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February 5, 2024

How Sunday Mail journalist defied ‘furious’ denials to expose SNP financial scandal

Sunday Mail political editor says it was nice to be vindicated after stories called "drivel".

By Charlotte Tobitt

Sunday Mail political editor John Ferguson said it was “always nice to get vindicated” after the SNP dismissed his revelations about the party’s membership and finance crisis last year as “drivel”.

Ferguson was recognised for his work, which likely led at least in part to the resignations of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, chief executive Peter Murrell and head of communications Murray Foote, when he won the politics prize at the British Journalism Awards in December.

Ferguson told Press Gazette the SNP’s “default reaction was just to say that’s not true and brief against the story” – a theme he spotted when reporting other stories about the party as well.

However, he and the Sunday Mail team were “confident that we were right and it’s always nice to get vindicated, ultimately”.

As a result the “best lesson” he learned from reporting on this story was “if people are telling you that you’re wrong, it’s often going to be because you’re right – so don’t give up and don’t listen to people telling you that you’re wrong”.

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How the SNP’s ‘house of cards’ began to fall

Ferguson’s work on the SNP finances crisis goes back to 2021 when he revealed police were investigating claims of a £600,000 fraud – a story that contributed to him being named a finalist for the Anti-Corruption Journalism category at the British Journalism Awards in 2021.

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He said there were “furious denials from the party and claims this was all politically motivated but we looked into it a bit more and there had been a number of resignations from the SNP’s finance committee over a lack of transparency so it seemed that there was enough there to do the story.

“Whether there was a political element to it or not, the fact was it was now a police matter that was getting taken seriously”.

Ferguson then continued building up contacts within the SNP and examining the party’s accounts and ultimately in February 2023 he revealed that up to 30,000 people were believed to have cancelled their membership. “It’s all in a way linked to the finance because the SNP relies very much on its members to function,” he explained.

The party was “really furious” about the story, Ferguson said, with Foote labelling it “drivel” on Twitter and a party spokesperson condemning it as “both malicious and wholly inaccurate” in a story in pro-independence newspaper The National.

Sturgeon announced her intention to resign as first minister just days later, although her exact reasons remain unclear. Ferguson said there was “folklore” about whether she “had an inkling” about the upcoming police investigation or it was because the Sunday Mail had been given false information.

“But we went with that story and then like all of these things it was the cover-up that ended up being a bigger story than the original story in a way,” Ferguson said.

Within weeks the story had been proved “completely true”, Ferguson said, triggering the resignation of Foote as well as Murrell, who is also Sturgeon’s husband.

“I think that was when the whole house of cards began to fall a bit.”

Foote, who subsequently argued he had acted in “good faith” in his denials of the story and blamed the information he was given, has since been named Murrell’s successor as SNP CEO. He is a former editor of the Daily Record between 2014 and 2018, under whom Ferguson worked at that newspaper before he joined the Sunday Mail.

Ferguson kept on the story last spring, with his other award-winning stories including the revelation that senior SNP members were questioned by police about fraud allegations days before Sturgeon’s resignation, and a deep-dive into the “catalogue of lies” that led to Murrell’s resignation.

He also secured leaked video footage of Sturgeon insisting the SNP’s finances had “never been stronger” and warning officials to be “very careful” about suggesting there were “any problems” with the accounts.

Sunday Mail front pages and stories about SNP crisis in order from February to April 2023
Sunday Mail front pages and stories about SNP crisis in order from February to April 2023

Ferguson told Press Gazette the SNP’s response to his stories fit into a wider “erosion in standards in public life”.

“I think that’s why doing this sort of journalism’s really important,” he said.

“I think that politicians and public officials and business people in the main are quite decent and clever individuals to different degrees, but you can never underestimate and never cease to be amazed by the things that people do from corruption to dishonesty, and just downright stupidity when power and money and party politics are involved. And good public interest investigative journalism like the kind that these awards celebrate are the best bulwark really that we’ve got against all of that kind of thing.”

Sunday newspapers especially continue to hold a space for this kind of journalism, Ferguson said, as he called for them to stay a “distinct” entity. In recent years many major newsrooms, such as at the Mail, Mirror and The Times in Scotland, have either become seven-day operations or increased the level of collaboration between their daily and Sunday titles.

Ferguson said: “There’s lots of good journalism out there but Sunday newspapers are that space where you get a week to work in things where there’s traditionally a bit more of an appetite to take on challenging stories… It’s not easy doing good stories. It takes time and you need to deal with a lot of challenges and Sunday papers are the place where you can still get to do that.

“[If you look at] the amount of fantastic work that Sunday newspapers continue to do, I think it’s really important to keep them as a distinct thing and protect them as a little ecosystem and vehicle for really good investigative journalism.”

Ferguson shared praise for British Journalism Awards Journalist of the Year Gabriel Pogrund of The Sunday Times and Investigation of the Year winner Dan Neidle, who uses his experience as a tax lawyer to expose wrongdoing.

“It’s really important stuff that would almost certainly not come to light if it wasn’t for journalists spending a lot of time just digging into these issues and finding out what’s really happening,” Ferguson said. “So it does feel like there is this sort of erosion in standards in public life where if we didn’t have that, things would be a lot worse.”

‘More balance’ in Scottish newspapers and Sunday Mail ‘not biased’ against SNP

Despite the Sunday Mail going hard on the SNP, Ferguson said the newspaper is not biased against them.

“There’s always accusations that we’ve got some sort of bias at the Sunday Mail against the SNP and the truth is we’ve had the leaders of all the political parties in Scotland on the front page for various things and various negative stories over the last few years,” he said.

“It’s true the SNP have been there more often but the reality is they’ve been in power in Scotland now for 17 years and our job’s to hold power to account and it’s just a natural result of being in power as long as they have that they are going to be the focus of a lot of stories now.”

Ferguson said he believes there is “probably a bit more balance in the Scottish newspaper market” compared to how London-based titles report on politics.

He added: “Sometimes it feels like we give our politicians a rougher ride.” For example, speaking before Sturgeon’s appearance at the Covid inquiry last week, he pointed to the treatment of Scottish ministers over lost Covid Whatsapp messages who “seem to be getting a lot more stick in the press” compared to Rishi Sunak, whose messages also went missing.

“He doesn’t really appear to be getting held to the same standards by the London media, I’m not quite sure why that is.”

Several other Scottish journalists were winners at the British Journalism Awards in December: Andrew Picken of BBC Scotland News Online was recognised for his personal finance journalism while Rhiannon Davies of The Scottish Beacon won the Women in Journalism Georgina Henry Prize.

Ferguson said: “There are some really good journalists working in Scotland, breaking stories all the time that for understandable reasons don’t always cut through down in London the way that the SNP crisis has, but nonetheless there’s some really good stuff being done week in, week out.”

He added: “It’s really exciting to be involved in a story that captures attention down there. You always know you’ve done a good job when the BBC are leading on your story nationally, not just in the Scottish section of the site.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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