership?

Every event I’ve been involved with for the last 10 years from Nordic Horizons meetings to Time For Scotland rallies have been live-streamed professionally by Independence Live. It’s as much a habit for most campaigners as the online environment seems to have remained a habitual stranger for the SNP.

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I seriously don’t know if that arises from a failure to grasp the democratising possibilities offered by streaming or precisely the opposite – a terrible fear of the democracy that arises when everyone can watch leadership candidates without travelling miles to physical events which were full minutes after they were announced.

Indeed, the only SNP Zoom event in the hustings is also apparently sold out – which is bizarre, since the party conducted an annual conference for 2000 delegates using the Hop On platform. Why not do that again and fling the virtual doors open?

The National has its own hustings in Glasgow this Saturday with limited space for journalists and a live stream accessible for everyone. That’s the way to do it.

But the SNP leadership is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The candidates have declared themselves happy to have the media present – how could they do otherwise? The press has piled on the pressure with the Society of Editors describing the original press-excluding stance as outrageous.

The thought bubble is fairly clear – if even the blinkin’ Tories allow access to the media, how can a supposedly progressive party refuse, unless they’ve got something to hide?

Now, the “blue-on-blue” fighting witnessed by all and sundry during the Tory hustings was not exactly edifying and media coverage didn’t impact the final outcome, since the dreadful Liz Truss got elected anyway, but definitely reduced overall faith in the Conservatives.


Perhaps though, SNP members watched that prolonged summer car crash and decided their own vehicular incidents would be better conducted beyond the glare of cameras and the rustle of notebooks.

That’s also because there’s a fair bit of confusion about the media’s role. I can’t remember any hustings where journalists actually ask questions. Their role is simply to listen, ponder, write and report – just as they’ve done at SNP conferences every year for decades.

Perhaps though, Covid press briefings have lodged so firmly in the public mind that folk imagine a repeat of those press-dominated exchanges, with hostile, repetitive and occasionally tone-deaf media lines of questioning.

But the media at political hustings are only ever silent spectators.

A bigger and more potentially volatile part of the equation is the composition of the hustings’ audience.

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I presented a husting on Radio Scotland during the last SNP leadership contest in 2004. We had to ensure equal numbers of supporters for each candidate to avoid creating a partisan audience – and that took some doing. I expect STV will do the same thing creating their audience for next Tuesday’s televised debate.

But the SNP’s own regional hustings appear to be first come, first served events – an organisational strategy that may appear to favour continuity candidate Humza Yousaf. Parity of time and respect will presumably be extended to all candidates by a neutral chair – but it’s impossible to legislate for a crowd that clearly and audibly supports one over all the rest.

Clearly, the conduct of SNP HQ itself will also feature, which means the decision to restrict the press looks like a last-ditch effort to stop dirty linen from being washed in public.

But not to SNP members, many of whom back the original media ban for the straightforward reason that they distrust the entire media including, woundingly, this pro-independence paper.

Despite being a journalist, I can see both sides.

SNP members I’ve spoken to talk about Nicola Sturgeon being hounded by the press and ground down by their relentless negativity. For many SNP members, journalists are simply people who take things out of context and twist words.

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One suggested that folk who are unhappy with media exclusion are rarely party members and contend that the Conservatives weren’t bothered about media coverage – because the media is conservative.

Now it’s true that four ultra-rich men – Jonathan Harmsworth, Rupert Murdoch, the surviving Barclay brother, and Evgeny Lebedev – control three-quarters of Britain’s national newspapers. And there’s not a Yesser, let alone a natural Labour Party supporter amongst them. The BBC is governed by a man who donated £400k to the Tories, before organising a loan for Boris and the arrival of two openly reactionary broadcasters plus a host of right-wing populist news websites means the British media landscape has unquestionably lurched to the right.

And it’s not just indy-supporting Scots who think that.

The Times, Telegraph and BBC have all suffered big drops in trust over the past five years, according to a Reuters Institute survey. The Times was the most trusted UK newspaper brand in 2018 but has since seen trust fall by 20 percentage points.

So, there’s diminishing trust in the media all around.

But whilst journalists shouldn’t be on a mission to destroy, they cannot be on a mission to worship either.

In the event, the media – Tory and otherwise – didn’t protect woeful Tory candidates from public scrutiny.

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And strangely enough, independence generally – and Nicola personally – recorded their highest levels of support during the long years of those “hostile” Covid briefings. Obviously, the press isn’t neutral, but it isn’t a monolith and anyway, it isn’t avoidable.

So, there is dissonance.

SNP members see a hard-done-to party that attracts hostility from virtually every media outlet whilst the media sees a robust, well-funded, ruling party that arrogantly demands kid-glove treatment. And I’d imagine the voting public largely concurs with the media.

It’s a sair fecht.

The press and media don’t realise how much independence supporters distrust them.

SNP members don’t realise how defensive their private hustings look to everyone else. And an embattled SNP leadership disnae seem to care.

As a result, all eyes will now be on the hustings that are publicly available.

Somehow, I doubt that was Peter Murrell’s intention.