Investigative journalism still exists in Scotland, but the squeeze on media makes it harder to find. The last few days have witnessed a heated social media debate about the fate of Stephen Daisley, by no means an investigative reporter but a commentator whose opinions and social media activity have polarised opinion increasingly since STV first started publishing his work during the referendum campaign. Has Daisley been muzzled at the behest of SNP MPs, or has his employer simply decided his role as a “digital editor” should have new priorities? Should we care either way? Author and journalist Christopher Silver reflects on the issue, and what it means for Scotland’s modern-day media landscape.
Journalists are people too. When I first encountered the trade at the tender of age of 17, such a remark would probably be followed by a caustic “well, aye, but…”
Today however it seems that the character of journalists and the regard with which they are held in Scotland has become a far more solemn matter.
Journalism without cynicism seems a contradiction in terms. The ability of the hack to glory in a trade that demands a thick skin, a resilient liver and a canny distance from the stories themselves, was once celebrated. All of these qualities were deemed necessary in order to face the daily compromises and challenges of transforming an imperfect rendition of what had happened that day into something that deserved to be called “news”.
Of course, such observations are clichés. The overwhelmingly boozy and masculine Scottish press culture, with its impatient intellectualism, tough love and generous expense accounts, is long gone. But as this esprit de corps has eroded there’s a risk that an obtuse and vainglorious individualism is all that is left to take its place.
In a sense, the decline of journalism in Scotland is not unlike that of the nation’s heavy industries. The fall of the press from dominance in Scottish public life has left a residue of a past that expresses itself as a strange, caustic, bitterness. Journalists in Scotland operate within a crisis-ridden field and are often reduced to the status of click-bait hawkers in a land where they were once kings. This is not a psychologically healthy place to be.
Unsurprisingly, the behavioural symptoms are bizarre. The awkward, abrasive instinct is still there but despite this age old tradition, many Scottish journalists seem to have developed a new-found sensitivity. We are frequently asked to consider their welfare and the pressure they face on a day to day basis.
Yet the individuals concerned are no shrinking violets – they have a mission and zeal that spurs them on. They see a Scotland with one large political party dominating its internal politics, and want to push back against it. Pity the vain politician, the unhinged activist or over-exposed SPAD that stands in their way.
But there’s another curious aspect to the concerns raised about the apparent fragility of the free press in Scotland – the most frequently cited victims of anti-media feeling are primarily writers of op-ed. Their main public task had been to express opinions and (quite correctly) to provoke, question or reinforce their reader’s assumptions about certain issues.
But if you’re a politician out to influence an agenda, it is the hard news side of the operation that is key. The ability to shape what people think is happening is far more potent that the ability to influence views people express about what happened after the event.
COMMENT IS FREE
This is why comment is understood, for obvious reasons, to be a secondary concern. It is not the main meal. But from the editor’s perspective, it has become cheaper and far easier to produce than news.
Any writer with any credibility ought to understand that the act of commentating on the news rather than reporting it is a privileged one that is far from the sharp end of journalistic practice.
This is because what challenges power is reporting, investigation and the professional scrutiny of powerful individuals and institutions. That we now seem to fixate on the fate of commentators speaks volumes about how sharply the range and quality of the media offering in Scotland has declined.
It is news not comment that desperately needs a revival. With fewer hacks able to get out of the office and gather original news stories, the overall quality of the output is inevitably diminished.
The practice that ensues from this state of affairs has been described by Nick Davies as “churnalism”. If journalists are not able to pick up fresh news stories through knowledge of a dedicated beat, through investigation or simply by turning up on the ground and talking to people, this practice become inevitable.
The Daisley story is therefore a classic of the churnalism genre. Take an event (Daisley’s silence) trawl social media for suggestive remarks by high profile figures (Wishart and Nicholson) and round if off with generic comments on a pre existing narrative (SNP’s illiberal “anti-media” agenda).
Thus a story is created using entirely pre-packaged components – which are arranged in a pattern that points towards a wider, well established theme. With any luck a celebrity with a huge following will weigh in (say J.K Rowling) adding more reach and profile. It will then spiral off as various other commentators latch on to this apparent revelation within a broader narrative.
Evidence of the most salient point, the “pressure” from the SNP to “gag” Daisley, isn’t required. It’s assumed to be so obvious due to confirmation bias that no one feels obliged to test it.
What becomes lost here is the news value and bare facts of the original story. While the claim that the SNP lobbied STV to remove Daisley seems unfounded, the idea that a public service broadcaster would reconsider allowing a senior member of its staff to continue to build a reputation for partisan commentary on its own website is far more credible.
Daisley has used his column to voice his opinion on a range of highly contentious matters – openly stating his support for Zionism, torture, the war on terror, the anti-abortion movement and racial profiling. In contrast, while Daisley often provokes nationalists on social media, he has frequently expressed support for Nicola Sturgeon on a number of issues.
As has been noted elsewhere, the narrative about party political pressure doesn’t stack up. The explanation that such provocative views expressed so freely and frequently under the STV banner provoked internal disquiet and a re-think is boring, but logical.
This mundane reality leaves us with a story that was never really a story in the first place. Of course, this article is itself part of this process: “news” becomes a flurry of successive comments across a diverse range of media, rather than actual events or revelations.
Unsurprisingly, Iain Martin, Euan McColm, Alex Massie and Andrew Neil have all seen fit to fulminate against yet another example of the SNP’s anti-media agenda, and a prominent MSP has referred to living in a one party state – all based on what amounts to little more than innuendo.
All of these voices miss a fundamental point. Their paranoia should not give them license to act as though they live in a country lacking basic democratic freedoms. Their willingness to cross that line at even the most spurious confirmation of this narrative is vacuous, conceited and parochial in the extreme.
Sadly, Twitter has raised the op-ed writer to new heights, where they can easily become the leaders of an online tribe. But the real absurdity is the manner in which the job of a decent columnist – to provoke debate and offer analysis – is defended as some kind of heroic act. In a narrow sense, it does indeed involve speaking ‘truth to power’, but only in a manner that is low risk. Real journalistic heroism is not about getting trolled on social media or confronted by those incensed by a certain viewpoint.
Real journalistic achievement involves exposing links that have been hidden – it means long, boring and time consuming tasks that don’t lend themselves to social media grandstanding. It involves breaking original stories and moving beyond the narrow familiar haunts of media echo chambers. For many journalists around the world at this very moment it involves very real risks to life. Risks that are taken simply to drag a truth out into the open. It is expensive. In contrast forming an opinion is cheap and easy.
An American newspaperman once remarked that it was job of the press to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This aphorism has a universal resonance, but it’s also easily subverted and imitated. Straw men can easily stand in for both parties.
The sorry reality is that many purveyors of modern Scottish journalism – at once vain, belligerent and yet also thin skinned and delicate – feel entitled to act as if they are martyrs for a loosely defined set of truths and values. But their game is not about solidarity or free speech. Rather, in the time honoured fashion, it is deeply cynical. We are asked to view them as the afflicted simply because it makes for cheap copy.
Christopher Silver is the author of Demanding Democracy, an analysis of the Scottish media landscape today; See www.word-power.co.uk