Sent to Pedant’s Corner by The Grauniad

Press Complaints Commission Code of Practice:

The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.’ 

‘A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and- where appropriate- an apology published.’

‘Straw man’ is a phrase which has entered internet parlance in the last few years. Most people will know what it means, but here’s a description just in case. Rarely will one find such a perfect example of the Straw Man fallacy as Tom Morton’s piece yesterday, the inaccuracies of which I detailed here.

In short: he misquotes Nicola Sturgeon, then attacks the subtext of something she didn’t even say. And he does so while linking not to the speech he’s misquoting, but an entirely different one, making it impossible for the reader to see the supposed quote in its original context.

Today I contacted the readers’ editor of The Guardian about this at best sloppy, at worst wanton, piece of journalism. Rather fittingly, she brushed off my criticism by ‘straw-manning’ my complaint. Our email exchange is below.

Me to her

Tom Morton’s piece ‘Scots are not morally superior. That’s why I believe in solidarity with the folk living south of Carlisle’ published on 22nd April 2014 contains the following:

“Their morality,” thundersqueaked Nicola Sturgeon at the recent SNP conference in Perth, “is not our morality.”

I have checked both the transcript and the video of the speech to which Tom Morton refers, and the quotes attributed to Nicola Sturgeon are not contained in either. 

I then checked the transcript and video of her speech given at the SNP Party conference on April 11th 2014, and it contains a quote similar to that mentioned by Tom Morton:

“Well, let us say this loudly and clearly to the Tories – your morality is not our morality.”

However, this is not quite what Tom Morton quotes her as saying. The word ‘Their’, which is crucial to the point Morton makes about what he describes as the ‘ethnic tinge’ in the speech is absent. 

I believe that this inaccurate quotation of Sturgeon, and the inference Morton then draws from it, is very unfair on her and should be retracted by The Guardian.



Her to me

Thank you for your email. Morton makes it clear in his first paragraph that Sturgeon was referring to the Conservative party, although he goes on to draw a wider inference: “Their morality,” thundersqueaked Nicola Sturgeon at the recent SNP conference in Perth, “is not our morality.” She was talking about the Tories, but …”

Best wishes
Barbara HarperMe to herThank you for your reply.You did not address the fact that Morton misquotes Sturgeon. Nicola Stugeon at no point (and certainly not at the conference the article links to) uses the phrase ‘their morality’. This error should be corrected.Her to meWe commit to correcting significant errors and I’m sorry but I don’t think this falls into that category as the writer has made it absolutely clear that Sturgeon was talking about the Conservative party.

Best wishes
Barbara HarperMe to her

My point is not about whether makes it clear that Sturgeon was referring to the Conservative Party, but the fact that he misquoted her. “Their morality” was never said by Nicola Sturgeon. I’m amazed that, even after having had this pointed out, The Guardian is satisfied to carry in quotation marks something that was never said.Furthermore, Morton’s piece links to the wrong SNP Party Conference. He links to the October 2013 conference, but is actually (mis)quoting a speech given in April 2014. Surely this alone is worth correcting now that you’re aware of it?

Her position appears to be that, because Morton does indeed state that Sturgeon was addressing the Tories, the misquote is does not constitute a ‘significant error’.  This is a ‘straw man’ because my complaint was never about Morton failing to state who Sturgeon’s speech was addressed to, but about the way in which he changes the tone of her phrasing by replacing the word ‘Your’ (which is what she actually said) with ‘Their’.

Morton’s claim that ‘there was an ethnic tinge lurking beneath the rhetoric’ is utterly dependent upon Sturgeon being seen to have used the language of ‘us and them’. Morton wishes to suggest that while she may have been addressing the Tories, the audience would’ve heard the word ‘their’ and known that the ‘them’ in question was not really the Tory government, but English people as a whole. This accusation falls down if the correct wording is used.

The Guardian editor surely knows this. The inaccuracy will remain, not because it’s insignificant, but because it’s crucial. Remove the straw man and Morton’s piece would have nothing to attack.

Update: I received an email from The Guardian today (24/04)  informing me that they had implemented the changes I requested. Credit to them for that. One can’t help but feel frustrated that Morton’s piece, which will have been view by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people, was published in the first place when its premise was so flawed. At least now people will be able to see the quote as it really was, and in its original context, and dismiss his inferences as nonsensical.


One response to “Sent to Pedant’s Corner by The Grauniad

  1. great work, this deserves more attention. this ‘intolerance’ line of attack has been a key trope of the no campaign since its inception, from the wildly distorted alasdair gray ‘colonist’ stuff to the desperate attacks on alan bissett now. it has always been total nonsense and largely fabricated as you’ve superbly dissected in the two pieces here.

Get intae it

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