IT is at times of crisis that it is most important to have access to the facts, without which informed debate and reasoned responses are impossible. The hullabaloo of social media, in which fake news, conspiracy theories and bullying attempts to silence opponents drown out genuine information and honest discussion, cannot replace trusted, verified sources of news.

We measure the gap between assertions and reality by facts. So when Kate Forbes, the Finance Secretary, tells the Scottish Newspaper Society that the Government “remains committed to the principles of public interest journalism and recognises its role in supporting democratic accountability”, it must be seen beside policy set out in the same letter. That is confirmation that ministers intend to cut off rates relief for media companies after the end of March.

Since the pandemic shattered distribution of print copies and brought an almost total collapse of private sector advertising, the essential funding sources for newsgathering, this amounts to an abandonment of commitment. Journalism is not a sector that can survive on furlough. A major crisis is exactly when reporters cannot be put aside; they are key workers because at such times the public demands and has a right to verified, reliable access to the facts.

It is regrettable but undeniable that the current administration’s record of transparency on several separate areas fails to live up to Ms Forbes’s “democratic accountability”. The Government initially refused financial support for the media, which had to be wrung from them by opposition parties. That suggests, if not outright hostility, no very great enthusiasm for the importance of a free and vibrant press.

But this distaste for critical examination of its record does the Government no favours, even if it finds it awkward to confront awkward truths or have inconvenient aspects of policy brought up. Any government faces commentary opposed to its policies; there’s no requirement that they should like it much, but it is an essential test and a vital component of the wider national interest. In any case, there is no shortage of voices supporting the SNP in Scotland’s media; ministers themselves frequently use its platforms to advance their  case.

Even more central than dissenting opinions, however, is the neutral reporting of facts and figures, the primary purpose of media. Here the Government is far too inclined toward obfuscation and evasion. Its tendency to regard questions on anything from education statistics to ferry costs to the Salmond inquiry as at best misdirected and at worst malicious has led even staunch supporters of independence to conclude that ministers have an unhealthy attitude towards freedom of information.

If the press is to be singled out as undeserving of financial support, despite the immense damage to the sector and the piffling costs of a lifeline, some will be bound to see it as a shot across the bows in the run-up to the election. A government that gives the impression it finds scrutiny distasteful only encourages the suspicion that it has something to hide.

This is profoundly damaging and potentially dangerous, to the Government as much as to the media and – which is even more important – to the public interest, the body politic, and basic principles of truth and accountability. It is an attitude that spreads and is corrosive.

On Thursday evening there was a non-party-political example, in the failure of the police to disclose anything other than scant information about the lockdown imposed in and around Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock. In the absence of even basic details to aid the reliable trusted accounts provided by professional reporters and reassure the public, the gap was filled by wild speculation on social media.

We have seen too many recent terrifying and dangerous examples of what fake news and instant accusation can lead to; a trusted media is a crucial part of preventing such scenes.  The fourth estate is not an obstacle to democratic government but a central component of its system; a country without a free press cannot be democratic. Nor can a government that fails to support a free press – especially in challenging times.