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Democracy in the Dark. The decline of the Scottish Press and how to keep the lights on.

PERHAPS it’s the end of the recession, perhaps it’s just Spring, but there’s a perceptible air of relief in Scottish newspaper offices this April, at least among management.

Johnston Press, which own The Scotsman, are claiming their first rise in ‘underlying’ operating profit in seven years. Newsquest (Herald and Times) reported a 38 per cent increase in profits last year to over £12 million. According to the Newsquest’s MD, Tim Blott, 40 per cent of profits now come from digital and 1.6 million people read The Herald online every month.

Mind you, a ‘glass-half-empty hack’ like me has to ask whether this optimism is entirely justified.

National titles in Scotland have just recorded another year-on-year fall of approaching ten per cent. Newspapers are still losing around 100,000 sales in Scotland a year. And while it is true that the great trek to digital is being undertaken at last, it’s not at all clear that all the wagons will make it. Print still accounts for most of Scottish newspaper revenues, and print sales and advertising have been in steep decline as costs rise.

So this is perhaps a good moment to remind ourselves just how important newspapers have been to our democratic culture. It is almost impossible to think of civil society as we know it without the contribution made by papers like The Scotsman and The Herald over the last 200 years.

Newspapers don’t just sell news; in fact, that has been an increasingly small part of their function in the last century. Newspapers have been cultural curators, critically evaluating artistic and literary trends, providing a showcase for good writing, informing readers on important developments in science and society.

They have provided a forum for informed debate, and promoted their own vigorous opinions on affairs of state, forcing politicians to take note. Investigative journalism is still very much a newspaper preserve, as in The Daily Telegraph’s exposure of MPs’ expenses or the Sunday Herald’s exposure of shenanigans in Falkirk Labour.

But the financial problems of the Press is making it harder and harder for them to provide this essential cultural service. Scottish papers, according to the National Union of Journalists, have lost half their journalists in the last decade or so. UK papers with nominally Scottish editions now dominate the Scottish market. This is becoming a constitutional issue in the run-up to the independence referendum in September because the Scottish and UK newspapers are almost exclusively Unionists – often militantly so.

It is right that newspapers have strong editorial views, but it is not healthy when they all have the same editorial views.

In the longer term, Scotland needs to have a debate on how to preserve newspaper culture in this time of transition. Other countries have found it necessary to support newspapers directly, as in Norway and Denmark, or indirectly as in France and Germany, to preserve diversity of opinion and prevent a market race to the bottom. Public subsidies seem alien to our culture and would be fiercely resisted.

But it is a debate that Scotland needs to have.

Next week, I’ll be explaining why and presenting a new pamphlet for the Saltire Society, ‘Democracy in the Dark: the decline of the Scottish Press and how to keep the lights on’.

Iain Macwhirter is a political commentator for The Herald and Sunday Herald newspapers.

His pamphlet is being presented on Wednesday April 30, 7.30pm, at the Saltire Society, 9 Fountain Place, High Street Edinburgh. The event is being chaired by Richard Holloway.

Tickets, which include the full pamphlet and a glass of wine, are £10 and available now: http://www.saltiresociety.org.uk. Or telephone 0131 556 1836.

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About iain2macwhirter

Writer and journalist.

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