The dying Scotsman

 

(c) The Guardian 

 

Quelle surprise.  The Scotsman, which calls itself ‘Scotland’s national newspaper’ and has been rolling off the presses in Edinburgh since 1817, announced near the end of last week that it was supporting a ‘no’ vote in tomorrow’s referendum on Scottish independence.  Anyone who during the past two years has followed the newspaper’s shrill anti-independence headlines (which often contradict or distort what’s actually written in the articles below them) won’t be surprised by this.  Also, I doubt if anyone on the pro-independence side will be troubled by the venerable Edinburgh newspaper coming out against them.

 

According to the most recent figures in the Scotsman’s Wikipedia entry, the poor old thing only manages to sell 28,500 copies daily.  Lately, it’s had to lay off staff-members and reduce its number of pages and supplements and, in April this year, it admitted to a ‘downsizing’ of premises – Scotsman Publications were flitting from Barclay House on Holyrood Road to Orchard Brae House on Queensferry Road, this new home being less than half the size and a third of the rent of the old one.  Probably the SNP, Greens, Radical Independence Campaign and co., keen to promote the idea of a new, independent, dynamic and forward-looking Scotland, are not desperately bothered about failing to win an endorsement from this old Scottish institution that’s plainly dying on its arse.

 

The Scotsman’s sorry state is a shame because at one time it was widely read, made its points intelligently and carried some influence – as much as any newspaper published 400 miles north of London could.  For the many years that my family have lived in Scotland, it’s been the one newspaper delivered to our house every day – my Dad reads it still but grumbles that ‘it’s not what it used to be’ and I suspect he only sticks with it because of old-time loyalty and because he likes its farming coverage.  My disenchantment with it is stronger.  In my opinion, compared with the good old days of the 1970s and 1980s, much of what it prints now ranges from being shallow and vacuous to being hysterical kneejerk crap, Daily Mail / Daily Express-style.

 

And I’m not saying that because I disagree with its politics.  Though even the smartest newspaper in the world would be hard to love if it featured some of the columnists that the Scotsman does.  It begins each week by publishing a piece by surly old Thatcherite Brian Monteith, a man so vehemently opposed to Scotland getting even a measure of home-rule with the creation of the devolved Scottish parliament in 1999 that he led the Think Twice Campaign against it.  Then he promptly joined it as a Conservative MSP.  (When he quit the parliament after seven years, he did describe himself as being ‘a one-man band swimming against the treacly tide of collectivism’ in it, so poor Brian obviously suffered for that MSP salary.)  Meanwhile, each week is rounded off by a Scotsman column written by the gimlet-eyed Brian Wilson, the former Labour MP who’s been banging on about the evils of Scottish home-rule and independence like a broken but never-stopping record since the 1970s.

 

Yes, there’s some attempt to present voices from the middle and moderate parts of the spectrum in the Scottish-independence debate too, like Alan Massie, Gerry Hassan and Lesley Riddoch, but with Brian and Brian as its two weekly bookends of doom, I find the modern-day Scotsman pretty difficult to stomach.

 

(c) The Guardian

 

The Scotsman was once a keen supporter, in its cautious and genteel way, of constitutional change in Scotland to allow the country more say in running its own affairs.  But then a tragic thing happened.  From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s Scotsman Publications were owned by the media, retail and property tycoons the Barclay Brothers, who installed as their editor-in-chief Andrew Neil, formerly Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenant in the UK and now a heavyweight political journalist with the BBC.  (I always thought Neil’s This Week programme, in which Michael Portillo, Diane Abbot and him would sit in a studio and discuss the week’s current affairs whilst seemingly indulging in a gruesome three-way mutual-admiration-orgy / flirtation-fest, was the most fascinatingly dreadful thing on British television.)

 

In newspaper circles back in the day, Neil was truly the man with the reverse-Midas touch: everything he touched turned to shit.  He was editor of the once-respectable Sunday Times in the 1980s, helping to turn it into the snide, shrill, right-wing shout-sheet it is today, and other publications he was involved with like the European and the Business suffered declining sales and finally closed.  Although Neil didn’t have anything to do with the Scotsman after it was acquired by the London-based 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.

 

During the Barclay Brothers / Neil era, the Scotsman saw no fewer than seven editors.  By an odd coincidence, I’d vaguely known two of these short-lived editors from my educational years.  In 2000, the paper was briefly edited by Tim Luckhurst, who’d been a few years ahead of me at Peebles High School.  The lanky, curly-haired and lugubrious-faced Tim was a well-kent figure at the school, sloping around the place in a combat jacket and a T-shirt saying LEGALISE CANNABIS – in those permissive times you weren’t obliged to wear a school uniform – and to my mates and I he was known contemptuously  as ‘Chairman Mao’.

 

That Tim had to attend a lowly comprehensive school in the windy wilds of North Britain, full of horrible little oiks like myself, still rankles with the great man.  Writing for the Guardian in 2010 he quoted Ellen Wilkinson, Secretary of State for Education in Clement Atlee’s post-war Labour government, as saying of her childhood in non-selective schooling in Manchester: “The top few pupils were intelligent and could mop up facts like blotting paper, but we were made to wait for the rest of the huge classes…  We wanted to stretch our minds but were merely a nuisance.”  Tim noted sourly, “Thirty years later I experienced comparable misery at my Scottish comprehensive.”

 

I should point out that although it denied Tim the chance to stretch his fabulous mind and soak up facts like a first-rate sheet of blotting paper, Peebles High School did manage to get him into Cambridge University.  Incidentally, I recall a couple of years back chatting to a former teacher in Peebles, now a sweet little pensioner, when Tim’s name somehow cropped up in the conversation.  The teacher suddenly underwent a startling metamorphosis, hands becoming clenched and claw-like, face becoming dark and scowling, and blurted wrathfully, “Tim is just an ARSEHOLE!”  So the disdain Tim feels for his alma mater of the 1970s is perhaps mutual.

 

In fact, Tim is pretty good at burning his bridges.  He was once an advisor to the late Donald Dewar, the Labour politician viewed as ‘father’ of the Scottish devolution settlement and devolved Scottish parliament, but by 2001 he was demanding (in the Guardian again) that Whitehall should threaten the parliament, Dewar’s baby, with abolition.  That article was mild, though, compared with one he wrote for the New Statesman that same year, entitled Scotland Returns to the Dark Ages, in which he blamed devolution for releasing a tidal wave of evils like homophobia, sectarianism, misogyny, racism and, er, the banning of fox-hunting.  In the civilised days before devolution unleashed the Scots’ inner beastliness, he wrote, such things had been ‘diluted by the soothing balm of the British state’.  Actually, Tim, who also ran as a Labour candidate in the Scottish constituency of Roxburgh and Berwickshire in the 1987 general election, seems to have moved a wee bit to the right these days.  Before his current job (Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent) he spent seven years as political editor of the Scottish edition of the Daily Mail.  Which was clearly the best place for him.

 

Tim’s successor at the Scotsman’s editorial helm was a petite English lady called Rebecca Hardy, whom I’d known at a later period – she’d been in a couple of my classes when I was a student in Aberdeen.  Bubbly, self-confident, cosmopolitan and, dare I say it, ever-so-slightly affected, Rebecca seemed a bit too disconcertingly exotic to a rough, uncivilised yokel like myself and I never got to know her particularly well.  However, in the dealings I had with her, she was civil enough and I don’t bear her any ill-will.  Later, at the Scotsman, she lasted as editor for less than two years before unpromising sales prompted Neil to show her the door.  All I can remember of her editorship was that she was reported as making some uncomplimentary remarks about performers at the Edinburgh Festival, referring to them as ‘luvvies’ and ‘Marxist trapeze artists’.  I can’t comment on the ‘Marxist trapeze artists’ bit, but I have to say that Rebecca herself was probably the most luvvie-ish person I’ve ever met.

 

The last I heard of Rebecca, she was working for the showbiz section of the Daily Mail.  Actually, it says a lot for how out-of-touch the Andrew Neil-era Scotsman was in Scotland – a country that’s famously anti-Tory and well to the left of popular opinion in southern England – that two of its former editors ended up working for the Daily Mail.

 

The question now is for how much longer the Scotsman can totter on.  Personally, I can’t envision it surviving far beyond tomorrow’s referendum.  Whatever way the vote goes, as one of Scotland’s major cheerleaders for continued rule from Westminster, it will after September 18th have outlived its usefulness.  I suspect Johnston Press will be tempted to pull the plug on the Scotsman’s life-support system before it reaches its 200th birthday in 2017.

 

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