Salmond was joking and the press knows it. So why pretend otherwise?
When is a joke not a joke? Answer: when it can be used for political capital.
When Labour’s treasury secretary Liam Byrne left a note for his successor after the 2010 election saying ‘sorry, there is no money’, he was repeating an old tradition that goes back to the Tory Reginald Maudling in 1964, (though with the archaic term ‘old cock’ removed).
But that didn’t stop his Lib Dem coalition successor David Laws from quoting the note in public, or for the Tories using it as evidence of Labour profligacy ever since, including in a recent election broadcast.
Usually they can expect their supporters in the press to go along with the pretence.
So to today, and the prime minister’s ludicrous use of a joke by the former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond to scare voters about a coming Scottish yoke. Mr Cameron (or one of his staff) Tweeted footage yesterday to his 980,000 followers of the former SNP leader speaking at a rally. The Tweet said:
“This footage will shock you: Alex Salmond laughs & boasts he’ll write Labour’s budget. Vote Conservative to stop it.”
So what did Salmond actually say? Here’s the full quote:
“I got a fleeting message saying that the Labour financial secretary [Chuka Umunna] had said on the Andrew Neil programme, when he was challenged about this, and what Jim Murphy had said, he said famously: ‘The Scottish Labour leader will not be writing the Labour party budget.’
But then I knew that already, because I’m writing the Labour party budget. I’ll just check my top pocket… Oh, it’s me, I’m in my top pocket.”
As is head-smashingly obvious, Salmond was making a joke about Tory campaign propaganda, which has been reduced to squawking endlessly about the SNP writing the Labour budget, and Ed Miliband being in Salmond’s pocket (or dancing to his tune, or having his strings pulled by Nicola Sturgeon).
It takes a brass neck and a wooden face to pretend this is a ‘gotcha!’ worth circulating.
Sadly, the Tory press today have repeated the quote as if Salmond was serious. The Daily Mail even put the ‘news’ on its front page, with a picture of Salmond in a kilt and a hat looking like a sort of scary Highland cowboy.
Most write-ups have simply stopped after ‘I’m writing the Labour party budget’, leaving out the next two lines, ‘I’ll just check my top pocket… Oh, it’s me, I’m in my top pocket’, which make it clear Salmond was joking.
The Sun and the Telegraph’s news pages all reported the remarks as if meant seriously without Salmond’s response, which was broadcast by the BBC yesterday – in other words, in plenty of time for today’s papers. The Telegraph’s leader column does mention Salmond said he was joking, but added: “Many a true word has been spoken in jest.”
The Times was a slight exception, referring to ‘Salmond’s budget joke’ in its headline, but the story itself is ambiguous: “Meanwhile, footage emerged yesterday of Mr Salmond joking that he would draw up Labour’s budget if Mr Miliband won power.” This suggests he might have been ‘joking’ in the manner of Dr Evil, (‘one million dollars!’) thereby giving a somewhat misleading picture of events.
Meanwhile, David Cameron has decided to stand against the nationalist ‘break-up’ of the United Kingdom under Labour and the SNP by announcing a ‘manifesto for England’ to secure English votes for English laws. On St George’s Day.
You have to laugh.
Adam Barnett is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow MediaWatch on Twitter
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