If Scotland votes no, the media may well get the blame

The once-proud Scottish press could use a lift. Lis Ferla, CC BY-SA

Two distinguished Scottish journalists have recently expressed their concern at the state of the Scottish press. Both Magnus Linklater, in an article in the British Journalism Review, and Iain Macwhirter, in a pamphlet published by the Edinburgh based Saltire Society, have offered gloomy views of the future of indigenous newspapers in Scotland and also their ability to provide adequate analysis and discussion of the choice currently facing the country.

The press in Scotland comprises indigenous titles and titles which, with or without Scottish editions, are London newspapers which circulate throughout the UK. Each major city north of the border has at least one daily, and sometimes also a Sunday newspaper based in it.

The reasons for the survival of the Scottish indigenous press are varied. The inability of London-based titles to utilise the railway system in the late 19th and early 20th century to penetrate the Scottish market in the way that they were able to penetrate the English and Welsh markets, and to wipe out much regional competition, is often cited as the principal factor. But the Scottish titles, even when they have aspired to cover the entire country, have always had a regional orientation which has encouraged loyalty.

Stronger Holyrood, weaker local press

In recent times newspapers throughout the Western world have struggled to cope with serious circulation falls, declines driven by the increasing power of the electronic and digital media and the apparent indifference of many younger people to the print medium. Scottish titles have also faced a serious loss of market share within Scotland, as Scottish editions of English titles have improved their relative position.

In the mid-1970s Scottish dailies took 64% of sales and Sundays took 66%, by my calculations based on numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulation. The Scottish Sundays continue to outsell their English rivals by a slim margin but the dailies’ share of the market is now 44%. Clearly better funded titles such as the Telegraph and the Daily Mail can offer a wider range of news and features than their Scottish competitors, and if they also provide a reasonable amount of Scottish news – and sport – they are an attractive buy.

The view from Dundee. Reena Mahtani, CC BY-SA

What is very striking is that the general loss of market share has accelerated post-devolution. In fairness, it should be stressed that both the Dundee and the Aberdeen dailies have been much more resilient than the Glasgow-based Herald or the Edinburgh-based Scotsman, probably because of the skill with which they blend local, Scottish and UK material (with a smattering of international news).

Yes and the press

It is clear from the opinion polls that on both sides of the referendum debate there are substantial numbers of voters. Yet this division is not mirrored in the editorial positions of the Scottish indigenous newspapers. So far only one, the Sunday Herald, has come out in favour of independence. The others are either fence-sitting or against, a view amplified by the (sometimes ferocious) hostility of the English papers circulating in Scotland.

In an ideal world newspapers would confine their partisanship to editorials but this has never been the case, particularly with tabloid titles. The reporting of the referendum in these has often been tendentious, with limited effort to present both sides of the argument.

The broadsheet/compacts have done a better job in allowing each side to make its case and to report with reasonable dispassion. But Linklater’s criticism is that these papers now lack the resources to investigate thoroughly the claims and counter-claims which are made daily. He cites the issue of how much oil is actually left in the North Sea and the question of which UK minister argued –- anonymously – that George Osborne was bluffing when he declared that the UK would not agree a currency union with Scotland post-independence.

There is some truth in what Linklater argues. But it is open to question whether any amount of investigation would actually help voters. While a large number of people do say they don’t have enough information, it might be that their problem is actually rather different. Does it not more reflect the fact that making judgements on the issues in question is a real difficulty?

Wake up and smell the subsidies

Where both Macwhirter and Linklater are absolutely right is when they argue that the financial viability of the Scottish press is now in question. The former drew attention to the use of government subsidies in Scandinavia to sustain press pluralism.

Subsidies have always been regarded as anathema in the UK, but when there are ongoing discussions about how money can be found from non-commercial sources to fund public service journalism even in the United States, the world has changed. A Scottish government – devolved or independent – is going to have to face up soon to the fact that without some kind of non-traditional mode of finance, there will be fewer newspapers in Scotland.

It might be argued that with strong public service broadcasters the loss of newspapers would not matter, though in my view the public sphere would be much impoverished without the partisan argument offered by newspapers – particularly those that also attempt to report the actual facts as well as opinions.

Neutral broadcasters?

Either way, there has been criticism of the referendum reporting of both BBC Scotland and the major commercial broadcaster, STV. One researcher, Professor John Robertson, of the University of the West of Scotland has published two analyses which suggest that BBC Scotland is biased against the yes campaign, for example.

The corporation has vigorously rejected Robertson’s findings but one suspects that its journalists are now even more aware than they were previously that they must bend over backwards to mimimise such accusations.

As far as the supposed information deficit is concerned, on the contrary it could well be argued that there has been overkill by the broadcasters. For example the agenda of Good Morning Scotland, the equivalent of Radio 4’s Today, is heavily dominated by the referendum. In mid-June the programme has frequently relegated the Iraq crisis to second or third place in news bulletins and related discussions.

When it is all over, inevitably the cry of “we wuz robbed” will go up from the losing side. If that is the yes campaign, there will be no shortage of ammunition for directing the blame at the media, whether rightly or wrongly. It all could get very messy.