War of words erupts between rivals as Scottish newspaper sales plummet


by G.A.Ponsonby

A row has broken out between the editors of two of Scotland’s biggest titles after one accused the other of trying to force it out of business.

The editors of the Scotland on Sunday and the Sunday Herald were embroiled in a war of words after Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker claimed that the team behind the Scotland on Sunday were displaying a “fight to the death attitude”.

Mr Walker’s remarks followed publication of figures that showed the Sunday Herald’s circulation had dropped 21% in 12 months, falling from 41,796 to 32,936.  The drop in circulation prompted the paper’s publishers, the Herald & Times Group, to issue a statement assuring that the paper “is not losing money despite intensive counter-marketing and cover price cutting by other newspapers, which undoubtedly affected our circulation in February”.

The statement is thought to have been a reference to a move by Scotland on Sunday to drop the price for their rival publication from £1.70 to £1 in the west of Scotland.

Speaking to online media site allmediascotland.com, Sunday Herald editor, Richard Walker said:

“Scotland on Sunday makes us try harder and makes us a better newspaper.  It is a competitor I respect.  Equally, the Sunday Herald makes SoS a better paper.

“But there’s a difference between healthy competition and trying to drive a competitor out of business.  I detect a bit of a ‘fight to the death’ attitude from some in the SoS camp.  I don’t really understand that.  You can be competitors without being deadly enemies.”

However John McLellan, editor-in-chief at Scotsman Publications, hit back at his rival’s comments accusing him of “lecturing”.  Mr McLellan pointed out that the Sunday Herald had set its own price at £1 for much of the year.

He said:

“Richard seems to have forgotten it was the Sunday Herald which until recently traded at an unviable £1 a copy for the best part of a year, so it’s a bit rich being lectured by him about competition.

“And who set out to wound who?  No-one should be fooled into believing the launch of the Sunday Herald was about anything other than stopping a highly successful Scotland on Sunday in its tracks to protect the Glasgow Herald’s classified markets.”

Mr McLellan went on to suggest that the Sunday Herald would not survive and added:

“Maybe Richard thinks we should sit back and let the thousands of readers deserting the Sunday Herald go to a London-based title rather than Scotland on Sunday?  It seems very strange for him to attack us for making sure there is a future for one indigenous quality Sunday because the Sunday Herald has proved beyond all reasonable doubt there isn’t room for two.”

Richard Walker had also claimed that there was a risk of important Scottish stories not being covered and that a rivalry between the two may allow English titles to make inroads.

Mr Walker added:

“The important thing, surely, is that indigenous Scottish journalism can survive and flourish.  It’s vital that happens otherwise there is a real risk that important Scottish stories will not get the coverage and the prominence that they deserve and that would have a real impact on the country.

“Of course I want to sell more papers than Scotland on Sunday and of course they want to sell more papers than we do.  That’s entirely right and natural.  But I don’t want to see Scottish journalism wounded and reduced as the two main Scottish quality Sundays spend so much time and energy tearing themselves apart that the London-based titles can make even more successful inroads into the Scottish market.”

The spat follows the recent publication of circulation figures that show circulation falling for all Scottish titles.  The Sunday Herald drop is the largest but the SoS has seen its own circulation fall by 3.5% with The Scotsman down by 8.2%.  The Daily Record saw its share drop 4.7% which equates to a loss of 14,564 readers whilst the Sunday Mail and the Herald fell by 8.4% and 8% respectively.

Kevin Dunion, the Scottish Information Commissioner, is to hold an investigation into complaints that the Scottish media is abusing Freedom of Information requests.

The investigation follows claims from public agencies that FoI requests are often vague and amount to no more than ‘fishing expeditions’, in the hope of finding a story.

Last year, Mr Dunion’s office held a briefing session for journalists working at Scotsman Publications.

The complaints follow similar revelations when it emerged that Labour MSP George Foulkes wasted tens of thousands of taxpayer’s cash asking sometimes bizarre questions.

There has also been a recent tendency for newspapers in Scotland to publish articles based on press releases that have been passed to them by opposition parties who have simply manipulated figures obtained through FoI requests.