Knowing when to pick a fight is one of the first rules in politics and you’d think Scotland’s esteemed political press pack might have learned that by now.

Since First Minister Questions on Thursday – the first of the new Parliament – commentators, have been lining up to lambast the performance *of Holyrood’s new and first female Presiding Officer and lament the possibility of a supposed elected dictatorship, caused by the First Minister apparently grandstanding, speechifying and generally, failing to answer questions put to him.

Well, haud the front page.  Tell me, when did we ever have a Question Time here or in that other place down there that actually involved a proper discourse of issues and questions and answers?

In particular, the Scotsman has ramped up the volume with a lengthy piece liberally sprinkled with comment from Hugh Henry and michty me, a leader column!

Is there nothing happening slightly more portentous and deserving of such weighty treatment?  Actually no, at least not in the Holyrood bubble.  And if the vacuum created by easing itself back into parliamentary politics is enabling mischief-making political correspondents to go away and puff up stories, thereby creating bad press for the SNP Government, then it only has itself to blame.

But to start questioning the ability or appropriateness of Tricia Marwick for the role of Presiding Officer after only one performance is precipitate and indicative of one of the pack’s less fragrant inclinations.

A good manager doesn’t roll into her first meeting and park her tanks on people’s lawns.  No, she watches behaviours unfold and takes notes.  If necessary, she has a quiet, informal word behind the scenes and suggests helpful ways of improving performance.  If that doesn’t work, then she picks her moment to stamp her authority on the miscreants.  The best way of doing this of course is to deflate the behaviour with humour – something Betty Boothroyd was particularly good at as Speaker of the House of Commons.

But if necessary, she does it by clamping down hard.  The point is though she does it when it’s important to do so.

Was there anything at the first First Minister’s Question Time of any real import?  No.  Was there any point in her picking a fight with the First Minister?  No.

A point sadly missing from certain correspondents’ demolition job on her abilities, though at least Hugh Henry MSP has the good grace to acknowledge that there is a settling-in period for people in new positions.

Scotland’s political press pack has form here when it comes to its treatment of women politicians.  I don’t recall David Steele, George Reid or Alex Fergusson getting a doing after their initial performances convening Holyrood setpieces. Rightly, they were taken to task further down the line when, with a bit of experience under their belt, they were seen to be messing up.

But then they were blokes and entitled to a honeymoon period.  Not something ever readily afforded to women politicians.

The first female Ministers during devolution got similar rough treatment.  Sarah Boyack, in particular, was pilloried for being the bicycling Transport Minister with a nasty undercurrent suggesting she was not up to the job.  Wendy Alexander contended throughout her career with a focus on her personality traits rather than her abilities.  But worst of all, was the doing Susan Deacon got on the front page of the Daily Record at the height of the section 2a furore when she was “outed” as an unmarried mother and questions were raised – seriously – about her fitness then to be in charge of the welfare of the nation’s children.

In chamber sketches, other women MSPs found themselves caricatured: Karen Gillon’s Tizer habit, Karen Whitefield – and others’ – weight and voice, Nicola Sturgeon’s being a nippy sweetie (until she effectively lanced this pejorative handle by giving journalists sweeties at a press conference).

Did male Ministers or MSPs come in for such attention? Dinnae be daft.  Except perhaps for Jack McConnell’s fashion kilt faux pas at Tartan Week, few men in our Parliament have come under such scrutiny or had their performance linked subtly or otherwise to their gender or personality.

It would be nice to think that like everyone else, the political press pack has matured since the early, heady days of devolution. On the evidence of some of Friday’s sketches and weekend follow up *in-depth* analysis, it seems not.

But while they might not yet have learned the wisdom of knowing when to pick a fight, I’m quietly confident that Holyrood’s Presiding Officer will know exactly when to do so.  Not just with the First Minister but with the serried ranks of political correspondents.

*the link is only to a search list for the Times Scotland – for those of you who wish to go behind the paywall


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