Last week, it seemed, the sleekit Nats had been caught red handed. Nicola Sturgeon was trying to abolish the Union by stealth by hauling down the Union Flag from public buildings. In a move that would have made Sir Walter Scott weep, she ordered her apparatchiks, we were told, to issue a decree banning the British Flag on the Queen's Birthday. In future, it was only to be flown on one solitary day a year, while nationalist emblems like the Lion Rampant will take its place.

Mind you, there was always a slight problem with this story, which graced the front pages of the unionist press, since the Lion Rampant – the wee red dragon on the yellow background – is actually called the “Royal Banner". It was first used by King William 1st of Scotland, but since 1707 it has been one of the key heraldic emblems of the British monarchy. In other words, it's as British as the Union Jack. As indeed is the Saltire, the national flag of Scotland, which forms the background of the Union Flag.

Moreover, the First Minister did not authorise her civil servants to issue any edict about the flying of any flags, as the Daily Mail has had to recognise in one of the most humiliating press apologies I've seen in recent years. I feel uncomfortable about newspapers apologising to politicians, but in this case it was simply unavoidable. The facts had not been checked and the story was false. At the time of writing, the Scottish Secretary, David Mundell, who echoed the claim, has not apologised, and nor has the Tory leader, Ruth Davidson. Thursday's First Minister's Questions will be most interesting.

Kevin McKenna: Ruth Davidson's Union flag ploy is dismal and sinister

The flag row was one of those tales, like the Daily Telegraph's claim that Nicola Sturgeon had told the French Ambassador that she wanted David Cameron to win the 2015 general election, that was just too good to check. But that's precisely why it should have been checked: because it was too good to be true. Eventually, the French Ambassador set the record straight in 2015, and the then Scottish Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, who had leaked the false information, ended up in with an expensive court case. The Daily Telegraph was unapologetic, but the paper was censured by Ipso, the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

Unlike “Frenchgate”, as it was called, there was a scintilla of truth to last week's flags story. The Protocol and Honours Team at the Scottish government did indeed issue new guidance in December on what flags are supposed to be flown in Scotland on what ceremonial occasions. The 2017 rules said that the Union Flag should be flown from public buildings on 15 occasions, including the Queen's Birthday, her wedding anniversary, other royal birthdays and Coronation Day. The new guidelines specified only that it should be flown on Remembrance Day in November.

It was perhaps understandable that newspapers of a unionist disposition should leap on this as a sign that the Union Jack was being swept from public buildings. However, as the First Minister insisted, this was not new, and was merely a recognition of the arrangements that had been in place since 2010. Alex Salmond, explained that he had personally discussed flying the Royal Banner on the Queen's birthday with the Queen herself.

This is something the Queen is not at liberty to confirm, but we've no reason to disbelieve the former First Minister. At the time, all UK government departments had been discussing new guidance on the use of flags. This followed the then Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown's, attempt to have the Union Flag more widely flown, as part of his “I love Britain” campaign. But there was no edict from Number Ten. The devolved administrations were invited to make their own arrangements about when the Union flag should be flown.

Kevin McKenna: Ruth Davidson's Union flag ploy is dismal and sinister

You might surmise that Alex Salmond had seen this as an opportunity to reduce the presence of the Union Flag and replace it with the Lion Rampant, which “feels” more Scottish, even though it isn't. But the point is that, whatever the motives of her predecessor, Nicola Surgeon had not ordered any change in 2017. Nor is the Union flag being stripped from public buildings. As many on social media pointed out, the Union Jack was on display last week as usual outside the Scottish parliament building. The Daily Mail should have checked before splashing on its front page “Sturgeon Bans Union Flag for Queen's Birthday”. If it had said that the Scottish government had 'announced' a change of rules, it might have just got away with it.

But to read the headlines last week you could've been forgiven for thinking that the Scottish government was trying to replace the Union Flag with the Irish Tricolour. There's long been a tendency in certain sections of he UK press to read across, perhaps unconsciously, from the Irish Troubles to Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the “flegs”, as they're known in the local patois, are serious business, reflecting as they do a deep sectarian divide. It used to be illegal in Northern Ireland to fly any flag other than the Union Jack. A move in 2012 to reduce the number of days the Union Flag flew at Belfast City Hall led to some of the worst street violence since the Troubles.

But these culture wars do not apply here and the Lion Rampant is not the Irish Tricolour. Nor is the Saltire the flag of a foreign country. It's true that the Union Flag has been adopted by Loyalists and Rangers fanatics, and was flown by those Nazi-saluting thugs who descended on George Square on the night of the 2014 referendum. But it is not a Loyalist emblem and is not widely regarded as such by Scots. In the wake of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014, you started to see Union Flags all over Scotland, often being used as cushions, aprons, curtains and even wallpaper. There was a certain irony in this usage, but it also indicates a residual affection for the image.

READ MORE: Why did it take eight years for Scottish Government to confirm Union flag curb?

Yes, old-style Scottish nationalists used to follow Irish Republicans and some anti-colonial movements, by calling the Union Flag “the Butcher's apron”, a bloody symbol of British imperialism. But I haven't heard any SNP politician use that phrase for at least a quarter of a century. A researcher working for the SNP MSP, Sandra White, had to resign in 2006 over a press release which used the term. But that only confirmed that the SNP has foresworn its use.

Anyway, as everyone knows, Nicola Sturgeon has about as much interest in flags as she has in football. Any sensible journalist should have been wary of any story suggesting she was a flag-obsessed nationalist fanatic. As so often in Scottish politics, the row was really about the press rather than politics; sensationalism rather nationalism. Newspapers can't resist appealing to their base and confirming the prejudices of their readers. Of course newspapers have their own agendas, as does the Sunday Herald, and this will often influence how stories are presented. But newspapers risk destroying their own tarnished image if they abandon the first commandment of journalism: comment is free, but facts are sacred.