Today the Ian Bell Prize will be awarded at Aye Write! book festival alongside a public discussion on ‘The Importance of Good Journalism’.
For those who care for democracy, Scotland, or the public right to know, the future of our fragile media should be a cause of concern. But does anyone care enough to reverse the tide?
Cuts in staff. Cuts in quality. Falling print circulations. Strained advertising revenue. Uncaring owners. A rise in PR culture and churnalism. Vitriol directed at reporters. Political inertia on media reform. Legal constraints. A trade union deluged by threatened jobs and conditions. A ‘new media’ without the resources or model to fill the growing void. Clickbait and fake news swirling online.
Together, this represents a crisis for an effective media.
A year ago NUJ Scotland’s ‘Future of News’ conference considered these challenges. Professor Robert McChesney advocated ‘a Citizenship News Voucher’ system – providing funds to individual citizens to pay for journalism of their choice. In short, providing a solution to the resource problem of the media without the state infringing editorial integrity. Where the market has failed to provide a common good, the state and community can intervene.
This raises practical problems and controversy: who would quality? Why would we subsidise existing corporate-owned media groups? Would the subsidy be invested in journalism? Would consumers make choices that benefit the public good? But I suggest that we shouldn’t fear such ‘radical’ proposals. They should be seriously investigated before the media landscape deteriorates further.
In fact a public media subsidy already exists in the UK, albeit in a different guise. We have the £3.8 billion license fee. That BBC license fee now subsidises private newspaper corporations, through 144 UK reporter jobs including at Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest, and DC Thompson.
So some of Scotland’s largest media publishers are now accepting public subsidy via the BBC for twenty reporters. While that scale of support stems the bleeding, it provides no cure to the wider media crisis.
Between late 2005 and 2016 the number of staff at Newsquest (Herald & Times) Limited – which includes The Herald, The Sunday Herald, The National, and The Evening Times – fell from 862 to 392.
While cuts have continued, the group delivered post-tax profits of £12m (2014), £8.4m (2015) and £4.5m (2016). So quality journalism is culled, while the group is a cash-cow for its corporate owners.
Meanwhile media failings, stemming from fewer staff stretched into ever wider roles, ferment internet rage.
At home Scottish nationalists, who may be tempted to embrace schadenfreude against referendum adversaries, must instead see the bigger picture. If Scotland cannot sustain a national press, and the national life that a functioning press helps sustain, it cannot be a vibrant independent nation. Scotland’s so-called democratic revival, if informed only by a handful of broadcasters and London-based print outlets, will be short-lived. Blogs – of whatever hue – will never be enough to sustain a culture or a democracy. Regulation of the press and internet services are within Holyrood’s powers (see the McLeveson process at paragraphs 31-33). Devolved ‘creative industry’ policy concerns the media. We need the boldest of ideas to avert the current acceptance of managed decline.
Within a decade it’s possible that many Scottish titles will fold or be reduced to online-only clickbait chasing outlets. Are we so unambitious, divided, and partisan that we will watch what remains of the Scottish media suffer death from a thousand cuts? Will we accept a self-defeating prisoner’s dilemma where the press, government, new media, and citizens – all with reasons to distrust each other – fail to cooperate in their common interests?
At a local level the crisis of resources is already severe. Hundreds of local titles have disappeared across the UK. This is not just a concern for luvvies who enjoy a broadsheet with their latte. Why did no one hear or listen to the warning cries of Grenfell Tower made for years before the massacre of at least 72 people? One of the reasons: the local paper closed in 2014.
The urgent question – which I address to Scotland’s professional media, the political world (including policy makers and the Scottish Government), and those in the new media – is whether anyone cares enough about this to act before it is too late?