Scotched earth policy




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.


The strife of Brian


(c) Daily Record


At the end of March we said goodbye to the great Edinburgh-born comic performer Ronnie Corbett, one of whose catchphrases was: “And it’s good night from him.”  One month later, on April 29th, we bade farewell to another great Scottish comedy talent.  For the journalist, political commentator and former Labour MP Brian Wilson penned his final column for the Scotsman newspaper.  It was good night from him too.


When I call Wilson a Scottish comedy talent, I’m thinking of a particular strain of Scottish comedy.  I’m thinking of Walt Disney’s Scrooge McDuck, and John Laurie’s Private Frazer in the much-loved wartime sitcom Dad’s Army, and the Reverend I.M. Jolly, one of the characters essayed by the late Rikki Fulton in his sketch show Scotch and Wry.  Like those three, Brian Wilson is dour and crabbit and negative, traits commonly attributed to the Scots, but is so over-the-top about it that he becomes hilarious.  Though there’s a slight difference.  The actors and animators who created Scrooge McDuck, Private Frazer and the Reverend I.M. Jolly weren’t being serious.  When the glowering, gurning, face-like-a-skelped-arse Wilson sits down at his computer and thumps out another thousand-word missive of misery and more misery for the Scotsman, he is being serious.  He means it.  That’s the real him.  Which usually makes me fall off my perch laughing.


Before I continue, I should say that Scotland’s Brian Wilson is no relation to the American Brian Wilson, the singer-songwriter responsible for the sunny, upbeat tunes of the Beach Boys during the 1960s – though somehow, sinisterly, his work also inspired the murderous hippy cult-leader Charles Manson.  Our Brian certainly has none of his American namesake’s sunniness.  In fact, he calls to mind the famous quote by P.G. Wodehouse that it “has never been hard to tell the difference between a Scotsman with a grievance and ray of sunshine.”  Wilson is so immersed in doom and gloom that he’d make even the weakest, wateriest ray of sunshine appear as coruscating as a gamma-ray burst from a star turning supernova.


And while American Brian had the dubious honour of influencing Charles Manson, Scottish Brian will tell you that anyone who disagrees with his politics – especially members of the Scottish National Party and other folk favouring greater autonomy or outright independence for Scotland – is Charles Manson.


Wilson has opposed the transfer of political power to Scotland for a very long time.  Back in 1979, for instance, he chaired the Labour Vote No Campaign during the debate about the establishment of a devolved Scottish parliament in Edinburgh.  No doubt he was happy, or at least a shade less grim than usual, when the proposed parliament came to naught thanks to a rigged referendum whereby a majority of Scots voted in favour of it but, the rules decreed, not enough of them voted for it.  Subsequently, during the 1980s, the absence of a Scottish parliament left Margaret Thatcher free to have her wicked way with Scotland from her base in Westminster.  Even when his own Labour Party, finally back in power in 1997, moved to create that long-delayed Scottish parliament, Wilson was still harrumphing and huffing about it.  Small wonder he became known as the Abominable ‘No’ Man.




In his final Scotsman appearance on April 29th, Wilson claimed there were two reasons for his long-standing opposition to a Scottish parliament.  Firstly, he feared that decision-making would become unfairly centralised in Scotland, i.e. in Edinburgh – though how that’s worse than the old set-up, when big decisions affecting Scotland were made 400 miles south in London, is beyond me.  Secondly, and what I suspect was Wilson’s real reason, he predicted that a Scottish parliament would sooner or later stop being run by the Labour party and start being run by the SNP – which happened after the Scottish election of 2007.  “Since 1997, Scottish Labour might have done better through a more acute awareness of having constructed – with the best of motives – its own potential scaffold.”


Wilson, it’s fair to say, hasn’t been impressed by the SNP regime that’s run Scotland since 2007 (and is set to continue running it after yesterday’s Scottish parliamentary election, in which the SNP won 63 seats and the Labour Party won only 24).  In his valedictory column he blasts it for “a constant agenda of grievance and betrayal”, for “self-inflicted timidity and under-achievement”, for “a poverty of ideas”, for “a spiral of decline”, for “a cruel hoax”, for “a con trick”.  All of which have put Scotland not on “a mythical motorway to independence but a slow road to mediocrity”.


Well, there are several things I think Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP government should be criticised for.  But it’s a bit rich for this abuse to come from a former stalwart of the Scottish Labour Party.  For if you want a lesson in what mediocrity, under-achievement and creative poverty are about, you need look no further than the bad old days when Wilson’s party dominated Scotland.  This was the era when political commentators joked that Labour votes in Scotland were weighed rather than counted; and in Glasgow you could stick a red rosette on a monkey and it’d get voted into Westminster.  Actually, looking at the evidence, the red rosette / monkey scenario must have actually happened in a number of cases.


Among the mediocre, under-achieving and creatively constipated Labour MPs that Scotland had representing it were such specimens as Lanark and Hamilton East’s Jimmy Hood, who once declared he’d oppose Scottish independence even if it made the Scottish people better off – the fact that as an MP he was busy claiming £1000-a-month second-home expenses in London no doubt had something to do with his keenness to keep Westminster running the show.  And Midlothian’s David Hamilton, who in 2015 did his bit for the battle against sexism by describing Nicola Sturgeon (and her hairstyle) as “the wee lassie with a tin helmet on”.  And Glasgow South West’s Ian Davidson, who charmingly predicted that after 2014’s referendum on independence the debate would carry on only “in the sense there is a large number of wounded still to be bayoneted”.  And Renfrewshire West’s Tommy Graham, who was chucked out of Labour in 1998 after he allegedly smeared fellow MP Gordon McMaster about having a homosexual relationship – McMaster had committed suicide the year before and in his suicide note he named Graham as a tormentor.


Among this shower – who became known as the ‘low-flying Jimmies’ because of their lack of ambition in anything other than being cannon-fodder for Labour at Westminster and enjoying all the perks that came with being MPs – any Scottish Labour politicians who dared to display minds of their own were either politely side-lined, like Linlithgow’s Tam Dalyell, or unceremoniously forced out, like Falkirk’s Dennis Canavan.  With numpties like these populating the Westminster opposition benches during the 1980s and 1990s, it’s no surprise Mrs Thatcher’s Tories had a free run to do whatever they liked in Scotland.


Unlike most of his Caledonian compadres, Brian Wilson at least had a brain.  And under Tony Blair he served as a Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, for Industry and Energy and for the Scottish Office.  No doubt for him those years when Labour, or New Labour as they’d been brightly rebranded, were back in power was a golden age of enlightenment and progressiveness.  Though many would disagree.  The Guardian’s environmental correspondent George Monbiot, writing in response to something Wilson himself had penned for his newspaper, described New Labour as an outfit for whom the important things in life were “keeping faith with the banks, the corporate press, the banks, a tollbooth economy and market fundamentalism” and “voting for the Iraq War, for Trident, for identity cards, for 3,500 new criminal offences, including the criminalisation of most kinds of peaceful protest.”


Wilson was a big supporter of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and he subsequently became Tony Blair’s special envoy for the country’s ‘reconstruction’.


But I’d hate this entry to be a complete hatchet job.  Is there anything good I can say about Brian Wilson?  Well, he can at least string a proper sentence together.  He’s had enough journalistic practice – as a young man he co-founded, published and wrote for the respected newspaper the West Highland Free Press.  His columns in the Scotsman have been mercifully free of the gibberish filling the pieces that his former-fellow-Scottish-Labour MP and ex-Scottish-Labour leader Jim Murphy writes for the New Statesman these days.


He’s campaigned tirelessly for the promotion of the Gaelic language in Scotland and for me anything that preserves cultural diversity is to be applauded.  That said, most of the Gaelic speakers I’ve known – and I knew a lot during the years I lived in Aberdeen – didn’t really trust him and any respect they had for him was grudging at best.


He’s had a sane attitude to energy policy, favouring a combination of renewables and nuclear power.  I don’t like the idea of nuclear power, but I think with global warming hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles we don’t have any choice now but to continue using it.  Mind you, I suspect Wilson’s opinions on the subject are coloured by his private financial interests.  From 2003 to 2004 he was director of a company called Virtual Utility Limited, which supposedly was involved in windfarms; while in 2005 he was appointed non-executive director of AMEC Nuclear Holdings Ltd, the ‘nuclear services arm’ of AMEC plc.


Oh, and while he was special envoy to Iraq, who won part of a half-billion-pound deal to reconstruct the country’s water and sewage systems?  Why, AMEC did!  Funny, that.