Scotsman-Klan-Alba

“As newspapers shrink, the media loses its capacity to act as a democratic watchdog” writes Peter Geoghegan, one of Scotland’s finest independent-minded young journalists (‘Media-bashing ignores press role’, Scotsman, 8 November). But is that true?

Does the media operate as a democratic watchdog? What/whose interests does the media represent? There’s plenty of examples of good journalism and good journalists, but there’s also daily examples of a media that represents it’s owners interests. The corporate media is after all owned by someone – and this issue of ownership and power seems oddly absent from Geoghegan’s account.

Whether it’s the casual porn of the Daily Star or the far-right politics of the Daily Express or Mail or even just the relentless diet of banal celebrity drivel, the notion that this press is a democratic watchdog needs more than just asserted as truth. With Andy Coulson and his lover in court, the blithe statement of vanguard status doesn’t bare scrutiny. Ownership is power. Media moguls don’t control media outlets for no reason. This gives them clout.

Geoghegan is also strangely naive about the Scottish press:

A cursory glance through the comment sections of the Scottish press reveals a broad spectrum of opinion on “the national question”. Nationalists, unlike brethren in Quebec or Catalonia, might not have a newspaper dedicated solely to their cause, but there are plenty of pro-independence voices among our commentariat.

It’s true – though a blanket of right-wing unionist commentary would make a Pravda charicature of even the least bashful Better Together outlets. In any one week, the Scotsman will host Michael Kelly, Eddie Barnes, Brian Wilson, Euan McColm, Simon Pia, the Massies and a host of other fine writers to unleash their invective. This isn’t really balanced by the admission of a very few opposing views. The editorial view is really clear and up front.

Peter’s perspective seems – at best – rose-tinted:

I heard it said by a journalist at a debate about Scottish independence and the media at the Edinburgh festival that his goal was “to create a place where we can have a grown-up and responsible debate about the issues and independence”.

It is an intention that is shared by almost every editor and journalist I have met working in Scotland. Independence is the biggest story in years – it is in the interest of very few in our trade to downplay it.

I wouldn’t suggest any editor wants to downplay it – that’s out of their hands – I would suggest that they want to rubbish it and undermine it. Is the picture (top right) an example of a grown up and responsible debate?

The issue is a live one with news that sales of the Scotsman fell by 17% in the year to July, to below 30,000 per day – and that Scotland on Sunday sales between January and July were down 20% to 37,000.

That there is inherent institutional bias in Scottish media is beyond any reasonable doubt. It’s expressed in editorial, in attitude, in story choice, in headline manipulation. It’s seen and heard in the belittling, often infantile broadcast media, the incredulity of Kirsty Wark, and the strange circular ‘What the Papers Say?’ read out as if to protect and project plurality by entrenched Times Editor (daily sales less than Bella’s at 18,931).

I don’t know how to respond to Peter’s assertion that: ‘During the 1980s and early 1990s, the SNP often indirectly benefited from a benign press’. I must have missed that.

But my main criticism of this account lies here:

Independent journalism at its best holds big business, parliaments and politicians to account. Without aggressive reporters and diligent editors, MPs would continue to claim extravagant expenses, hospitals would continue to fail and schools would close almost unnoticed.

‘Independent journalism’ is a good thing – like Mom and Apple Pie – but they have to find media outlets to employ them or work for institutions that don’t float above and beyond politics in some value-free realm of inquisitive neutrality hunting down the powerful. Instead they hack murdered school children’s phones, bug celebrities and pursue their own political agendas. Don’t they?

The notion that the traditional media is well resourced and therefore the basis for ‘protecting democracy’ has it’s basis in the past, and is spoilt by the endless wasting of that resource. Geoghegan should look at what the press actually do – actually publish – not what they could do or what they might do in an idealised world. As new media equips itself with the resources to supply a real alternative, the landscape is going to change again.