Among the tragic victims of the current global pandemic there is one whose death has gone completely unreported. And it will remain completely unreported, for it is the death of our once free press. Under the cover of Covid-19, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Kate Forbes, quietly strapped newspaper publishers up to a financial drip to which they are determined to remain perpetually attached. So, if you think there’s been a lack of proper media scrutiny of our Holyrood chieftains up to now, you might be horrified by what ensues after May 7.
The Scottish Government has rushed through a whole raft of support measures for the nation’s newspaper industry during the pandemic. As well as being able to access all the support offered to businesses across the board, national, local and regional titles have benefitted from an unscheduled £3m of state spending on additional anti-Covid adverts. Ms Forbes also rushed through an amendment to the second Coronavirus bill so the newspaper industry got 100% rates relief for a year. That put them in the same category as the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors, which was probably apt given how many of their pages are now stuffed with shopping listicles and soft lifestyle features.
The SNP’s ruling cabal has presented this as just another temporary measure to tide our stricken society through an unprecedented emergency. It spoke of forming a “new public health information partnership” with the press. But they also made clear that their primary aim was not so much to ensure that the Scottish population was kept safe from Covid – something that could probably be done more effectively by other means of communication – but to make sure that peely-wally papers did not perish before our political leaders could line up a further range of financial transfusions for them. In other words, to shower them with what their own hacks would normally have no hesitation in branding a controversial public subsidy.
State sponsorship of our supposedly free press should be getting seriously questioned not just by any decent, self-respecting journalists that still survive in our nation’s newsrooms – damn few and they’re all nearly deid – but by everyone who believes that in a liberal democracy the relationship between the press and politicians should be that between a dog and a lamppost. Certainly not any form of cosy partnership.
Welcoming the flow of government funds into his members’ coffers, the Scottish Newspaper Society’s director, John McLellan, commented: “Newspapers are no different to any other business in feeling the full effects of the Covid-19 crisis.” A factually correct statement but one that glided over what should distinguish newspapers from other businesses in any free society – they are meant to be holding governments to account. Especially a government that has placed our nation under medical martial law for most of the past year yet, by its own admission, failed lamentably to protect those most at risk – old people in care homes.
No wonder Sturgeon and Freeman were given such a free pass by the press for 1) their catastrophic failure to safeguard our most vulnerable old folk; 2) slashing the survival chances of anyone threatened with any other serious health condition (not least clinical depression and anxiety); and 3) keeping our economy in a semi-coma for far longer than was justified. Now they know how cheaply they can control the nation’s ‘watchdogs’ by chucking them a few bones, don’t be surprised when our governors chain them up permanently to a post in their backyard.
Actually, that seems to be the dream scenario now for all too many of Scotland’s scribblers and snappers. Commenting on the aforementioned government support measures as chair of the Edinburgh branch of the National Union of Journalists, the veteran theatre critic Joyce McMillan said the NUJ was “seeking to build cross-party support in Scotland for these and other proposals to ensure a bright future for high-quality journalism in Scotland as we emerge from the Covid crisis.”
Nae problem, comrades. Ye’re already knocking at an open door with your begging bowls. In fact, a whole row of open doors, painted blue, red, yellow and green. All of Scotland’s main political parties are now falling over each other to think up other ways to splurge taxpayers money on shoring up the nation’s ailing press for time immemorial. With a Holyrood election looming, the Greens’ co-convener Patrick Harvie could not wait to endorse this policy, and simultaneously suck up to newspaper editors, by declaring: “As speculation, conspiracy theories and rumour thrives on social media, the scrutiny role of the press is needed more than ever.”
Unusually, the call for a taxpayer-funded press has been led by the Scottish Tories. Launching a multi-pronged newspaper recovery plan to support the long-term future of the industry, the party’s shadow economy and culture secretary, Maurice Golden, said: “There is simply no option, the SNP government must support newspapers and ensure their long-term survival.” The Tories new love affair with the press is probably not unconnected to the fact that, before he became director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, Mr McLellan was communications director of the Scottish Conservatives.
This journalist/lobbyist/propagandist is all too typical of those who slip effortlessly these days between the revolving doors of newspaper offices, corporate communication departments and political party HQs. They have forgotten – or perhaps never learned – that our finest publications came into existence not primarily to provide secure employment for their editorial and commercial staff, nor even to generate financial fortunes for press barons, but to hold power to account and promote radical political agendas. Failure to remember this is the principal reason why Scotland’s once proud Fourth Estate has become a fourth rate estate.
What about the 4,000 Scots still employed in the newspaper trade one way or another? Don’t all their jobs need protected? Certainly not by the Scottish Government, for the price of its ‘protection’ is the destruction of what the press should always regard as most sacrosanct – its historic separation from the state. Let’s be clear, newspaper publishers have become officially, financially dependent on the Scottish Government for their continued existence. Just think how that has shifted the power balance between them. Co-opting potential critics is how the Sturgeon regime has managed to silence and control all other potentially awkward sources of accountability in Scotland’s civil society.
Mercifully, maintaining and strengthening media scrutiny of St. Andrew’s House doesn’t still depend solely on squirting ink on dead trees then distributing smudgy products on planes, trains and automobiles to every nook and newsagent in the land. For quite a while now there’s been this wonderful thing called the World Wide Web, on which nobody needs an NUJ press card to bring information into the public domain or to post their opinions.
Scotland’s national, regional and local newspapers have all got their own websites, of course, but such is the persistence of a gatekeeping mentality throughout the legacy media, none of them have ever quite got their heads fully around the need for genuine interactivity with their audience. They were also too slow to register and respond to the gargantuan surge of support for independence, particularly among the digitally savvy generations. Hence the massive flowering of the Fifth Estate in the run-up to the 2014 referendum.
The fourth rate estate utterly deplores their impact, of course. After all their tiresome fulminations about ‘fake news’ in the ‘post-truth’ era – as if all they ever did was tell the truth – many of the Caledonian commentariat will doubtless be jubilant if the influential nationalist blogger Craig Murray is jailed on May 7 for not being a proper, legally compliant journalist like them. There would also be dancing in the streets of Raith (or maybe Bath) if Wings over Scotland ever has its wings clipped by state power in any significant way. (Bella Caledonia doesn’t bother them because it has far fewer followers, it’s ultra politically correct and its publisher would probably beg for a state subsidy even more than they do).
Having been a senior national newspaper journalist in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Dublin and headed up leading journalism schools across these islands, I am now publicly giving up on the Scottish press and boldly entering the blogosphere. The sooner the corporate media (much of it controlled by multinationals) withers on the vine, the sooner we can start to develop a freer public discourse and a media eco-system that can contribute to the creation of a fully self-governing nation. As any amateur gardener knows, the withered parts of plants need to be cut off to enable new growth. Our nation’s newspaper industry is full of deid heids. It’s time to start carving the inscription on its tombstone – Scotland’s Free Press RIP.