Conspiracy of silence


Kenneth Roy

You will not hear a word against it in the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday, Edinburgh Evening News, or any of the other 171 newspapers and 297 local websites controlled by the Johnston Press.

There will be not a breath of criticism in the Herald, Sunday Herald or Glasgow Evening Times, the group of newspapers controlled by Newsquest.
  You needn’t expect an opposing view anywhere in the universe inhabited by D C Thomson: count on the unqualified support of the Dundee Courier, Dundee Evening Telegraph, Sunday Post, Scots Magazine, Weekly News and People’s Friend.
     Even Denis the Menace is all for it.
     And you may confidently assume that it will have the whole-hearted approval of the Press and Journal and Aberdeen Evening Express.
     What is this thing unanimously endorsed by what is loosely known as the Scottish indigenous media? Short of motherhood and apple pie, what could so unite these normally competitive beasts that their journalists are reduced to silent acquiescence?
     It may not surprise you to learn that it is a business deal. Shameless in its effrontery, far-reaching in its implications, it is more or less unnoticed and unquestioned. Had it been any other business deal, the Scottish media would have been all over it. The tartan commentariat would have been aghast. But the proposed takeover of Scottish TV’s news operation is in a protected category. It brings together Johnston, Newsquest and Thomson in one of the unholiest consortia of our time. It is therefore largely immune from scrutiny.

What is this lot after?

Scottish TV claimed it could no longer afford to meet its licence requirement to provide a news service north of the border. The response of the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport to this humiliating admission was not to re-award the ITV franchise for Scotland to a company which could fulfil the licence requirement, but to bankroll the news service with public money.
     Scottish TV is spending up to £10 million a year on news. The UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport declared in a spirit of remarkable generosity that it would give very much more – around £16 million a year – to a news provider. It put the service out to tender. Scottish TV itself applied for the right to dispose of this handsome bounty, but the department not only preferred an alternative bidder but chose the worst imaginable: it went for the press consortium. In making this decision it seemed to be unaware of the media monopoly it was creating. Or perhaps it was all too aware, and didn’t care.
     Apart from the obvious objection, the decision betrayed a stunning insensitivity to Scottish concerns. Newsquest, one of the principal beneficiaries of this taxpayer-funded largesse, is an American company with a distinctive attitude to its own journalists; about 18 months ago it compelled them to re-apply for their own jobs under the editorship of Donald (Team Glasgow) Martin. The Johnston Press is so over-stretched that last year it was forced to re-finance its ‘debt facility’ to the tune of almost £500 million. D C Thomson is notoriously conservative and no friend of the trade unions. It seems extraordinary that public money should be poured down any of these throats, far less all of them.
     No one would make great claims for the news service of Scottish Television. It is poor; sometimes embarrassingly so. But with an extra £6 million a year at its disposal, no doubt it would be very much better; we would certainly be entitled to expect some impovement. It was encouraging that, in applying for the contract, it was anxious to emphasise the integrity of Scotland as a nation. There was some seriousness in this approach, a recognition that we have had a devolved parliament for 11 years and that broadcasting in Scotland needs to reflect our radically different situation.
     From the press consortium, however, there was a different emphasis. It is instructive to note the Johnston Press’s reaction to its successful bid: ‘This is an important step towards our goal of ensuring choice for people who value high-quality, independent local news’. What choice, when the Johnston Press already controls so much of Scotland’s local media? What independence, when the consortium merely extends the power of three commercial outfits with too much clout already? But the most significant word in this depressing statement is ‘local’. It seems the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport was enthused by the prospect of Scottish news being presented from local newspaper offices around the country and by the deployment of jack-of-all-trades ‘video journalists’. The rest of us will run to the hills in the hope of escaping any television reception rather than have to face this publicly financed provincialism.
     I would not have thought it necessary to state what should be obvious, even to the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport: Scotland is not a loose amalgamation of local newspapers, much as I am sure the Johnston Press would wish it to be, nor is it simply a collection of sheriff court cases and fatal road accidents. It is a country with its own national identity, culturally, politically, legally, educationally, religiously. The suggestion – it is more than a suggestion; it is now public policy – that the taxpayer should be expected to fund the Johnston Press’s alternative view of Scotland as a glorified local paper is beyond insulting.
     It may never happen. That is the only good news. The deal appears to be in limbo for the duration of the election campaign. If the Tories form the next government, there will be no public funding of Scottish Television news. If Labour is returned, it may not be too late for second thoughts.

Of course none of this would matter much if the public broadcaster in Scotland was on the ball. But, as I noted in last weekend’s column, BBC Scotland’s voice is subdued – perhaps by lack of resources, or an unaccountable timidity, or a failure of leadership, or a complacency born of the lack of a credible opposition, or a combination of all these factors. Whatever the explanation, Scotland is ill served by broadcast news. This is a problem for democracy. The case for Scottish control of broadcasting becomes ever stronger.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review – click here.