Media Watch: Times Scotland front page headline changed online after legal rubbishing

Frontpage headlines rarely cause laughter - unless on comics like the Broons.  But listeners to the press review on BBS Radio Scotland’s Sunday Show last weekend may have chuckled as reviewers joked about the Sunday Times Scotland's latest anti-independence splash.

Separately, a law professor condemned the editorial team behind the weekend’s splash headlines as “deeply unserious people” “more interested in scandal-mongering than checking the accuracy of their stories”.  

The story, which was later altered online, fell below the standards of a quality newspaper. On occasion, Times Scotland reads like an anti-independence propaganda sheet. It claims to reach 1.3 million Scots through its print and digital outlets, so this kind of bias is concerning. However, as support for independence rises, the paper may eventually have to change its stance. Proprietor Ruper Murdoch has stated publicly that Scottish independence “feels inevitable”. 

“Straightforwardly false” headlines altered in the online edition

The front page banner headline on the print edition read: “SNP’s indyref spending may be unlawful”. Law lecturer Andrew Tickell told listeners to BBC Radio Scotland’s flagship "Sunday Show" that it was “straightforwardly false”. He said:

“This is the idea we should never have had the court case in the first place, that the SNP should have ignored its mandate and never have gone to the Supreme Court and asked the question. The headline is straightforwardly false. It is not unlawful for them to spend money on this, that is not how the Scotland Act works, and they would know that if they had asked any experts in law to resolve it as Aileen McHarg a professor at Durham University was pointing out on Twitter earlier today.”

Tickell, a lecturer in jurisprudence at Glasgow Caledonian University and a columnist in the National, added, sardonically:

“Their legal source for this story was Alex Cole-Hamiton, who doubtless has many merits but legal education is not particularly among them.” 

“Deeply unserious people”

Professor of Public Law and Human Rights, Durham University, an expert in Scots & UK public law, Aileen McHarg condemned the idea that money spent clarifying a point of law could be retrospectively ruled unlawful if he case was lost, tweeting that It: “only requires a moment's thought to know that it's a ludicrous position to adopt.

“This is a cheap line advanced by people who obviously don't expect that they will actually be in a position where they would have to try to govern under these conditions any time soon. Deeply unserious politicians. And, I might add, a press more interested in scandal-mongering than checking the accuracy of their stories. Also deeply unserious people.”

Later, the online headline and story appeared to be changed to “Spending public money building case for independence ‘may be illegal’” and the story was dropped from the ‘Scotland’ section of the online edition. 

Later in the week the Times carried the headline “Whitehall investigates independence planning by Scots civil service” saying that Sue Gray is to look into the role of civil servants in independence planning. Further down the article the story’s importance was diminished by the explanation that: “the talks…are not seen by Whitehall as a formal review that will lead to reports being published.”

The Times Scotland falls below standard of “newspaper of record” 

The Times Scotland has always been an anti-independence paper - but presents itself as a source of reliable information. Recently, it appears to have sunk to the level of a downmarket tabloid. The headline last weekend was politically biased and not worthy of a newspaper that presents itself as a “newspaper of record”.  

Times owner Rupert Murdoch predicted Scottish independence

For pragmatic reasons, the newspaper may eventually change its stance.  Back in 2015, its owner Rupert Murdoch  Scottish independence was inevitable. He tweeted: 

“Scots may be crazy or not wanting self rule, but who can deny right of self determination? Feels inevitable over next few years.”

The newspaper reported that the first poll conducted in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling showed voters who favoured independence rose to 49 percent, an increase of five points compared with its survey in September 2021. Unionist support fell by two points to 45 percent.

The report concluded:

“The poll mostly made happy reading for the first minister, who has said that she will run the SNP campaign at the next general election as a single issue “de facto referendum”. If pro-independence parties win more than 50 percent of the popular vote, Sturgeon would assume this to be a mandate to begin negotiations with Downing Street about breaking up the UK.”

If the Times wants to continue to expand its readership it will need to reach out to younger audiences who primarily support independence. 

By Jackie Kemp