Scottish Elections For Sale?


POLITICS…by Alex Porter

A controversial Labour Party plan to pay for a year’s free newspaper subscription for every 18 year old raises very serious concerns over Scottish democracy.

Sales of Scottish newspapers have plummeted in the last year by almost 100,000 readers. The hardest hit newspaper is Scotland on Sunday whose circulation now stands at 50,897 compared to 56,308 last year – a fall of 5,411 or 9.6 per cent.

This drop in circulation across all newspapers means a fall in advertising revenues and so even more staff will likely be lost across all titles. In 2008, the Scottish Daily Mirror reduced its staff to ONE, for example.

Scotland’s newspapers tend to support Labour, with an occassional nod to Tory and LibDem parties and are almost universally anti-SNP. The news of a decline in readership across the board, in a political sense, then is good for the SNP and bad for its arch-rival Labour.

An indication of how some newspapers may benefit from a Labour victory was apparent in 2006, when the then Labour-led Scottish Government decided to spend £900,000 utilising the Daily Record’s services in communicating ministerial messages on health, anti-racism, and bullying.  The next-highest sum given was £40,000 to the Scottish Sun, which had a similar national daily circulation but not quite the same political leanings.

One year later the Scottish press suffered a blow when the SNP government came to power and ordered all public sector jobs advertising to be done online. The resultant budget savings are estimated to run to £2.5 million per year. The drop in circulation combined with a loss of income from public bodies have hit the sector hard.

Critics have levelled criticism at the media in Scotland accusing it of showing bias in favour of unionist parties, of being London-centric and anti-SNP. There is of course no problem with newspapers having their own perspective but allegations of collusion and suppression of information between parties and editors abound. The public sector broadcaster BBC Scotland has been especially singled out for criticism.

Recently, campaigners pointed to the recent BBC Question Time programme where David Dimbleby refused to let the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon speak about specifically Scottish matters, pointing out that the TV audience was a “UK audience” despite the programme being filmed in Glasgow in front of a Scottish audience. Dimbleby went on to invite the other panelists to criticise the SNP government’s decision to free the convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi whilst refusing Sturgeon the right to defend the Scottish government’s position. After that the programme went on to discuss issues which were only relevant to London.

Last month BBC Scotland commissioned a survey (1) which asked Scots what their preferred option was to deal with cuts to the Scottish budget. The options were spending cuts or tax rises but no option on economic independence. As Scotland’s accounts show a surplus there is no need to do either should Scotland take back control over its economic powers – a point which is crucial given the proximity of the Scottish elections.

Campaigners argue that this national media bias is the underlying cause for the decline in circulation across the print sector. The argument is that as newspapers increasingly contort their political reports, to bolster the Labour Party and undermine the SNP, the electorate increasingly feel deceived and so look to alternative media sources, particularly online.

Given that Labour has such an advantage in terms of its media coverage in Scotland it would undoubtedly be an unwelcome development for Labour to see these newspapers lose income. This would be especially so if the owners of these newspapers identified support for Labour’s political narrative as the primary cause for that decline. In this context Iain Gray’s Holyrood manifesto pledge to have the taxpayer foot the bill, estimated at £15 million, to pay for free newspaper subscriptions for all 18 year olds in Scotland will be rightfully viewed by many with deep suspicion.

The ramifications of this policy are obvious and dangerous. Such a formal relationship between the state and newspapers will alert civil rights activists evoking images of state-controlled outlets like Pravda for example and will do Scotland’s international reputation no good at all.