The man who wasn't there.

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invisibleman.jpgNicholas Christian has a classic media revenge story in today's Scotland on Sunday, in which someone at the Press Association has spilled the beans about a heavy-handed phone call from an SNP special adviser.

The original incident was the SNP-embarassing tale that Olympic champion Chris Hoy had come out against a separate Scottish Olympic team. Despite a recording substantiating it, Will McLeish apparently tried to spike the story as untrue, along with suggestions that Hoy and his interviewer were in cahoots.

You could work in Scottish politics a long time before you met the author of today's piece, Mr Christian, though. Despite Google listing 1,230 articles in his name, he doesn't exist. It's a fake byline, or a house byline as the euphemism goes.

Papers use house bylines for various purposes. The Daily Express use a certain Brendan Abbot to slag off the Daily Mail without comeback. The Daily Mail took on the posh but transparently fictional Imogen Faux, who started out as a feminist but ended up as a catch-all house byline. The Sun apparently even tried to poach one of these imaginary writers: the Star's hardworking but non-existent Emily Rose.

In the case of the Hoy story, the need for Mr Christian to get involved is obvious. Political journalists need the spin doctors, especially those with all the baubles of government, even though they sometimes resent their approach. Naming a SPAD, even in a relatively thin story like this, risks looking like an attempt to invoke Whelan's Law: "When the spin doctor becomes the story, it's time for the spin doctor to go." 

Take care, though, my journalistic friends. Most Scottish papers have at best two or three people covering politics, so a house byline doesn't draw much of a veil over your identity. What's more, the Alastair Campbell school of media management still permits revenge to be exacted on the whole paper, not that I think the SNP work that way, and the NUJ's Ethics Council may even try to out you if there's a complaint. Somehow I don't think there will be over this, though.


Have you checked with PA, using your privileged position that would allow you to do such things?

I look forward to reading the results of your in-depth investigations.


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This page was published on October 19, 2008 9:42 AM.

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