Many years ago, I became reasonably well-read on the scientific research into the human form of mad cow disease. I've probably forgotten about 80% of what I learned, but at the time I was knowledgeable enough that when a news story cropped up on the subject, I was able to meaningfully judge for myself whether it stacked up, and if so what the true significance was. As a result I was genuinely shocked to discover just how often journalists in the quality press and television news - ie. the ones you trust, not tabloid hacks who you fully expect to lie and distort at every turn - make sloppy factual errors, or exaggerate wildly for sensationalist effect. The angle on any given day would always be one of two extremes - the BSE scare was over, or else it was "much worse than previously thought". Either the best-case or worst-case scenario of what the science was saying would be selectively reported to suit the occasion. Nuance was never an option, even when that was precisely what the facts demanded - which they invariably did.
So it really is quite a jolt when you first get to the point of knowing enough about a subject to realise just how amateurish journalists can be, but it's happened to me a number of times since then. Today was an absolutely textbook example. The only thing anyone can find to pin on the SNP government in the documents released on the Megrahi affair is the apparent belief in Whitehall in late 2007 that Kenny MacAskill was looking to do a deal on slopping-out compensation and the devolution of legislative powers on airguns. Alex Salmond has explained very convincingly the good reasons for taking that belief with a bucket-load of salt - if Jack Straw was going to win concessions from his colleagues, it suited his purpose to present the position as "MacAskill looking for a deal". But whether or not we believe that a deal was actually proposed, it's a relatively minor revelation, because it didn't relate to the release of Megrahi. By definition it couldn't have done, because the UK government didn't actually want Megrahi freed at that point - it wasn't until the following year that the policy changed, as a direct result of the diagnosis of the Libyan's illness. When it did, we learn from Gus O'Donnell that London Labour's rather startling strategy for "facilitating" Megrahi's freedom basically consisted of saying as little as possible to the SNP - for fear of "irritating" them! The fact that communicating any desire for compassionate release was seen as totally "counter-productive" tells its own story, and essentially kills the conspiracy theories of any SNP collusion with London in 2009 stone dead.
But have the gentlemen and ladies of the London press noticed any of this? With a few honourable exceptions, the answer is - don't be daft. Even the normally authoritative Channel 4 News baldly claimed at the start of tonight's show that the documents "also show a Scottish government trying to gain other advantages for sending him [Megrahi] back", in spite of the fact that the dates render that a logical impossibility. Upon seeing a near-identical example of journalistic sloppiness (or should that be consciously cavalier treatment of the facts in pursuit of a sensationalist story?) from Paul Waugh, I couldn't resist getting the following out of my system -
"Paul, for the love of God, even the most cursory look at the dates would tell you that conclusion is logic-bending gibberish. The alleged "footsie playing by the Scots" supposedly happened in 2007 - a whole year before O'Donnell claims the British government changed their policy and decided they wanted Megrahi released. How could the Scottish government have gained concessions by offering to do something the UK government didn't actually want at that point? Hint - they couldn't, and therefore, fairly obviously, they didn't.
The allegations of a proposed deal - which Alex Salmond has refuted strongly, and offered credible reasons for doubting - related solely to the possibility of the Scottish government dropping their public opposition to a PTA with Libya that didn't specifically exclude Megrahi. That would have been a relatively minor shift on their part - but it was, for the record, one they didn't make. This is pretty basic stuff, and all in the documents. Now forgive me for lapsing into cliché, but the fact that so many London-based correspondents seem incapable of comprehending what is there for them in black and white really does call the standard of journalism in this country into severe question."
But however frustrating the distortions of today have been, I'm in little doubt that the SNP have taken a stride forward as far as the "long game" is concerned. On all the salient points, the documents bear out what they've been saying all along, and have left Labour - especially Scottish Labour - looking like rank hypocrites. The latter now have very little option but to stick to the absurd line that "if Iain Gray had been First Minister, Megrahi would still be behind bars", but there can't be a single person in Scotland who seriously believes that anymore. Whether Gray's personal stance in 2009 was sincere or not (and I have my doubts), the only premiership of his in which Megrahi wouldn't have been returned to Libya is a purely theoretical one in which he paid no attention whatever to the wishes of his colleagues in London. Everyone knows that could never have happened, because he's Labour, and the first loyalty of Labour First Ministers is always to the UK party leader - not to his or her own values, let alone to the people of Scotland.
Thankfully, one news source we can absolve of the charge of sloppiness tonight is Newsnight Scotland, which zoned straight in on the key question - when Scottish Labour were sanctimoniously denouncing the decision to release Megrahi, had they already been told that their London masters wanted him freed? Richard Baker's answer when pressed on that point spoke volumes -
"And we did not seek their view either."
Note the omission of the obvious word "no" at the start of that sentence. That makes it a non-denial denial, something which generally isn't issued by a politician without very, very good reason.