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Is Scotland’s media ready for the next independence referendum?

Amid some of the most challenging political and economic circumstances for decades, another even greater disruption to people in one part of the UK could be upon us soon. Liz Truss may have dismissed Scotland’s democratically elected leader as an “attention seeker”, but Nicola Sturgeon continues to claim she is entirely serious about putting a refreshed case for independence to her country next October.

Whether the people are ready is one question. But my colleagues and I, in our new report drawing on consultations with the media industries, government and regulatory bodies, are asking another: is Scotland’s media ready?

The referendum of 2014 nurtured a flowering of what is sometimes called “the fifth estate”: a collection of independence-oriented blogs which offered a diversity of perspectives on what constitutional change might bring, capturing the energy of the Yes campaign as it played out on the ground.

This developed in part as a response to what was widely seen as the failure of the traditional media to adapt to the disruption in power and authority that independence represented. Only one national paper, the Sunday Herald (now closed down), aligned itself with the growing campaign for independence. The lack of diversity across the media landscape was starkly exposed.

Some of this reflects historic problems with the Scottish media. The establishment of the devolved parliament in 1999 represented one of the most significant constitutional changes in more than a hundred years, offering a brand new mechanism for democratic politics. But what the referendum of 2014 illuminated was how little had changed in what should be a key part of any democracy: its communication system.

What’s more, it showed Scotland’s continued struggle with its “dual public sphere”, an uncomfortable hybrid of UK-rooted media institutions and both established and emerging Scottish news titles with very different perspectives and priorities.

One of the key institutions of British life, the BBC, is ideologically rooted to a form of unionism and day to day it orbits around business in Westminster. A key irritant to many Scots viewers is the broadcaster’s tendency to use the word “we” when referring to purely English issues such as sporting success or exam results, for example.

The BBC has, of course, its own broadcasting arm in Scotland, and in 2019 launched its own TV channel to record viewers for a digital channel. BBC Scotland is now struggling to sustain audiences, although it is producing a distinctively Scottish output and some high-quality local journalism. Overall, the BBC has been weakened by successive UK governments and even the survival of the new channel cannot be assumed.

Media scrutiny of public figures

A common criticism of the British media in recent times is that it doesn’t provide enough scrutiny of political leaders. Equally, politicians are seen as increasingly hostile and censorious towards the media, and this extends to Scotland too.

It was noted in our consultation that the Scottish government has acquired a reputation for intense media management and a distrust of journalists. A resistance to freedom of information (FOI) requests has created obstacles to investigative journalism which aims to expose abuses of power and corruption.

Some felt an insider class in Scotland’s media has emerged: a group of politicians, commentators, corporate actors and public bodies which is returned to again and again for comment, but which operates to limit dissent.

This reflects the broader problem of a lack of diversity of views which extends beyond political commentary to prioritising the agendas of Scotland’s two biggest cities and under-representing minority groups.

A group of journalists sitting in rows at a press conference.
There are concerns that Scotland’s media does not reflect a diverse range of voices or views when it comes to the independence debate. Michael Ventura / Alamy

Other voices, other interests

Directly countering this is a flourishing independent media sector – headed up by titles such as investigative journalism outlet The Ferret and pro-independence blog Bella Caledonia – which showcases alternative models for community-embedded journalism using social media as a new democratic space.

But funding of quality journalism remains a problem. Scotland’s media now operate in a largely digital culture and face the same issues as the industry globally. The transition from print to digital and the challenge of sustainable funding models has inevitably led to job cuts and an increase in low-paid, precarious work. The extent of the losses to quality journalism in Scotland is not fully known.

A Scottish government working group was set up in 2021 to respond to these challenges. But no significant funding was provided, unlike in other territories such as Quebec and Denmark where state funding, on the promise of independence, has helped to sustain domestic media industries.

Media operating across a series of digital platforms face battles over ownership of ideas, as content is republished without clear branding on streaming channels such as YouTube.

There is also the issue of the influence of external agents. Tech companies with AI and human moderators, as well as organised and disorganised forms of propaganda and foreign and domestic bots, all shape the debate online. Which means the next referendum will not simply be a conversation between Scottish politicians, the Scottish media and the Scottish public, but also with the many other parties and interests at play.

The battle to keep things civil will perhaps be the greatest obstacle of all. A key priority of media employers must be putting mechanisms in place such as awareness-raising, training and support to protect journalists who are exposed to a debate that could turn toxic. The recent verbal attack on BBC Scotland reporter James Cook by protesters demonstrated the kind of abuse to which journalists are being exposed.

Historically, Scotland has always had a big appetite for news. Media contributes hugely to the economy and is essential to our national identity and supporting an informed electorate.

There is no shortage of talent and energy. This new report is a way to open up a dialogue about ways in which media might be supported to produce quality Scottish journalism, and to facilitate referendum debate which does not have to rely on misinformation, half-truths and personality-led rhetoric.

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