2007 - 2021

Murphy’s Law

jim_1827016cRobin McAlpine on the changing media and the problems it poses for Scottish Labour’s new man.

On the day of the launch of CommonSpace we got a tweet from a journalist claiming that our digital news service looked like it was just a hatchet job on Jim Murphy. That this view was arrived at in one day rather misses the point of news (you can’t investigate things that aren’t happening and this was Jim’s big day…). That it came from a journalist who spent much of the last year doing hatchet jobs on the independence movement seems to suggest some lack of self-awareness. That he does not seem to spend time using his social media presence to attack other media outlets for real hatchet jobs suggests his issue isn’t with the practice but with the cheek of questioning the establishment view.

And yet none of that bothers me at all. Because despite the ferocity and outright unpleasantness of the vast bulk of the Scottish media during the independence campaign, I agree with the general point that the job of the media is (in part) to challenge and test power, wherever it lies. What bothers me is the outrageous hypocrisy of claiming this higher ground of ‘public interest journalism’ as a defence of monstering one side without so much as questioning blatant falsehoods from the other. I would be the first to accept that the case for independence was not perfect and that it was right that the holes in that case should be tested – aggressively if need be.

But when the case for the union was based on slogans which were directly contradicted by almost all the available data and evidence but barely a doubtful question is put to it, something is deeply, deeply wrong. How many times could a unionist politician appear on the BBC and say ‘but if Scotland banned nuclear weapons they’d only move a couple of hundred miles south’ without an interviewer pointing out that not a single credible source in the world believes there is a possible site for nuclear weapons within a couple of hundred miles south of Faslane.

There isn’t an answer to that question because the counter is still ticking. To this very day Jim Murphy is free, unchallenged, to tell the people of Scotland via the BBC that if Scotland had banned nuclear weapons they’d simply have been rehoused just across the border. It isn’t true. It isn’t nearly true. The only almost feasible site is in the very south of England and faces not a chance in hell of being cleared of its current civilian and commercial use as would be necessary.

As Wings Over Scotland points out  he can appear on TV and inflate the membership figures of his party by 6,000 over the figure briefed by his party a few days earlier and not an eye lid is batted. For a year we independence supporters were told that being asked difficult questions (relentlessly, over and over again) is the price of democracy. So in which system is Jim Murphy operating?

This is not about nasty or personalised politics but is a simple question as to why ‘Murphy news’ is reported differently from ‘other news’. Let’s take his front bench team reshuffle. There were two people in that group which were from a left background (Neil Findlay and Drew Smith). One was very visibly demoted, the other sacked. Both of them are heavily supported by a trade union sector which campaigned against Murphy. Not worth a line of mention anywhere? Or what about those photos of him out jogging at the weekend. Can you imagine an independence-supporting politician sending out a calling notice (alerting the media to a pre-arranged stunt) for such a blatant PR exercise and it being run straight in many newspapers (though some did at least indicate that it was a PR set up)?

So I’m bothered about all of this? Strangely, not really.

What I think it really tells us is just how very worried establishment voices in Scotland are. They are enormously vested in Murphy. Some believe him to be their only hope. They are repeating precisely the mistakes they made during the referendum – by reporting what they want to be true (Britain is great/Murphy is a genius) and not reflecting what is actually happening (people know Britain is a mess/Murphy is enormously divisive and untested in this kind of role), they are creating a condition in which Scotland can slip away from underneath them and they won’t understand why. Failing to do anything to expose the weaknesses of a politician does not make those weaknesses go away, it just make the person concerned unprepared.

Let’s have a look at a couple of questions that are relevant. There is almost universal agreement that Murphy is a great presentational politician. While I have some doubts about this (he may be a strong backroom operator but he does not score well with the public when he appears in person), I have no doubt that he is an accomplished operator in the early Blairite mould. This is particularly true where he is backed by overwhelming power (such as by the Scottish media during the referendum campaign that sought to turn him into some sort of folk hero or from Blair himself in his role of stitching up Scottish constituencies as special projects officer in the run-up to the 1997 election). But it has always been a hit-and-run skill set.

Take a closer look at Murphy’s career from age 18 and something else becomes apparent (his wikipedia entry is informative…). In that time, other than being MP for Eastwood, I can’t see a single role that he has held for more than three years in a row – and that goes all the way back to a degree course he failed to complete. This marries closely to the Blairite philosophy of politics in which presentation trumps substance, talking is more important than learning, and role X and role Y are just variations of the same basic press release. There is plenty of evidence that Murphy is very adept at saying things with an absolute certainty that get him through periods of interrogation but little to suggest that he has the ability to deliver.

This is reflected in his front bench team reshuffle. With months to go before a general election and under a year and a half to go before the crucial Scottish elections, he has a complete team of spokespeople every one of which will be reliant on reading out briefings produced for them in a brief they have had no time to learn. Murphy seems to think this is how it is done, because that’s how he does it. In reality, understanding a brief through some experience is important and having solid relationships with key stakeholders in that policy area is equally important. You will always have some of the team who are finding their feet. But all of them? The SNP approach of keeping people in roles for long periods was sometimes seen by the media as being conservative (since there was little reshuffle speculation to keep their political gossip pages full) but it was undoubtedly effective.

I fear that Murphy thinks that government is really an acting role in which your job is to work out what will play well and recite what you are told is going on by civil servants or party researchers in a manner that best fits the bill. His assumption appears to be that this is fine because when the pile of press releases finally falls over under the weight of its own incoherence, you’ll be in another brief anyway. Unfortunately, this won’t work for him when he’s in the front line covering the entire role of government. Making it up as you go along, performing a u-turn when last week’s convenience turns into this week’s liability, digging yourself out of a hole using only the power of bluff – this is a catastrophe in the making.

Where there is little evidence that Murphy lives up to the media hype is in empathy – in both directions. The media may salivate but public opinion on Murphy is not positive. He’s seen as shifty and insincere. In return, his version of ‘ordinary people’ seems to me to suffer from that vague Blairite contempt for the ‘bog-standard punter’. So Labour loyalist Guardian commentators may gasp at his ability to communicate with the ‘ordinary people’ (The Spectator gave him an award). But from where I’m sitting his pitch to Scotland looks awfully like a Russ Abbot sketch – stand on an Irn Bru crate, wear a Scotland football jersey, eat a Tunnocks’ Teacake. So bad (I think) is his misreading of the mood in Scotland that he has taken to using the word ‘patriot’ like it is the talk of the steamie across the country. He’s even proposing to put it in the Labour Party constitution. The only times I’ve head anyone going on about being a patriot in Scotland it was always a member of the Scottish establishment pretending to be ‘au fait’ with the locals. I really do think he is misreading the mood quite badly. Those Labour have lost don’t want to be ‘more Scotch’, they want out of London-based financial corruption. So far Murphy offers them nothing but platitudes of distinctly the wrong type.

And then there is his politics. The media can’t not mention that he is not particularly liked in the trade unions and is not known as a social democrat. But they can mention it as little as possible. In reality he is despised by the trade unions (even some of the most loyalist Labourites among them talk about Murphy in utterly unrepeatable terms) and he is on the far right of the party (certainly in geopolitical terms and broadly in economic terms). It really does matter – given the choice, Murphy appears to choose political ground as far to the right as is permitted. Of course, he knows that won’t work in Scotland. Others think his shift to the left was elegant and canny; it looked like something out of the Ministry of Funny Walks to me.

So that’s three themes that I believe will be fundamental to Labour’s future in Scotland. First, Murphy has always presented as a shallow and fitful politician building castles in sand. Can he make the move to being a credible, solid leader of substance? Second, Murphy has a feel for what journalists want but does he really speak effectively to Scotland – and in particular is he capable of reaching the disillusioned Labour-Yes voted simply by donning the political equivalent of a See You Jimmy hat? Thirdly, how effectively can he hide or rebrand his right-wing tendencies? Will the cracks show?

I hope this hasn’t been a hatchet job but a calm exploration of certain aspects of Scottish Labour’s leader’s track record, reputation and personality. It seems to me to raise genuinely legitimate questions about the assumption he is the ‘action man’ Henry McLeish believes him to be or the astute political operator almost all the media presents him as being. I have very strong doubts and I suspect that once he is in the Scottish public view on a daily basis there will be some very problematic cracks in the facade that has been built around him.

Or to put it simply, Jim Murphy is one of two things. He is either a brilliant campaigner capable of travelling Scotland with only a crate to stand on where he took on and defeated the independence movement with his passion, oratory and ability to connect with ordinary people. Or he is an over-promoted PR man who travelled Scotland on an ego-trip attracting only the interest of the national media a small team of apparatchiks he brought with him, shouting incoherently as shoppers walked by and collapsing in melodrama when someone threw an egg at him.

I guess we’ll find out – and if no-one else will ask the questions, I hope CommonSpace will.


Comments (38)

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  1. Les Wilson says:

    Excellent and truthful article, well written.

    1. Sandy Ritchie says:

      Very long meandering blog about?? Is it about Murphy?…Is it in defence of its predictable hatchet …sorry incisive investigative journalism about Murphy. Not for me to defend Murphy on an Indie blog but I’m sure any comments (personal or otherwise) will go down well with the faithful

      1. Murphys Law says:

        So you really came to say you had nothing to say?

        How very enlightening, and pointless.

    2. Graham Robertson says:

      This is the first political article that I have read completely in years, well done, the substance and the atmosphere of the article are good. I like that it asks questions as not all the answers are there. As a former Labour stalwart it sums up part of the party hated by the rank and file. Failed academics that entrench themselves in politics as a career. Despised them then an now. That’s why good hard working party members have turned their backs on Labour, because the likes of Jim Murphhy deserted us to pursue a goal that cannot possibly be achieved !

  2. It’s interesting to see a Blarite “all spin and no delivery” MP getting a much rougher ride in Scotland than he would ever receive here down south, since we have no effective opposition.

    There’s nothing that can be done with Blairite politicians like Murphy and Miliband. They need to leave politics and do something humble for a long time before they ask for the honour of serving their nation again. But such politicians tend to go on and on till the bitter end, sadly.

  3. ronald alexander mcdonald says:

    I remember during the referendum campaign Murphy and Blair Jenkins addressed around 10 people in STV studios, who were undecided.

    Murphy didn’t come across well. In fact his hand started shaking when he realised he wasn’t convincing the audience with his answers to their questions. When challenged he is easily rattled.

    1. Dean Richardson says:

      But how often will Murphy’s advisors, not to mention the media, allow Murphy to be challenged?

      1. Got it in one, Dean. And the answer of course is never.

  4. david agnew says:

    Murphy is stuck with the same problem Lamont had. No real power. What he does must always chime with the overall direction of UK labour. UK labour is now fixed on full implementation of Cameron’s austerity plan, while preaching about a “pooling/sharing” doctrine, which seems to be about taking money from Scotland to mitigate the worst effects of austerity cuts in England. If (and this is a big if) he becomes first minister, his power would be limited by virtue of the Scotland act. His freedom of movement is limited and there would be a great amount of pressure on him to bring about a lot of cuts from labours real leader; Ed mIliband.

    Ed Miliband will do anything to kill off EVEL. If that means a deal to kill off that feeble collection of stocking fillers that was the smith commission proposals, then Ed will do it. Murphy will be expected to sell it. Regardless of who wins in 2015, Murphy in Scotland without so much as a fragment of the smith commission left to cover him, will struggle to sell his credentials as “His own Boss”. Two more nightmare scenarios exist for poor old Jim. One: Cameron wins and a defeated labour helps kill off the smith commission. Labour wins but Ed needs a deal with the SNP, and its the SNP who helps ensure EVEL is killed off. Neither makes labour look all that credible in Scotland as both put to rest the idea of only voting labour keeps out the tory. The latter would be the most difficult for Murphy. Imagine the position of having ones boundaries set by a coalition involving a party you hate.

    At the moment this is largely academic. Murphy is hampered by the simple fact that he is a backbench MP. As such, he has no authority that is not first granted to him by Miliband. He is under the thumb of the party whip and is expected to perform accordingly. That means his holyrood front bench are already locked in to making the same incoherent attacks on the SNP, while offering no credible reason for thinking labour would do better. You know…the same mistakes labour made under Grey and Lamont. After 2015 Murphy also has to find an MSP seat to take, a man as divisive as Murphy, will not find securing a safe harbour all that easy, regardless of the ego polishing he is getting from the MSM.

    1. Mikerbiker says:

      Sadly he will get into Holyrood in 2016 far too easily; put himself at the top of labour’s Glasgow regional list and take a seat under the PR system, assuming that SNP continue current trends and win most of the fptp constituency seats. He couldn’t risk fighting a seat and failing. After all, most of labours current MSPs are list, including the other leadership candidates Boyack & Findlay.

  5. escorpio135 says:

    Excellent article, but I feel you could have put more emphasis on Murphy’s lack of education.
    Murphy spent NINE years as a student at Strathclyde and failed to obtain a degree…who funded him for these NINE years? I imagine that the Government provided the funds.
    And now he wants Students to take our loans!
    Murphy is a professional, and thus far successful, Con-man.

  6. Clootie says:

    Another excellent article.

    It is little wonder that the public switched off from politics when it is now obvious that it is about manipulation instead of informing or “doing what is right”.

    Alexander / Blair / Brown / Murphy etc – SPIN the issues to a basic formulae. Speak without saying anything. Wear a suit and smile but above all ensure a compliant media.

  7. Reblogged this on cllrowenthompson and commented:
    Interesting piece on what the mainstream media won’t tell us…

  8. Monty says:

    Interesting and glad you did not do a hatchet job and instead wrote a thoughtful and balanced piece.

    1. Charles Kearney says:

      Well, of course it is a Hatchet Job, but the Blade is so Sharp and beautifully Honed—he won’t have felt a thing!

      A blunt Hacksaw would have been my Preference for a man who insults the Intelligence of Scots every time he opens his Mouth!

      I’m not much given to quoting Dr. Johnson, but I’m sure he had the likes of Murphy in mind when he said, ‘Patriotism is the last resort of the Scoundrel!’

  9. An excellent piece. Though I do worry about the ongoing power and influence of the Unionist main-stream media and the hatchet job it will do in order to show Murphy in a ‘messiah-like’ light.

  10. Doug Daniel says:

    I sometimes think there’s no point commenting on Robin’s articles, because he pretty much covers everything already. It really is very revealing about where our mainstream media is at that simply challenging a politician is seen as a hatchet job, when it’s the very thing they should be doing themselves. Ho hum.

    On Murphy’s education, I think people misunderstand – I don’t think Jim failed at all. A normal person goes to university to get a degree in something they’re interested in or think will get them a job. Jim went to university as a stepping stone into politics. I’m reminded of a quote by one of the former members of The Clash, where they said they went to art school not to get a degree in art, but because that’s what you did if you wanted to form a band. Jim’s the same, he went to university to get into student politics. So from that respect, he didn’t fail at all (although he probably took a good deal longer than he originally intended.)

    You’ve got to wonder though – if he hadn’t been given that Special Projects role in 1996, would he still be at university trying to complete his degree today?

  11. liz says:

    Jim Murphy is indeed easily rattled as seen when he launched a foul mouthed attack on Pete Wishart who was checking out how many Lab MPs were present at a vote in HoC.

    He will get a lot more scrutiny in Scotland than WM, so it will be interesting to see him holding his temper.

    As WoS gave us a copy of Jim on Scotland Tonight lying 4 /5 times in 48s, I sent a tweet to STV and asked for a comment from them – but got no reply.

    I think if we keep the pressure on reporters here they will eventually realise that a good number of us will not be fooled by lying and hopefully it will make them feel that they have to hold him to account – excluding the BBC of course, cos I’ve given up on their ability to tell the truth

  12. Bothy Basher says:

    This is a very professional, elegant dismantling of the Murphy smoke and mirrors act. New Labour rises from its tainted history to pose on an Irn Bru crate – pure Harry Lauder kitch.

    It is not a hatchet job, but rather hoists Mr Murphy with his own petard – and facts.

  13. FIsles says:

    Murphy is simply an opportunist. He was getting no where in Westminster and thinks he can be a big fish in a small sea in Scotland. He won’t be!

  14. Valerie says:

    Great piece. Murphy’s character is there for all to see, if they just slightly draw back the Unionist cloak. Trouble is, he is an Establishment figure, so MSM are busy blowing smoke up our a··, hoping we won’t notice his thin veneer.

    What is really pathetic, is that the MSM are just running the same old, tired bag of tricks on us, when they know the landscape has changed, so the beatification of Murphy was entirely expected.

    I can well believe he is rattled when challenged, just look at the constant repetition of his phrases just now, which is boring in the extreme, as the media curry favour by having his face plastered everywhere just now.

  15. mackisimul says:

    ‘Or he is an over-promoted PR man who travelled Scotland on an ego-trip attracting only the interest of the national media a small team of apparatchiks he brought with him, shouting incoherently as shoppers walked by and collapsing in melodrama when someone threw an egg at him.’ – Having witnessed the ‘crate walk’ at first hand I can confirm you are on the money here.

  16. Paul Carline says:

    I share the admiration of all the commenters (so far) for Robin McAlpine’s quality piece. But I did pause to wonder what the reaction would be – lifting the sights away from Scotland for a moment – to someone writing in the same vein about the scurrilous bias of the mainstream media in relation to Russia and Ukraine.
    I could copy Robin’s words almost exactly, substituting only “rabid anti-Russian propaganda” for Robin’s “case for the union” and changing the tense to give us “the rabid anti-Russian propaganda is based on slogans which are directly contradicted by almost all the available data and evidence”.
    How many of Bella’s readers would endorse that claim? What we are witnessing is an incredibly dangerous game of economic attack and aggressive confrontation – at the same time as hypocritical support for a Kiev regime that resulted from an illegal coup and which includes numbers of neo-fascists and recent ministerial appointments that clearly indicate an effective US takeover of the administration.
    I wonder also how many Bella readers are aware of the recent UN vote to ban the glorification of Nazism and the wearing on public of Nazi symbols and insignia (openly displayed in Ukraine). The proposal was passed by a majority in the UNITED but every country in Europe abstained, while the U.S., Canada and Ukraine voted ‘no’. Europe should be ashamed of itself.

    1. andygm1 says:

      Personally, I read this article to learn something about the Scottish media handling of Jim Murphy.

    2. kate says:

      yes MSM coverage has often been either anti russian or gives impression events so complex or hidden from public view media unable to make them comprehensible, as with aspects of lead up to iraq invasion and aftermath.opaqueness allows few questions to be asked of implicated parties. as noted by j pilger & others media as de facto propagandists of US,UK & various neo liberal elites an international problem

  17. Many thanks Robin for one of the most accurate and incisive descriptions of the Murphyitis Phenomenom to find expression..
    After the battering my brain’s taken from the Media Murph hailstorm these last few weeks ,this definitive account was worth waiting for.
    I would put it on a par with my favourite of all-The Butterfly Rebellion-and that takes some doing.
    Long may your words flow.
    Sublimely enlightening.

  18. Benjamin says:

    Seems pretty reasonable to me. Even quite measured. We’ll see if enough people are persuaded. I suspect he’ll claim victory, whatever the result.
    Gaining independence was always going to be difficult when all the UKs resources were focussed on defeating it. . With the chaos that the next GE is about to bring , I suspect it will become easier.
    After years of making the ‘right friends’ I suspect that the harsh realities of the real world are about to be experienced by Murphy

  19. kate says:

    The article seems to treat coverage of murphy by the new indy hard copy/online paper The National as irrelevant, though it apparently has good circulation. curious as to why.

    Also feel coverage by his major opponents, Nicola Sturgeon et al , and coverage of their response to murphy as presented in media, has gone missing. perhaps early days.

    the public trust in unchallenged professional MSM journalism & journalists needs to fall far lower in order for democracy to flourish. western journos rarely challenge socio economic elites & frequently support them- they keep their jobs,money/promotion then. indeed u could say murphy is irrelevant, and the media ‘mirror’ of elite policies as natural is where the major task lies. any inroads into equating positive MSM coverage as propaganda will bring murphy down with it.

    some in media are saying murphy is playing fake left , others he intends to gather vote to right of SNP. perhaps he is confused too.

    worst outcome would be if murphy takes mainstream scottish politics to the right. so sharpen your hatchets, not to falsely villify, but to ensure scotland keeps moving to the left, and genuinely away from austerity. people who are well fed & fine with the deprivation of others will like murphy, nothing to do about that. but MSM will have people voting against their own interests if they have their way.

    In Australia too Labor very left wing before an election, but return to neo liberal agenda if win. Just lie for votes, then renege. When elected go full neo liberal, attack the poor. Labour/Labor are generally well paid professional people with no real interest in the welfare of other human beings, as most politicians and most journalists. Class backgrounds of journos in UK middle/upper, they serve their class, even if themselves on auto pilot & unaware of it. Objectivity is class prejudice

  20. Darien says:

    Everyone here seems to have sussed Jim out ok. But that still leaves the 10-15% ultra-naive Scots who helped swing things last Sept. Jim is targeted at them.

  21. Chris says:

    And then there’s light entertainment:


  22. CrossmanDiaries says:

    Good article exploring and therefore exploding the Murphy Myth. When he won Eastwood it was on a massive swing and against record of the previous incumbent who was both a drunk (self confessed) and found guilty in a Scottish Court of assaulting a green activist with a pick axe! I put it to you that the proverbial donkey could have been elected in these circumstances. he did retain the seat and increase his majority but this ( and here comes the warning for Scotland) he did by ruthlessly segmenting the constituency and ensuring that he was pro Israel and Zionism in one part and die-hard Celtic Season ticket holder in another (a trick he acquired from John Reid.

    1. Barontorc says:

      Well now he’s already covered the jewish and timaloy angles where does he really go from here – there can’t be many options left for such a carpetbagger – nobody, but nobody likes or has any time for Jim Jim. How many babies can the torag kiss between now and May 2015?

  23. kurikat says:

    I don’t post much, but I do enjoy a good read, an intellectual read, and & honest opinion when it comes to scrutinising our politicians, by a very biased media in this country. Keep up the good work Robin, enjoy your articles a lot.

    1. bruce says:

      you shouldve gone to Specsavers first1 Well written yes. Honest and unbiased? Not a hatchet job? LOL!

      1. Murphys Law says:

        Thanks for your compelling and interesting critique of the piece.

        I don’t care what people say there’s no debate that can’t be improved upon with a LOL.

        After considering the intricacies of your argument I can only concede that you are indeed correct and I’d like to subscribe to your newsletter but only if you can guarantee that your grammar, punctuation and prose will be of the immensely high standard you’ve demonstrated so far!

        LOL (I think)

  24. David Allan says:

    Thanks Robin for this piece on Murphy, also the numerous other well informed and thought provoking contributions throughout the campaign and now thankfully beyond.

    I can’t help contrast your positive personal contribution to political debate in Scotland with that of Murphy.

    The fact that Murphy manages to exploit any media exposure is remarkable given the sheer lack of any genuine sincerity in any opinion I have ever seen him attempt to express.

    With character flaws in abundance only time will reveal them all. He is definately not a Leader that commands any respect ,there can be only one direction of travel for Scottish Labour.

    His Family returned to Scotland to flee his possible conscription in South Africa, this all sounds typically to convenient an explanation! Jim Murphy has been keeping one step ahead of reality ever since.

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