Job losses at The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday has been described by the Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop as ‘deeply disappointing’ papering over Stewart Stevenson’s hastily retracted tweet yesterday. But if Stevenson’s tweet was ridiculous – it’s not after all the fault of journalists or workers if the management lacks imagination or if the industry is in freefall – this doesn’t mask the fact that some of the Scotsman’s problems are the Scotsman’s fault.
People seem to be in denial about this, as much else. Journalists response yesterday was hysterical and prompted this from Alyn Smith: “Perhaps serious journalists having time in their busy days to be outraged at twitter is itself a symptom of why we’re all in trouble.”
The losses may lead to the Scotsman’s terminal decline and will now leave two huge media buildings in Scotland – Pacific Quay on the Clyde (built at a cost of £188 million) and the Scotsman’s grand new offices with far fewer people in them than they were intended at a time when we need good quality media in a transformative moment in Scottish history (whatever the referendum result this is true). These buildings are now monuments to the failed old media formats: working on the basis of ‘one to many messaging’; owned by a wealthy proprietor or a national broadcaster.
I know we have to play a game where we have to express deep sorrow for the papers passing but it’s not a game I’m willing too play. Wikipedia has it that: ‘ The Scotsman was launched in 1817 as a liberal weekly newspaper by lawyer William Ritchie and customs official Charles Maclaren in response to the “unblushing subservience” of competing newspapers to the Edinburgh establishment’. Then explains that it’s political alignment is ‘centre-right’ and it’s ‘modern editorial line is firmly anti-independence’. All of which is fine. ‘Write what you like’ as Biko had it. But one of the reasons for the demise is that this combination doesn’t resonate closely with a large cross-section of the Scottish public, or if it does, they have the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Times, the Scottish Daily Express, the BBC and a wealth of other media outlets to choose from that are ‘centre-right’ and ‘firmly anti-independence’. It’s a crowded market for a country that has (arguably) a different set of values and (at worst) a substantial section of people pro-independence and undecided.
The decline of the Scotsman, acquired by Johnston Press from Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay in 2005 for £160m, has been rapid with circulation half the 2007 level of 60,627. From the days of Tim ‘Nae’ Luckhurst’s editorial charge (1988-1994) to today we have seen a decade of decline. Not all of this is about poor editorial management. In the mosh pit of contemporary media institutions like the Scotsman have failed to adjust to the many to many shift of media models.
There are deeper failings than ‘not being pro-indy’. In an article on Media Lens David Cromwell writes: “The systematic propaganda of the corporate media – its deep-rooted antipathy towards upholding proper journalistic standards in the public interest – extends to its coverage of human-induced climate change. The Independent recently delivered a masterpiece of headline obfuscation with: ‘World cools on global warming as green fatigue sets in.’
In other words how can corporate media hold a torch to a world that it is the product of?
The backlash against the Leveson proposals have highlighted a further absurdity of the contemporary corporate media-world. Screaming like spoilt brats they are responding with unconcealed shock at the idea that anyone should regulate them – this despite the catalogue of extreme abusive behaviour witnessed over decades of tabloidisation of our entire society and charted methodically by Leveson.
The Scotsman and other mainstream media scream ‘press freedom’ while serving up a product of enforced idiocy, cultural moronism and repeated messages of deference. Last week the Scotsman published a front page article headlined ‘New images show the Queen relaxing at the Balmoral’. That this was pointed out to be a low-point of journalistic investigative inquiry put the business editor Peter McMahon into a real lather. Some have suggested that the point is not that the paper is right wing or left wing or pro-indy or anti, it’s just not very good.
So where do we go? Media Lens again asks simply, how is a corporate newspaper able to uphold the nine cardinal principles of journalism set out by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism?:
• Its first loyalty is to citizens
• It must serve as an independent monitor of power
• It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise