The man who spotted what Scotland lacked as a nation

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By Kenneth Roy

Since Arnold Kemp left the paper in 1994 after 13 years in charge, the Herald has had six editors – an average tenure of three years. This is a model of managerial stability compared with the farcical game of musical chairs played out in Edinburgh, home of Scotland’s other broadsheet daily.

By Kenneth Roy

Since Arnold Kemp left the paper in 1994 after 13 years in charge, the Herald has had six editors – an average tenure of three years. This is a model of managerial stability compared with the farcical game of musical chairs played out in Edinburgh, home of Scotland’s other broadsheet daily.

In the year that Kemp was replaced at the Herald, the editor of the Scotsman, Magnus Linklater, suffered the same fate. Ten editors have subsequently come and gone – an average tenure of one year eight months. An eleventh has recently been appointed. He has our sympathy and understanding.

Some of the victims at the Scotsman were disposed of in roughly the time it takes to hire and fire a football manager. In the turbulent millennium year two editors got the chop after a run of bad results, including the first woman editor in the paper’s history. Who remembers Rebecca Hardy?

It is hard to say what can be achieved in one year eight months as a newspaper editor or a football manager. There is time to memorise the names of the staff, make a couple of signings, tinker with the midfield or the op-ed, and hire a good lawyer to negotiate such compensation as the proprietor feels disposed to put on the table; maybe not much else. Three years at the Herald is better, but not a lot.

So 1994 was a historic one in the Scottish press. It saw the departure of the last of the long-serving editors – Kemp – and by last I really mean last. Proprietors no longer invest in writer-editors; they hire editorial executives, a rather different breed, demand immediate results, which are impossible to obtain given the magnitude of the brief, and show them the door when, surprise surprise, the miracle fails to materalise. The same year also marked the beginning of the end of quality journalism in Scotland. Since 1994 the Herald and the Scotsman have both shed more than half their circulations; their combined sale is now around 85,000, getting close to derisory.

These two developments – circulation freefall and the arrival of the short-term editor – are, of course, closely related. No one has the time to put an individual stamp on the paper and, even if they did, they would no longer have the resources to make much of a difference. The only person of real influence on either paper in the last 18 years was Andrew Neil, who was not the editor of the Scotsman but the Barclay brothers’ representative on earth. It was he who politically re-positioned a formerly left-leaning, devolution-minded paper, at once removing it from the mainstream of Scottish thinking.

Arnold Kemp, who died 10 years ago this week, is splendidly remembered in a collection of his journalism edited by his daughter Jackie. It is intriguing to speculate what he would have made of the calamitous decline of the two newspapers with which he was mainly associated – the Scotsman as its deputy editor before moving to the Herald. But there are a few clues in the book (‘Confusion to our Enemies’).

Kemp lived long enough to witness the first impact of the information revolution, although he confessed that he was not a surfer of the internet (‘I am a somewhat hesitant and timorous inhabitant of Cyberspace’); and to observe, mostly with regret and sadness, its impact on the role of the traditional newspaper. In a lecture at Glasgow University in 1996, he acknowledged that the new forms of communication had ‘destroyed the role of the press as a primary source of news, except as a messenger of scandal or disruptive revelation or as a purveyor of niche news’.

In the last few months we have seen almost all newspapers develop a front-page obsession with competitive sport – the new opium of the media – in a desperate attempt to purvey niche news; whether this extreme strategy has worked will be revealed by the circulation figures for the summer. But there was nothing in this form of niche news which had not been seen live on television many hours before – the problem identified by Kemp remained unmoved by day after day of patriotic cheer-leading.

In the same lecture Kemp lamented the trivialisation of the press’s agenda and echoed the depressing analysis of the American commentator Aubrey Lewis, who was struck by the humbug of the British press, the extent to which the broadsheet papers had descended to the slimy and the sensational, and the proprietorial lack of interest in old-fashioned journalistic values. By 1996, six years before his untimely death, Arnold Kemp had become pessimistic about the future of his beloved profession. But I doubt that even he, the ultimate newspaperman, would have predicted the depth of the fall since then.

Yet there was a hint at the end of his Glasgow University lecture of how the Scottish quality press might have insulated itself from the more general collapse of newspapers. He drew encouragement from the example of the Irish Times, a superb international newspaper published in Dublin, run by a non-profit-making trust, flourishing in a country with a population smaller than Scotland’s, yet charging a premium cover price which made our own seem modest. ‘The Irish press,’ wrote Kemp, ‘is sustained by a readership which accepts that a national press is an indispensable part of nationhood’.

What does this say about Scotland’s own quest for nationhood, lacking as it does that indispensable part?

‘Confusion to our Enemies’, selected journalism of Arnold Kemp, edited by Jackie Kemp with a foreword by Professor Tom Devine, is published by Neil Wilson Publishing (£14.99).

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review