AT heart, the SNP – from top to toe – emanates an aura of hostility towards the media. The party doesn’t like the press, it doesn’t like the BBC, it doesn’t like newspapers, it doesn’t like journalism full stop. In truth, the SNP doesn’t like being questioned, it doesn’t like a check on its power and authority. It doesn’t like scrutiny or accountability.

It’s an ironic state of affairs, given the party has co-opted umpteen Scottish journalists. There’s plenty of former reporters in its ranks, like MP John Nicolson or MSP Joan McAlpine; its backroom operations are staffed with journalists now on the payroll. All of which might explain the hostility: there’s a battalion of former journalists, who earn their wages through the party, and know exactly how to hurt their old industry and keep democratic scrutiny at bay. Set a thief to catch a thief.

Ironically, on top of all that, there’s never a shortage of journalists sucking up to one SNP faction or another – trying to grift their way into a cosy public appointment, or selection for a plum Holyrood seat. Read between the lines of some columnists and you’ll see an extended pitch for a bag-carrier job. The SNP even has an entire newspaper’s support – The Herald’s sister paper the National. Still it’s not happy. To say the SNP is hard done by when it comes to Scottish journalism is to be so thin-skinned a feather could cut you. The BBC is actively scared of the SNP – memories still fresh from being picketed by the party’s hardline base during the referendum.

READ MORE: SNP trying to avoid Covid scrutiny

The SNP’s Finance Secretary Kate Forbes made the party’s antipathy to the press abundantly clear when she confirmed she’d withdraw rate relief for newspapers amid the pandemic. Delivering her budget, Forbes announced she’d continue relief during Covid for the retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation sectors but not newspapers. The three-month extension costs £185 million – the cost of adding in newspapers is £1 million.

Last year, the SNP refused to extend rate relief to newspapers until opposition parties forced its hand. The Government didn’t change its mind until MSPs amended Covid legislation. Only nationalists voted against. That it was the Tories who took the lead, should shame the SNP to its core. Conservatives point out that today the SNP is “threatening to leave Scotland as the only country in Europe not providing publishers with crucial Covid-related support”.

The LibDems have made clear the role the press plays as a source of vital information during coronavirus, and warned that the SNP “should not play games” with journalism.

Nobody expects governments to ‘like’ the press. The press doesn’t exist to be liked. It exists to hold the powerful to account – so inevitably there will be tension and animosity. However, what should be expected from a party of government is that it doesn’t set out to actively undermine journalism. This is precisely what Forbes is doing to an industry buckling under financial strain during pandemic.

HeraldScotland:

Publishers in Scotland are seething at the SNP. One told me: “The fact that they’ve seen fit not to extend rates relief to the press industry in line with other industries, speaks volumes as to their apparent contempt towards our industry and its importance in society, which has never been highlighted as much as it has been during this pandemic.”

To undermine a free press is to undermine democracy. Kick away the pillar of the Fourth Estate and the entire rickety edifice of democracy comes tumbling down. A society which vilifies journalism is on the road to ruin. We’ve seen that before – and we see it today; just look to America for proof. In the age of social media’s lies, distortion, bullying, suppression, misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy and propaganda, a free, functioning press is more important than any other time since the 1930s.

The SNP has long form on its contempt for journalism. In 2018, MP Angus MacNeil retweeted and then deleted a post calling for this newspaper to be banned from government briefings. The post said “its [sic] long overdue to fight fire with fire. The nicely nice approach doesn’t work”. The MP has taken to Twitter to denounce what he calls “Fake News” relating to reports unfavourable to the party’s narrative on independence.

There’s been claims of SNP parliamentarians pressuring the employers of Scottish journalists. Reporters from titles deemed ‘unsympathetic’ have been barred from at least one press conference.

The press is attacked routinely by prominent SNP figures. Recently, James Dornan MSP tweeted – in response to a Herald poll asking if readers agreed with Scottish Secretary Alister Jack that Nicola Sturgeon should be replaced by medical experts at daily Covid briefings – “should a Scottish newspaper considering [sic] supporting the government of Scotland or should it always be subservient to Westminster politicians?”

A report overseen by the Index on Censorship – which monitors press freedom – found, in a study of threats to journalism in Europe, that “political interference has come from across the spectrum – from Podemos in Spain to the Front National in France, from Fidesz in Hungary to Labour and the Scottish National Party in the United Kingdom”.

Now add in the SNP’s consistent undermining of freedom of information legislation, and the Government’s clear desire to avoid scrutiny at all costs in the Alex Salmond saga – an issue which strikes at the very heart of our democracy. It’s often also quite clear during briefings that the First Minister can barely disguise her contempt for journalists.

READ MORE: Coronavirus killing liberty

So any talk by the SNP Government that it magnanimously spent money on newspaper advertising amid pandemic doesn’t mitigate its active financial undermining of an entire industry.

None of this is to say other parties are better – if they were in power here, they’d be similar. The UK Tory government’s Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch was recently accused of undermining press freedom with an attack on a journalist for daring to ask a question. But that’s whataboutery – we’re in Scotland, it’s the SNP in power.

Nobody is making special pleading for journalism – newspapers just want to be treated the same as other industries so people keep their jobs, and crucially do their jobs: holding the government to public account.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald