Last month, it was announced that the debt-troubled newspaper firm Johnston Press had been taken over by JPI Media, a company especially set up for the takeover by the firm’s lenders. Soon after, it emerged that the value of one particular outpost of Johnston Press’s empire, the Edinburgh-based triumvirate of the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and Evening News, had dropped in value from 160 million pounds in 2005 to just four million today.
I’ve intended since then to write something about this sorry state of affairs – and especially about plight of the Scotsman, which at one time could justifiably claim to be Scotland’s national newspaper. But apathy has prevented me from writing about it until today. That’s unsurprising. As far as my feelings about the Scotsman are concerned these days, ‘apathy’ is the operative word.
It’s hard to believe in 2018, but for a period of my life I read the Scotsman a lot. When my family arrived in Scotland in 1977, it was one of the daily newspapers they had delivered to their door. They – soon it was ‘we’ because by the time I was 12 or 13 I’d got into the habit of reading it too – liked it because everything you needed to know was there: news about Scotland, about Britain and about the wider world, plus some intelligent comment and opinion. And for my Dad, who was a farmer, it had a good agricultural section. It’s interesting that in those days we never felt any urge to sample the London-based newspapers, even though they were freely available on the shelves of the local newsagent. I suspect this was the same in many households across Scotland.
By the time I’d become a college student, my political beliefs had shifted to the left – and to the belief that Scotland should be ruled not by London but by the people who lived in it and should be an independent country. Now I understood that the Scotsman was never going to be the reading matter of choice for revolutionary socialists intent on sticking it to the Man, or as it was in those Thatcherite times, the Woman. But in its sombre, quietly-on-the-side-of-social-justice way, the old newspaper still had my respect.
Incidentally, for a period in the early 1990s, I really liked its sister paper, the Scotland on Sunday. I remember living for half-a-year in Harlow in Essex, working at a private school where the senior teacher also came from Scotland. Every Sunday morning, we left our respective houses and embarked on a desperate race to get to a particular newsagent’s shop first – the only newsagent in Harlow who stocked the Scotland on Sunday and who seemed to only ever stock one copy of it. I enjoyed its columns, which included ones written by the agreeably curmudgeonly Kenneth Roy and the spiky, outspoken Muriel Gray, who was one of my heroines at the time since she was a knowledgeable TV music presenter, a horror-story writer, a dedicated hillwalker and a commentator with fire in her belly.
(Kenneth Roy, alas, passed away just a couple of weeks ago. Meanwhile, nowadays, there’s someone called Muriel Gray who tut-tuts about how ghastly Scotland would be if it ever voted for independence and occasionally on twitter plugs opinion pieces written by her right-wing pals for the likes of the Daily Mail and the Spectator. But I refuse to accept that this Miss Jean Brodie-esque creature is the same Muriel Gray whom I used to worship. I believe that the real Muriel Gray has been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by an evil pod-person double.)
Anyway, in the late 1990s, after a lengthy stint in Japan, I found myself living in Edinburgh and I assumed I’d get into the habit of reading the Scotsman again. I bought a couple of issues and gave up. It’d suddenly acquired an unpleasantly right-wing editorial tone. It was scathing about the idea that Scotland should get any degree of home-rule from London – even though the Scottish population had just voted for that, in 1997, in a referendum about the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament. Hold on, I thought. Hadn’t the Scotsman, the old Scotsman, been firmly in favour of Scottish devolution?
When I asked old friends from my college days – folk like me, interested in politics and current affairs and belonging to a demographic who’d certainly buy newspapers if they thought they were worth buying – they’d shrug and say dismissively, “The Scotsman? Never read it now.”
It transpired that something tragic had happened. In the mid-1990s Scotsman Publications had been acquired by media, retail and property tycoons the Barclay Brothers, and they’d installed as their editor-in-chief Andrew Neil, formerly Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenant in the UK (and in 2018 a heavyweight political journalist with the BBC). Back in the day in the newspaper world, Neil was the man with the reverse-Midas touch: everything he touched turned to shit. He edited the once-respectable Sunday Times in the 1980s and transformed it into the snide, smug right-wing rag it still is today. Other publications he was involved with like the European and the Business suffered declining sales and eventually folded.
Although Neil didn’t have anything to do with the Scotsman after it passed from the Barclay Brothers to Johnston Press in 2005, the newspaper remained on the right – where Neil had dragged it – and basically never recovered from the dose of journalistic syphilis it’d contracted from him during his tenure. By 2017, the year of its 200th anniversary, its paid-for circulation was down to about 17,000 copies daily.
It’s not as if there hasn’t been much news for the Scotsman to cover in Scotland during the last two decades. 1998 saw the creation of the first Scottish parliament in nearly three centuries, 2007 saw the hitherto unthinkable spectacle of the Scottish Labour Party being booted out of power by the Scottish National Party, 2010 saw the financial collapse of Scotland’s biggest football club Glasgow Rangers, and 2014 saw that wee matter of the referendum on Scottish independence. Plus we’ve had the tragic death of a Scottish First Minister, Donald Dewar; the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing; the enthronement of President Donald Trump, someone with embarrassingly strong links to Scotland; and the removal of Scotland from the European Union thanks to the Brexit vote, even though most Scottish voters wanted to stay in it. With so much going on, how come the Scotsman failed to capitalise? How has the reverse happened – its current dismal readership figures suggesting that it is, to use a memorable simile by Billy Connolly, “as popular as a fart in a spacesuit”?
Obviously, the coming of the internet and online news services where stories are continually broken and updated impacted negatively on the Scotsman, but it hasn’t helped itself with the scorched earth policy it’s seemingly waged against its readership and potential readership. As I said earlier, Andrew Neil’s reign put many people off it. Then in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, its partisan unionist / ‘vote no’ stance surely pissed off any pro-independence readers who’d stuck with it. Indeed, two independence-supporting people I know, of my age or slightly older, told me they’d cancelled their Scotsman subscriptions because they were scunnered by its referendum coverage.
Of course, many newspaper readers voted ‘no’ to independence – and their side won in 2014. But politically nearly all the Scottish newspapers are unionist and most are right-wing, so by appealing to those people (and not the 45% who’d voted ‘yes’) the Scotsman was competing for readers in an already crowded field.
My Dad soldiered on reading it, mainly for the farming coverage, though he’d frequently grumble that the Scotsman generally ‘wasn’t as good as it used to be’. Eventually, ill-health meant that he stopped buying it too. Thus, while its right-wing British-unionist stance pissed off a sizeable section of my generation – probably the last generation in the habit of regularly buying physical newspapers – an older generation more likely to approve of its conservative politics was sickening and dying off.
© Daily Record
I have to say that only the threat of torture by thumbscrews, the rack and waterboarding would make me fork out money for a copy of it nowadays. Not when its columnists include such specimens as Brian Wilson, a former minister under Tony Blair, a staunch supporter of the Iraq War and a man with a visceral hatred of the concept of Scottish independence and of anyone who might ever countenance voting for it; Brian Monteith, who led the campaign in 1997 against the establishment of the Scottish parliament and then demonstrated he was a person of true principle by, er, becoming a Conservative Party Member of the Scottish Parliament and pocketing an MSP’s salary there for the next seven years; and dyspeptic political journalist Euan McColm, who detests the SNP so much that steam must pour out of his ears every time Nicola Sturgeon appears on the telly.
Recent articles in the Scotsman and its sister newspapers have done nothing to change my mind. A few weeks ago Brian Monteith, writing in the Scotsman’s sister paper the Evening News, penned an attack piece on Nicola Sturgeon so jaw-droppingly full of sexist jokes about her being obsessed with having her ‘nails done’, deciding ‘what blusher works best’ and making sure she ‘never runs out of killer stilettos’ that I wondered if I was reading something written by the ghost of Bernard Manning. Meanwhile, Euan McColm wrote an article in the Scotsman dissing the Scottish Politician of the Year award, which in November 2018 went to an SNP politician, Jeane Freeman: “Are you entirely mediocre at your job,” he sneered, “barely capable of carrying out the duties for which you are employed and devoid of imagination?” McColm had been oddly silent about the award’s shortcomings during the previous two years when it went to Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives and darling of Scotland’s mainstream media.
I should say I only know of the above articles because I’ve read extracts of them that were posted on the Internet. I’d no sooner click on the Scotsman website these days than I’d wade into a dung-filled midden. Technically, the site is all over the place and is maddening to navigate. And the comments threads below the online articles are infested with frothing British-nationalist bampots who’d probably like to see people with my political views arrested and locked up for treason.
So having roused myself from my apathy, I’ve offered my thoughts on the poor old Scotsman. Once it was a staple of my daily life in Scotland, now it’s something I avoid like the plague. And those circulation figures indicate that most other people are avoiding it too. A few years from now, I suspect its financial situation and that of its parent company will be even more dire and it’ll end up like the Independent – which ceased its print edition in 2016 and exists now in a phantom online version, with a migraine-inducingly bad website and its news team apparently made up of journalism interns who trawl the Internet and social media looking for stories.
Well, as the 2018 Scotsman website is already bloody awful, it’s halfway to the Independent’s living-dead status now.