We’re all doomed – how often have we heard the Scottish media sound its own death knell? But look around – the stench of decay is unmistakable.
The Scottish press is engaged in a desperate war of all against all in a rapidly-shrinking market. Scottish broadcasting is in a dreadful state, with stv having given up the ghost, slashing staff and factual programming, while BBC Scotland is forcing through cuts of 25 per cent in its news and current affairs budget. The Scottish parliamentary elections are seven months away.
Just imagine if the BBC in London had tried to cut network news and current affairs by a quarter in an election year? There would have been a political outcry, a media firestorm. But the Scottish quality press has utterly failed to appreciate the significance of this act of cultural vandalism, even after the resignation of Blair Jenkins, the highly respected head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland. Jenkins resigned after making clear to BBC bosses that there was no way he could sustain the quality of output with the loss of a quarter of his journalists.
Collapsing the English language service of BBC Scotland (Gaelic retains its prodigious funding) is not just bad news for broadcasting. It will upset the delicate ecology of the Scottish media. Broadcasting played a major role before and after the creation of the Scottish Parliament in raising the quality of political debate and had been offering some protection against against the rising tide of parochialism and trivialisation. Not for much longer.
But the Scottish quality press seems too preoccupied with its own troubles to notice what is happening in Queen Margaret Drive. The Scotsman’s circulation fell 11% year on year in July, and the advertising revenues have plummeted by 9.4% as jobs and motors move to the internet. The Scotsmans new owners, Johnston Press – who bought Scotsman Publications from the Barclays nine months ago, have shed a hundred jobs at the title since the turn of the year. The Glasgow-based broadsheet Herald isn’t in great shape either, with sales down 7%.
The Daily Record, which used to be the top selling Scottish tabloid, has capitulated to the Sun, which now sells 407,294 against the Record’s 392,844. The Record faces an uncertain future under publishers, Trinity Mirror, who recently axed the Scottish Mirror. The launch of evening cheapos by the Record – a vulpine attempt to feed of the decaying carcass of the Scottish evening press – will help no one.
All the indigenous titles in Scotland are in negative territory, and while this is a phenomenon throughout the newspaper industry, the Scottish proprietors seem singularly reluctant to invest their way out of the crisis. Johnston’s profit margin on existing business is a staggering 35%.
The group has appointed as editor of The Scotsman, a local newspaper man who has no obvious familiarity with the Scottish political or media scene – Mike Gilson of the Portsmouth News. “Life is Local”, as the Johnston Press mission statement puts it. Well, now we know.
Mr Gilson may indeed be a brilliant operator, but his appointment was greeted with dismay among the Edinburgh chatteratti who fear that The Scotsman is being turned into another local paper, rather than a forum for a national conversation. The editor of the Scotsman used to be one of the pillars of Edinburgh society.
Bring back Andrew Neil, say denizens of Barclay Towers, who are shell-shocked at the latest humiliation. At least he had national ambitions for The Scotsman and was prepared to pay for them, instead of syphoning cash to keep share-prices up.
The decline of great national papers is a matter of crucial importance to Scotland. The national media is disintegrating before our eyes, to be replaced by editionised English titles – Times, Daily Mail, Sun. This has real effects on Scottish civil society.
Speak to Scottish MPs and MSPs right now and many will say that their constituents are preoccupied with immigration and the “swamping of Scotland”. This has nothing to do with demographic reality and everything to do with the prominence given to immigration in the English titles, like the Mail and the Sun, which Scots increasingly read.
There is no immigration crisis in Scotland – we remain appallingly white, as Greg Dyke might have put it. The Scottish population has been falling and the influx of 2000 Poles has done nothing but good for the Scottish economy. But that isn’t what people are reading. The Scottish conversation is being hi-jacked by the racial obsessives of another country.
The Scottish political classes must wake up to the nature of the crisis and start to make waves before it is too late.
The BBC is central to what happens to Scotland. It is what has been keeping the rest of the Scottish media honest. But increasingly, the BBC is being reduced to a localised service.
Just look at the BBC Scotland website in which national stories are eclipsed by local tales about Edinburgh city parking arrangements and a school being closed because of a tummy bug. Meanwhile, Scots put up with patronising opt-outs from Newsnight and the Politics Show rather than properly-financed Scottish programmes in their own right.
The BBC seems to believe that since it finally fought off the demand for a Scottish Six O’clock news two years ago, it no longer has to worry about the Scottish dimension. That since the SNP has been in apparent decline, the political pressure is off and there is no risk of broadcasting being brought into the remit of the Scottish Parliament. It’s up to the political classes to prove them wrong.
Moreover, this is unlikely to stop at the Border. Many BBC insiders believe that the cuts being piloted in Scotland will provide a template for downsizing news and current affairs across the corporation.
But the first fear is for the integrity of the Scottish national media. Pessimism may be a national sport in Scotland, but sometimes the doom-sayers are right. And right now is one of them.