A Partisan Press


“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.

Comments (17)

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  1. Pour prendre conge says:

    Freedom of the press means freedom to print whichever of the owner’s prejudices the advertisers will tolerate.

    1. David Myers says:

      Or to have columnists simply make things up and present them as fact, then put them in the ‘Opinion’ section of the newspaper so that they are outwith the remit of the PCC complaints process.

  2. Les Wilson says:

    I agree with the above, but add, throw in the Political influence of Westminster, then you have an ever more TOXIC mix for democracy.

  3. I was surprised that Peter thinks a handful of opinion pieces from pro-independence columnists (or even people who just aren’t hostile to it) somehow makes everything okay. The occasional piece from Robin McAlpine doesn’t make up for unionist scare stories being repeated verbatim daily in the news section. What good is an Ian Bell column if it’s preceded by numerous news stories with Magnus Gardham’s unmistakable stamp all over them? And to paraphrase someone on Twitter, would the addition of a George Monbiot column suddenly turn the Daily Mail into the leader of the fight for truth and justice?

  4. ronald alexander mcdonald says:

    The press are not in the truth business. They are in the business of portraying the views of their owners for their own benefit. Mostly that consists of a right wing doctrine. With regard to Scottish Independence they fully participate in scaremongering and deceit to an alarming level.94% of North sea oil to Scotland? Perish the thought!

    The inclusion of a few independently minded journalists, namely Ian Bell and Iain McWhirter in The Herald are only there to give the false impression that the paper is in some way neutral and therefore avoid a total collapse in circulation. Look no further than The Scotsman for evidence.

    1. As with most things in life, it’s better to judge by actions rather than words: but it’s also naive and stupid to make gross generalisations. To say that “the press are not in the truth business” is somewhat harsh, not least given The Guardian’s role in uncovering the evil practices at News International (and our so-called security services), the Telegraph’s when it came to MPs’ expenses, and institutions such as the Highland Free Press.

      Ownership remains the big problem with our falsely-termed “Free Press”; unfortunately, whether at a UK or Scottish level, it wasn’t even properly addressed by Leveson, etc.

      1. David Myers says:

        So The Guardian have done one good thing recently. Well done them.

  5. My only queerie ! is the “!mom and apple pie”,I think porridge and black pudding would be more in keeping,with us.Some newspapers do print the truth but only when it does not go against their normal leaning,although there is more opinion now than actual news,just my opinion.The bias that is shown often makes me think that the scribes are imagining themselves as “Saviour of the Empire” and bucking for a “gong” could be wrong but thats my perception of them.When I became almost totally housebound with little or nothing much to do I was buy 6 or 7 newspapers in a day and found that most (OK all) were of the keep the union mindset,and slowly I weeded them out to just the 3 now.I was,at one time getting letters printed in one paper or another on almost a daily basis,made me feel good(being that I consider myself badly educated) my independence letters were just a fart in a thunderstorm as there were 6 or so letters for the union and they were for the variety of reasons like Alex Salmond eats curries so am voting no,or they were in that quality of reasoning.We could have a state press or at least a state sponsored newspaper with the party blogs in separate sections,might give the chance for more people to see other view-points!

  6. umbra13 says:

    In 2012 the editor of the Rangers Tax Case blog was describing a “Triangle of Trade that renders most of what passes as news in Scotland’s media outlets as worthless” [http://www.theguardian.com/football/blog/2012/feb/17/scotland-media-rangers] on the way to winning the Orwell Prize. Is there evidence that in the intervening months Scottish print journalism has really mended its ways to become the “Independent journalism (that) at its best holds big business, parliaments and politicians to account”? I doubt it.

  7. bearinorkney says:


    What was the guys name again?

  8. florian albert says:

    I have difficulty understanding how Mike Small can read the Scotsman and fail to notice that Gerry Hassan, George Kerevan, Joyce McMillan and Lesley Riddoch are all writing from a perspective that is sympathetic to, if not enthusiastically supporting, independence.
    The sheer number of political commentators tells another story which helps explain why the paper is in trouble. Until recently, opinion pieces were a small part of daily papers. Now they are a huge part and often contributed by freelancers rather than staff journalists.
    At the same time, news content has been downgraded. The end result is circulations falling like a stone.
    The future for the Scotsman and Herald looks grim. Ironically, or perhaps not, newspapers like the Courier and P and J, which do not aspire to speak for Scotland, are doing better.

  9. Dave Coull says:

    Was the News Of The World part of this vaunted “free press”? Was the demise of that organ a blow to the “free press”? I think it was a case of good riddance to bad rubbish. Newspapers have OWNERS. In the case of the NOTW, the owner was the Dirty Digger himself. “Journalists” who work for owners who are the enemies of freedom are unlikely themselves to be high minded champions of liberty.

  10. baffiebox says:

    The notion that there isn’t bias is so ridiculous I always wonder if I am actually the most partisan of cybernats, so blinded by my belief in independence that I cannot think clearly or rationally.

    The truth is though, I cannot think anyone would look at our newspaper industry as a whole and day they were neutral. I cannot accept that throwing some pro columnists around somehow justifies or excuses the rest of the content. Look at newspapers and ignore the columnists (because really, I read newspapers for news, not views), and the balance, or lack of it, is clear. Even among friends, mostly those who will vote no unfortunately, and even they mock the likes of the Scotsman and Daily Record.

    Maybe there is no bias, but if that is the case, its an even bigger indictment of the state of Scottish journalism. Its just incompetence. No matter what way you cut it, its not a glowing endorsement of our press.

    Sunday Herald only paper with pass marks IMO.

  11. James Coleman says:

    What amazes me is that some journalists, including this fellow above, and even some who claim to support Indy, have stated publicly that they don’t believe the Scottish Press and TV is biased against Independence. Do journalists lose the power of analytical thought the minute they take up a pen and write for money? It seems strange that people who live by writing opinionated pieces regularly cannot see bias when it is clearly spread out in front of them every day.

    1. I recommend looking up “Noam Chomsky Andrew Marr” on YouTube for an example of a journalist being completely taken aback by the suggestion that even they, the guardians of democracy, might be susceptible to bias.

  12. Chris Sheridan says:

    why are people asking for a neutral press? we don’t have and never have had a neutral press. any one who values press freedom and still demands a neutral press doesn’t understand the issue. a problem a number of people posting here have. at least charlesobrien08 accepts that attempting to neutralise the press is the same as state control.

    In the UK we do impose neutrality to an extent in broadcast media. if the article was a general complaint about a lack of neutrality at the bbc, for example, that would at least make sense. there is a perfectly sound procedure for complaining about such bias and lack of neutrality. is anyone aware of such a complaint succeeding?

  13. nnelsNelson says:

    Like beauty, bias is in the eye of the beholder. We do have a free press, and whether it is biased or not is subjective.

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