Monday, 15 February 2021
BY MAE CHEW
To what extent did the press play a central role in the Watergate scandal? This is a question that historians have been contending with for many years. There are some that claim that if not for the media, the Watergate affair may not have become a scandal in the first place. They argue that the press – be it journalists like Woodward & Bernstein, or the networks like PBS, who famously televised the political fallout ‘from gavel-to-gavel’ – were instrumental in ultimately bringing down the president.
Of course, there are also those – chiefly among them Bob Woodward himself – who warn against an All the President’s Men telling of the Watergate tale. Yet, even these interpretations inadvertently seem to put the role of the press at the centre of the story. Stanley Kutler’s The Wars of Watergate argues, a little reluctantly, that even if the press were not the moral crusaders who uncovered the scandal, they were instrumental in shaping how widely it was spread. “As more documentary materials are released,” Kutler writes, “the media’s role in uncovering Watergate diminishes in scope and importance.” Instead, “television and newspapers publicised the story and, perhaps, even encouraged more diligent investigation.”
Whichever way you slice it, the story of Watergate is incomplete without mention of the press. Sociologist Stanley Cohen argued a very similar point in the 1970s: newspapers are very good at stirring up a scandal.
But with all this in mind, it begs the question: what would happen if a scandal erupted without the watchful eye of a diligent press? If any budding social scientists are looking for a case study to test this hypothesis, they need look no further than the controversy currently engulfing the Scottish government and the reigning Scottish National Party (or SNP).
The SNP, the only major political party in favour Scottish independence, have been a major force in Scottish politics since long before the devolved assembly was established in 1999. Alex Salmond and his protegee, Nicola Sturgeon, are largely responsible for this electoral success, developing something of a cult-like status amongst their supporters. The SNP leader since 1990, Mr Salmond finally delivered his career ambition of a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. After Scotland voted convincingly to remain a constituent part of the United Kingdom, Salmond resigned as leader and his deputy, Ms Sturgeon, took his place.
In 2018, Ms Sturgeon instituted new government policy in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which permitted reports against former ministers to be received by a government disciplinary board. Soon after, two complaints of sexual misconduct were levelled against Mr Salmond. The former First Minister accused the government of changing the policies to specifically attack him, but in January 2019, Mr Salmond was arrested and charged with multiple counts of sexual assault. He branded the accusations “deliberate fabrications for a political purpose.” In response, the First Minister accused Mr Salmond of “seeking revenge” because she “did not collude with him” to make the allegations “go away.”
The sitting First Minister, deep in the COVID-19 pandemic and a sequence of peripheral controversies to match, is also increasingly embroiled in what has come to be known as the Salmond affair. When the first two allegations were received, her government mishandled the investigation so badly that they were later ordered to pay Mr Salmond £512,000 from public coffers. Judge Lord Pentland claimed that the investigation was “unlawful in the respect that they were procedurally unfair” and “tainted with apparent bias.”
As a result, a non-partisan parliamentary committee is about to conclude its investigation into the Scottish government’s handling of the complaints, and so far, the story has gone from bombshell to bombshell. Mr Salmond refused to testify on legal advice this week, following a decision by the SNP-majority committee deciding not to release what one Scottish newspaper described as “crucial evidence” Ms Sturgeon had misled the Scottish parliament on numerous occasions. To make matters worse, contradictory evidence has begun to call into question Ms Sturgeon’s own testimonies. Her husband, SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell, has already been accused of “dancing on the head of a pin” with his evidence. In other words, he is being accused of perjury.
Yet, for all the drama, the events of the past few months have not garnered much attention in vast swathes of the mainstream media. Perhaps this lack of accountability is ingrained in the very constitutional structure of the Scottish parliament: despite having significant legislative powers, including in health, tax, education and law, Holyrood has no second chamber to hold decisionmakers to account. This is confounded by the fact that legislative controversies are often left unnoticed and unpublicised by the mainstream media. Even the publicly funded British Broadcasting Corporation has been accused to giving the SNP a ‘free ride’. Last week, Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross claimed that “there are serious concerns about the impartiality and the lack of bias that should be there from the BBC.”
Viewing the recent developments through the lens of Watergate, one is reminded in the starkest terms of the power of the press to make, or in this case not to make, a scandal erupt. Scotland is no stranger to the deucedly polarised politics that have taken the world by storm. Nevertheless, whether it turns out that the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has misled parliament or not, there are still major non-partisan concerns about impartiality, corruption, and the £512,000 of tax-payers cash wasted on a political hitjob.
But Nixon’s position in 1974 was not untenable simply because he broke the law; until his death in 1994, he maintained that he was an innocent man. Rather, it was his diminished political capital. In April of 1973, Gallup found that 83% of the American public had heard or read about the Watergate affair. A month later, Gallup revealed that 71% had watched the Watergate hearings live. By August 1974, 57% thought Nixon should be removed from office. In other words, the press was undeniably crucial in heightening a sense of awareness among Americans about Watergate.
While the Scottish press could play a similarly instrumental role in enhancing cognizance for the Salmond affair, it does not seem likely. After all, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon still has the highest approval ratings of any politician in the United Kingdom.
The Salmond affair may soon become Scotland’s own version of the Watergate scandal. However, if things persist as they have done so far, we may risk discovering what Watergate could have looked like without The Washington Post.
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“Salmond and Sturgeon: What is the controversy all about?” BBC News, BBC, 9 Feb. 2021, <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-55996021>
Cohen, Stanley, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (St. Martin’s Press, 1980)
Feldstein, Mark, “The Myth of the Media’s Role in Watergate”, The History News Network, Columbian College of Arts & Sciences, 17 May 2006, <https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/6813>
Kohut, Andrew, “From the archives: How the Watergate crisis eroded public support for Richard Nixon”, Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 25 Sep. 2019, <https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/25/how-the-watergate-crisis-eroded-public-support-for-richard-nixon/>
Kulter, Stanley L., The Wars of Watergate: The Last Crisis of Richard Nixon (W. W. Norton & Company, 1992)
Matchett, Conor, “Alex Salmond will not appear in front of Harassment Complains Committee tomorrow.” The Scotsman, The Scotsman, 8 Feb. 2021, <https://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/alex-salmond-will-not-appear-front-harassment-complaints-committee-tomorrow-3127252>
Settle, Michael, “Ross airs concerns over BBC lack of impartiality and 'trotting out' SNP lines”, The Herald, Newsquest, 5 Feb. 2021, <https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/19069734.ross-airs-concerns-bbc-lack-impartiality-trotting-out-snp-lines/>
The Editors, “The Press and Watergate”, The Nation, The Nation Company, L.P., 25 March 2009, <https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/press-and-watergate/>