As 2011 draws to a close what now for the Scottish media?

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By G.A.Ponsonby

Christmas is fast approaching and the year is almost at an end.  In Scotland the news seems to have been dominated by the rise of the SNP and the debate, or lack thereof, over Scotland’s constitutional future.

May’s historic election triumph was the beginning of the end of the Union as we now it – will it be full independence or devo-max?  We’ll just have to wait and see.

By G.A.Ponsonby

Christmas is fast approaching and the year is almost at an end.  In Scotland the news seems to have been dominated by the rise of the SNP and the debate, or lack thereof, over Scotland’s constitutional future.

May’s historic election triumph was the beginning of the end of the Union as we now it – will it be full independence or devo-max?  We’ll just have to wait and see.

The riots south of the border highlighted the differences between Scotland and its nearest neighbour.  As an insecure England increasingly looks inwards, a confident Scotland is emerging from a 300 year old shadow into the international sunlight.

World news witnessed events unfold with breathtaking speed as the Arab uprising led to the downfall of (thus far) two regimes.  Gaddafi has gone and Osama Bin Laden was located and killed by US special-forces.

In Europe the debt crisis that threatens the Eurozone saw a dramatic walkout of treaty talks by UK PM David Cameron.  The UK is looking increasingly isolated and both London and Paris have been trading insults on the respective debts of each nation.

Newspapers are under scrutiny like never before as evidence of phone hacking and unsavoury stories relayed to the Leveson inquiry were a testament to.

Scottish newspapers

In Scotland though the newspaper industry is facing an altogether different, and arguably more serious, crisis to the one down south.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the print media in Scotland is facing a cataclysm.  Circulation figures for the once dominant purveyors of news and current affairs is in steep decline as people turn away from paying for hard copy in favour of free and more up-to-date online news sources.

The Record, the Herald and the Scotsman have reacted by shedding jobs and ‘consolidating’ their respective brands.  Over 80 staff went at the Daily Record and there were job losses at the other two.

The Scotsman revamped its online version and the Herald has introduced a pay-wall and tentatively re-introduced online comments.  The Record has yet to alter its online product which currently relies on a front page consisting of two old firm stories every day in order to satisfy cyber-readers.

Surprisingly, at least from a business perspective, not one of these newspapers has recognised the potential that exists for the first paper to embrace major constitutional change in its editorial line.

There is a clear two-thirds majority in favour of devo-max and a significant solid third of the electorate who want independence, yet these papers continue to run with editorial lines that appear to have ignored the political evolution taking place in 21st century Scotland.  A nation is evolving in front of their eyes and a mouth watering opportunity is being spurned.

Money talks though and with their output having less and less impact they are faced with a decision to modify or face irrelevance and ultimate extinction.

STV

And so we move to broadcasting and STV’s new show Scotland Tonight (weekdays 10:30 pm).

The four nightly news and current affairs programme had a tentative start.  However it is now growing into an excellent rival to the BBC’s Newsnight Scotland.  That it is broadcast half an hour prior to the BBC Scotland show gives it a clear scheduling advantage.

The two presenters adopt different styles with John MacKay taking an inquisitorial pro-active stance.  Rona Dougall favours less interjection, thus allowing studio guests to engage in a more open cut-and-thrust style debate.  Both styles are entertaining and informative.

It’s refreshing and good to see its importance being recognised as guests from across Scotland’s political and civic communities line up to appear.

The jury is still out on the break for news in the middle but the reading out of twitter and Facebook comments is an interesting and positive feature allowing viewers the chance to comment on the preceding item.

If the show proves a hit then one can only hope that STV decides to take a punt on filling a glaring gap in Scottish current affairs with a weekly prime time ‘Question Time’ style show that allows scrutiny of Scotland’s MSPs.

Imagine Salmond, Lamont, Davidson and Rennie pitched into public view each week and facing scrutiny from the Scottish public?

STV should be commended for commissioning Scotland Tonight.  This kind of competition to BBC Scotland’s dominance of news and current affairs is not just welcome, it is an absolute necessity.

BBC Scotland

There are just so many things wrong with this colonial broadcasting outpost that one doesn’t know quite where to begin.

BBC Scotland is still stuck in the days pre-devolution.  It’s ‘flagship’ teatime news programme – Reporting Scotland – is outdated, with a news template that seems to rely heavily on violence, weather and football.

Such is the nervousness of authorities after the broadcaster’s frenzied and heavily politicised coverage of last year’s heavy snowfall that it seems that every time a cloud appears we get a severe weather warning.

What little political news output we get is utterly predictable and more often than not one sided as evidenced by last week’s item on the Scotland Bill committee that saw Sally Magnusson introduce it in a manner that served to ridicule the SNP’s well documented and historical warnings on the bill’s tax proposals.

‘Hey viewers, the SNP say they want new powers but they’ve just rejected this reasonable offer’, was the message Ms Magnusson sought to convey to Scotland’s tea-time watchers.  Subtle? Not a bit.  Effective? You betcha.

There was little or no explanation as to why the committee took the decision not to recommend the bill in its current form to the Scottish Parliament.  We were though left in no doubt that this decision was down to something called ‘the SNP majority’.

SNP Majority

In fact so important was this detail that almost every BBC Scotland reporter in every bulletin emphasised it.  That the decision was also supported by the Greens was mentioned only in passing.

It was the same when the anti-sectarianism bill was passed and we were again informed that it passed only because of the ‘SNP majority’.

Now there’s no harm in taking this approach to news reporting if it’s going to be consistent.  But a glance back at previous committee decisions on significant political issues suggests that the BBC’s policy has changed.

When minimum pricing was rejected by a Unionist dominated Health Committee in the last parliamentary term we heard nothing of this Unionist majority.  There was no emphasis by the BBC that the ‘Unionist majority’ had blocked the move.

Similarly, last year when minimum pricing was eventually blocked by a Parliamentary Unionist coalition the BBC dutifully told us that ‘The Scottish Parliament’ had voted down the proposal.  Its online news site went even further with this headline: ‘Scotland rejects a minimum alcohol pricing’.

In fact Holyrood committees up until May 6th this year have always operated with an in-built Unionist majority.  Until now though BBC Scotland hasn’t appeared to have been unduly concerned with these majorities.

Even when some of the committees have been discussing matters that were very clearly delimited along constitutional lines or heavily constitutionally slanted, the Unionist majority has never been emphasised.

Whether Trump or the Scotland Bill, the BBC seemed happy enough to present the official committee decision as just that.  (See notes below)

Yes it allowed those members dissenting from the committee vote to express their disappointment, but crucially the Unionist majority that often led to these decisions was never highlighted in the way we are seeing now.

Some may argue that the majority has never been held by one party.  This is true, but what is also true is that the Scottish parliament has, since 2007, been divided not on party political lines, but on constitutional lines – since the trams were forced through we have been witnessing Unionist versus Nationalist battle.  Megrahi, minimum pricing and the Scotland Bill demonstrate this clearly.

This attempt by the BBC to portray a legitimate democratic majority government as somehow intemperate and unwilling to compromise is just one example of the fundamental problem that exists, and is getting worse, at BBC Scotland.  Its refusal to reflect today’s Scotland has, in my opinion, led to a form of institutionalised journalistic corruption taking hold.

Any changes that have been implemented since 2007 seem to result in less informed and objective opinion, fewer opportunities for the Scottish public to engage and a drop in quality of news and current affairs.

It has been rumoured that the best news and current affairs programme, namely Derek Bateman’s Newsweek Scotland, is facing the axe – we hope this rumour is false.

Listen to Good Morning Scotland and Newsdrive and there seems a defiant cold arrogance pervading these news programmes.  The abrasive interview technique that appears to be reserved for only some guests is now legendary.

The Shereen Nanjiani show, the worst on the radio, continues to invite the same people to pontificate on the same stories from the same newspapers every week.  This weekend witnessed the Daily Record’s Magnus Gardham yet again being presented as an objective commentator on the news.  Jokes at the expense of the SNP or Alex Salmond are now routine.

In a nation that has no independence leaning newspaper to speak of it is not surprising that many of the newspaper stories will be less than sympathetic to independence or the SNP, do we really need Unionist leaning journalists like Gardham compounding this situation?

Programme host Ms Nanjiani also has an unerring habit of informing her listeners of the political background of a guest should that guest have links to the SNP – the same is not true of pro-Union guests whose invitations to the show are more frequent and whose political leanings and connections are rarely mentioned.

The loading of panels with guests who are of a pro-Union persuasion was also evident on the Politics Show this weekend.  We were invited to listen to four guests giving their opinions on the events of the last year.  Two academics were joined by two Labour politicians.

Yes, two Labour politicians were offered a chance to speak unchallenged to the nation and both, Labour councillor Pat Watters and Labour peer Baroness Helena Kennedy, not surprisingly decided to have a go at independence.

Both used the opportunity to attack the SNP’s core aim, with Kennedy claiming that an independent Scotland would “retreat into some kind of small nationhood”.

Mr Watters continually talked of a “separate country” and “separate Scotland” when referring to independence.  “I am not a Nationalist I am a Labour politician” said Mr Watters, oblivious to the fact that he was expressing a British Nationalist view – the platform for his views conveniently paid for by the us, the Scottish public.

A sober and objective reflection on the past year’s events it wasn’t, and aside from the two well spoken and intelligent academics the item was truly awful with Kennedy’s contribution particularly uninspiring.

Sadly, unlike the newspapers and despite what we, the viewing public, might think of their news coverage the BBC is protected from the realities of the real world in that it will still receive £145.50 every year from every Scottish licence payer.

This means that we can expect more of the same.  A mixture of careerism, Unionism, arrogance and a defiant refusal to engage with critics will ensure that BBC Scotland remains the parochial cheerleader for yesterday’s Scotland.

Prediction

So, as we move forward to 2012 the predictions for our media are (sadly) broadly negative.  STV offers a glimmer of hope in the shape of a new current affairs show.  The newspapers either need to change the product they are presenting to the Scottish reader (the Sunday Herald is showing promise), or need a benefactor willing to subsidise their ever decreasing circulation and ever increasing losses.

I predict BBC Scotland will get worse, as cuts bite and the referendum nears then the state broadcaster will become the logistical supply line for the Unionist argument.

It could be that the only real hope for Scotland’s democracy relies on the age old ‘law of diminishing returns’ kicking in.  In other words, the worse they become the less people will trust them.

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Notes:

Minimum pricing:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-11731455

Trump:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/north_east/7294059.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7295072.stm

Scotland Bill:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-12621048

[Notice – As we approach the festive holidays, site content will reduce slightly and there will be no updating for a few days over Christmas.  This is to allow the team to have a well-earned break.  However the site will remain live and posts will continue to be moderated throughout.]