Sunday, April 26, 2015
English French German Spanish

The Battle For The Scottish Media (September 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian’s Comment is Free

With any luck, the present downturn will last long enough to wreck the economics of the conventional press and its ganglions



Scottish traditional musicians and storytellers have been demonstrating about the withdrawal of their tiny grant by the Scottish Arts Council. One of the ironies of semi-independent Scotland has been the starvation of a previously lively democratic culture. As far as the (English or American owned) booksheds are concerned, there are only four Scottish authors – Rankin, McCall Smith, Rowling and Welsh – and indeed at bookfest time they were trotted round Charlotte Square with ‘Number One Bestseller’ pinned to their ears like bulls at a market. Leaving aside critical opinion – and for what it's worth, I'd reckon Welsh one of the worst writers in the Western world – not a lot of this geld trickles down.

It once did. Scots publishers, from Collins to Blackwoods, who published Scots writers, have gone, along with Scots bookshops like Smiths or Thins, which once had lots of space for small presses and magazines. The literate residue of our high streets – Waterstoned to death – is depressing.

Bad enough. Now turn to the papers. The major story of the weeks after May 4 last year wasn't the SNP taking over Scottish politics but Madeleine McCann. Tragic human interest would grip the papers for most of the summer. Even so, the condition of Scottish tabloid press – the Record and its recent conqueror the Sun – bumps along the bottom. Perilous, too, is the future of Scottish serious and local papers. The share value of Johnston's, owners of the Scotsman, has fallen by 80% over the last couple of years, carried away by the devastation of the property market.

At another level, every week a solid slab of well-illustrated brochures will hit my desk in Holyrood: well laid-out, nature stories aplenty, with lovely photos, celebrations of our universities, our museums, oil companies, railways, etc. Apart from my own specialisms, 90% get briskly junked; too many pages, too many self-congratulatory notables. Useful data is there, but can more easily be picked up from the internet. Above all the absence of real debate in all of them gives the tang of true boredom.

Closed-circulation journals are perhaps more salient in Scotland than they would be in London, where there is enough density of commercial publications to cause friction. They figure as corporate virility symbols, as if Edinburgh has become a huge dentist's waiting room, and they are dull beyond belief.

They are also a form of outdoor relief for the journalistic middle class, whose possibilities in competitive publication or broadcasting are notoriously narrowing. In order to afford the bonuses ladled out to Clarkson, Ross, Paxman, etc, and its Broadcasting House apparatchiks, the BBC – stingy as ever in its treatment of freelances – has cut back on serious journalism and features. Many of its best producers have retired early or gone on to the PR payroll of worthy public concerns. Who can blame them?

How do we get out? High time to assist the slump in taking a meat-cleaver to the established media and its daft cults of celebrity and sport: £23 million spent by a sheikh on a footballer is sheer dementia. With any luck, the present downturn will last long enough to wreck the economics of the conventional press and its ganglions. "The prospect of being hanged in a fortnight concentrates a man's mind wonderfully." Dr Johnson's old Fleet Street wisdom might work its magic.

More positively, we could inject editorial independence and competition. A couple of well-produced and above all well-written periodicals, on the level of Der Spiegel or Die Zeit, which could slug it out on a fortnightly or monthly basis, aided by advertising from the institutions and corporations who presently churn out formulaic closed-circulation stuff. The Scottish Review of Books, published as a supplement to the Herald, is one good sign over the last year. Further: BBC and Ofcom should be, as soon as possible, replaced by Scottish bodies, whose remit ought to be to develop a lively and well-informed, regionally-based media, on West German lines.

One of the purposes of national revival was always to supplant the hegemonic culture with an honest and democratic alternative, and it's high time we got on with it. "By measuring the distance we come home," wrote Raymond Williams half a century ago. The distance between us and metromedia, morally, is now thousands of miles. Time to throw that tape away.

Home > Comment > The Battle For The Scottish Media (September 2008)