No news is good news


From Twitter / @Fergoodness


Well, that was embarrassing.  On August 9th, the Scottish edition of the Times printed a column by journalist Kenny Farquharson headed THROW THE BOOK AT POLITICIANS WHO DON’T READ.  Its first six paragraphs took aim at former Scottish First Minister and former leader of the Scottish National Party Alex Salmond because, supposedly, he wasn’t a reader.  Farquharson based his assertion that Salmond didn’t read books on two things: an acquaintance who’d visited Salmond’s home in Aberdeenshire and hadn’t seen any books lying around and a quote Salmond allegedly gave to a student newspaper about not having read a book for “eight years straight”.


Later the same day, after a photo of the library at Salmond’s house (which Farquharson’s first source evidently hadn’t seen) had circulated on twitter and Salmond himself had tweeted that in the student-newspaper interview he’d been misquoted – he’d said ‘write’, not ‘read’ – the column vanished from the Times’s online edition and Farquharson issued an apologetic tweet: “Student paper that interviewed Alex Salmond has now withdrawn the quote, so we’ve removed my column from online.  Apologies to @AlexSalmond.”


At least, Farquharson apologised.  Fellow Scottish newspaper hack David Torrance, who’d also peddled the Salmond-doesn’t-read story, reacted to Salmond’s intervention by tweeting: “It’s like being harangued by a mad old man in a pub.  ‘I used to be First Minister you know…’”  Thus, if the mainstream Scottish media smears you and you object, you’re the equivalent of a pished auld haverer in a bar.  That’s journalistic integrity in Scotland 2017.


I knew Farquharson slightly from my college days in Aberdeen, when he was a stalwart member of the campus Creative Writing Society (along with now-celebrated novelist Ali Smith), so I’m surprised a literary-minded man like him failed to question and check his sources.  Among other things, Salmond has interviewed both Iain Banks and Ian McEwan at the Edinburgh Book Festival, feats that’d require massive amounts of chutzpah (even by Salmond’s standards) to pull off if you were a non-book-reading philistine.  I suspect Farquharson rushed to conclusions because, like most of the Scottish press, he just doesn’t like Salmond and is happy to believe the worst about him.


© The Guardian

© Pauline Keightly Photography / From


Now I admit that Alex Salmond, a man not known for his modesty, can be hard to like.  Even sympathetic profiles of him usually contain, at some point, the phrase ‘love him or loathe him’.  But the mainstream Scottish media’s antipathy towards Salmond is symptomatic of wider antipathy.  It also just doesn’t like Salmond’s party, the SNP, and how they’ve run Scotland since they won their first Scottish parliamentary election in 2007.


You get the impression that Scotland’s national print media – Scottish editions of the London-based dailies like the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sun plus supposedly ‘home-grown’ titles like the Scotsman, Herald and Daily Record, though the Herald and Record’s owners, Newsquest and Trinity Mirror, are based in England – never forgave the SNP for disrupting the old status quo in Scotland.  That old status quo had seemingly stretched back through the mists of antiquity to the Stone Age.  Simply put, Labour dominated Scotland (first at council level and then, after its creation in 1999, the Scottish Parliament); while the Conservatives and, occasionally, Labour oversaw Scotland and the rest of Britain from Westminster.


As the sainted messengers who conveyed information from that establishment to the great unwashed and who offered interpretation and comment on how the establishment was doing things, Scotland’s journalists had their own comfortable and privileged niche in Scottish society.


The relationship between Scotland’s old politicians and journalists was a symbiotic one.  Iain Macwhirter, columnist with the Sunday Herald, one of only two newspapers in Scotland that gives the SNP much support, has recalled how the Sunday Herald’s decision to back the party in 2014 was made in spite of “fears… that stories might dry up if the Sunday Herald was black-balled by Labour – an indication that, though Labour had been out of power for seven years, the tribe still held on to many key positions in public life.”  He also noted that “Scottish journalism is almost as tribal as Scottish politics, and Labour has traditionally called the shots in the Scottish media through its extensive patronage networks.”


Many Scottish journalists seem unaware of those wise words by American novelist and filmmaker Stephen Chbosky: “Things change and friends leave.  Life doesn’t stop for anybody.”  They’ve reacted to the SNP’s decade in power with continual aggrieved negativity.  Nothing the SNP government, originally headed by Alex Salmond, now headed by Nicola Sturgeon, does can ever be good.  It can only be bad.  Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, their headlines have regurgitated the message that Scotland is going to the dogs and it’s all the SNP’s fault.


What must be awkward for Scotland’s newspapers is the evidence that pops up now and again and suggests that things might not be going so badly after all.  For example, figures in June showing Scotland’s economy grew during the first part of 2017 – at a rate of only 0.8%, admittedly, but four times the equivalent rate for the UK as a whole.  Or Scottish unemployment dropping to its lowest level since the start of the 2008 financial crash.  Or passenger-satisfaction levels with ScotRail reaching 90%, its highest-ever rating (and way better than the 72% satisfaction-level for Southern Rail in England).  Or the Scottish National Health Service exceeding its targets for treating accident and emergency patients.  (Or indeed, evidence that the Scottish NHS is the best-performing one of the four health services in the UK.)


The condition of Scottish education remains a concern, with the 2016 Pisa rankings showing Scottish pupils performing considerably less well than English ones (though better than Welsh ones).  However, one thing that commentators have constantly lamented about, the small number of Scottish school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into university, seems to have improved.  Recent figures show an increase of 13% in university entrants from poor backgrounds.


So hey, it’s not all bad news, is it?  Scotland’s newspapers will surely let a little sunshine filter out of their normally dour front pages and give credit where it’s due, right?


Dream on.  The Herald’s front page on August 7th gave a rubbishing of ScotRail: HALF OF TRAINS ARRIVING AT BUSIEST STATIONS ARE LATE.  After it was pointed out that the figures for this story were inaccurate, it vanished from the Herald’s website and an apology appeared the next day admitting, “The most recent figures show that 93.7% of ScotRail trains met the industry standard public performance measure (PPM).”  However, this wasn’t before similar stories had appeared in the Glasgow Evening News, Daily Record, Scottish Daily Mail and Dundee Courier.  Meanwhile, I only have to type ‘Scottish NHS’ into Google and click on ‘news’ underneath to get a long list of headlines suggesting that Scotland’s health system is ‘doomed, all doomed’ (© Private Fraser, Dad’s Army): SCOTTISH NHS AT RISK OF STAFFING SHORTAGES THANKS TO POOR PLANNING (the Daily Telegraph); HOSPITALS AND NHS FACILITIES MAY NEED TO BE ‘AXED’ (the Scotsman); NHS STAFFING SHORTAGES ARE COMPROMISING PATIENT CARE (the Scotsman again); SCOTTISH NURSES SLAM NHS STAFFING CRISIS FOR AFFECTING CARE OF PATIENTS (the Daily Record); etc.


Even the jump in students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university has been sourly received.  In January 2017, the Times’s Daniel Sanderson wrote an article decrying the fact that in Scotland FEWER THAN 10% OF STUDENTS COME FROM POOREST BACKGROUNDS.  Well, those new statistics about university entrants should cheer him up, right?  Nope.  This week, the same journalist wrote in the same newspaper an article decrying the fact that in Scotland MORE MIDDLE-CLASS STUDENTS ARE MISSING OUT ON UNIVERSITY PLACES.


For the record – as opposed to the Daily Record – I don’t think it matters much politically if 90-95% of Scotland’s mainstream press hate the party in power and monster them at every turn.  I’d rather live in a society like that than in a Putin-esque one where the government controls everything the newspapers say about them.  The fact that, despite the overwhelming hostility, the SNP have won two more Scottish elections since 2007 suggests that not many people believe what the newspapers tell them to believe these days.  (See also how Jeremy Corbyn secured 40% of the vote in the last British election despite the massive abuse he received in the British press.)


What does depress me is how this adversity must affect the many people working in the Scottish public sector and / or in services widely used by the Scottish public: hospital workers, teachers, train-staff, etc.  Clearly, they’ve made huge efforts to achieve good results in an era of austerity and financial uncertainty.  (That might sound like a platitude but it isn’t – for months now a close family member of mine has been looked after by the Scottish NHS and received excellent care.)  But when you go the extra mile for your patients, pupils or customers, and still get nothing but negative headlines screaming at you about your profession and your sector from the newspaper stands, it must be demoralising.


The Scottish press’s negativity-at-all-costs policy is not a case of, as some people have argued, ‘doing Scotland down’, because the SNP government is not all of Scotland – no more than Teresa May’s lunatic Brexit-obsessed Conservative government is all of England.  But, often, it seems discourteous to an awful lot of ordinary people who are just trying to do their jobs well.




Hating Britain’s newspapers


Rather than just reporting the news, Britain’s newspapers have been making much of the news lately.  Last Wednesday a royal charter that would deal with regulation of the British press, and that had the support of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, was granted by Her Majesty’s Privy Council.  The charter would be voluntary, and from the noises made by the editors of the country’s various national newspapers, it’s unlikely that any newspaper would actually volunteer to be regulated by it.  As an alternative to the royal charter, the newspapers themselves have been working on creating their own regulator called the Independent Press Standards Organisation.


This flurry of deliberations among politicians and editors has come in the wake of Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry into press behaviour.  If nothing else, the Leveson inquiry demonstrated that the current body for controlling that behaviour, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), is clearly not up to the job.


At the same time, during the past few days, the main evidence for believing that the PCC is a joke and that the country’s newspapers are out of control has been on display at the Old Bailey.  Former chief executive at News International and ex-News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, ex-spin doctor to David Cameron and also ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson, and ex-News of the World managing editor Stuart Kuttner are on trial for hacking telephones between 2000 and 2006.  Most notoriously they are charged with hacking into the voicemail of the missing 13-year-old schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002, before it was found that she’d been murdered.


The sight of the red-haired, Medusa-like Brooks – who, at the height of her power and influence, was chums both with Gordon and Sarah Brown (Ms Brown once invited her to a ‘sleepover’ of female friends at Chequer’s) and with David and Samantha Cameron (during the Leveson inquiry Brooks let it be known that David Cameron, who regularly texted her, thought that LOL meant ‘lots of love’ and not ‘laugh out loud’) – always reminds me of the famous science-fiction / horror short story Shambleau, which was written by the remarkable American pulp writer Catherine L. Moore.  If you haven’t read Moore’s story and don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a link to it:


(c) The Guardian

 (c) J’ai Lu


Much of the time, when I’m in a particular frame of mind, I’d like to see politicians fashion some iron-fisted royal charter that’d brutally smash the newspapers into submission and deny them the freedom to do anything other than report the weather, report the Queen’s supermarket-opening schedule and report the football results in the Vauxhall Conference League.  This is because I hate Britain’s national newspapers.  The Daily Mail may have alleged recently that Ralph Miliband, the deceased father of Labour leader Ed Miliband, hated Britain; but believe me, any distaste that Miliband Sr felt for his adopted country is only a tiny fraction of the loathing I feel for this country’s press.


For a start, I hate its prurient nosiness and insatiable appetite for tittle-tattle.  I don’t want to know the latest gossip about which knob-end millionaire footballer is dating which Z-list celebrity model.  I have better things to do with my time than spend it in a continual state of obsession with the personal circumstances of people I only know from the telly.  And I only wish those millions whose insatiable thirst for such trivia keeps the Daily Star, Sun, Daily Express, etc., in business would get over it and go out and get a life instead.  Alas, thanks to decades of brainwashing by the British press, such people now believe that that is life – that life is a giant television, permanently tuned to ITV2 and showing a never-ending celebrity show hosted by Keith Lemon.


I also hate its belief that you are inconsequential if you don’t live in London.  You could, for instance, spend months reading the Sunday Times, living in the trendy cosmopolitan worlds of such journalistic colossi as India Knight, Minette Marrin, A.A. Gill and, um, Jeremy Clarkson, and believe that the United Kingdom, if not the entire world, consists of a tiny wodge of heavily-developed and massively expensive land contained within the M25.  It’s not that the English provinces, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland fail to register on the radar.  No one, it seems, even bothers to send radar signals out into those dark, medieval hinterlands.  It’s not just the right-wing newspapers I’m slagging off here, incidentally – the leftie ones like the Guardian and the Independent, which are slightly more in tune with my thinking, are often guilty of this parochialism too.


(Also, don’t get me started on the quaint little world conjured up by the writers of the Daily Telegraph.  From it, you get the impression that if you don’t belong to the 7% of the British population that was privately educated, you’re the social and intellectual equivalent of beginning-of-the-evolutionary-process protoplasm.)


And I hate its pig-ignorance.  The right-wing members of the British newspaper fraternity (i.e. most of them) have done their best recently to discredit the, oh, 97% of the scientific community who’ve taken a stance on global warming and who say that it’s happening.  At the forefront of those global-warming deniers is, inevitably, that bastion of scientific objectivity and rationalism, the Daily Mail.  It’s worth remembering what Francis Wheen wrote about the Mail in his 2004 book How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World. “(I)ts appetite for mystical gibberish is gluttonous.  During the 1990s, scarcely a week went by without an enthralled feature on the Turin Shroud, the Knights Templar, the Ark of the Covenant, Nostradamus, Mayan prophecies or the lost city of Atlantis.”


And I hate its bitchiness.  I know that this has been a tradition of the British press for generations, ever since the days when Jean Rook and Lynda Lee Potter rattled their tails, flicked their forked tongues and oozed venom from their fangs in their columns in the Daily Mail and Daily Express.  But just because something has been a tradition doesn’t mean it’s a good thing – for many years slavery was a great British tradition too.  Reading the screeds of poison penned by the likes of Julie Burchill, Jan Moir, Amanda Platell and Allison Pearson, I get a feeling akin to being kept behind after school and stuck in detention amid a squad of the worst, most gossipy, most sniping and back-stabbing brats whom I was unlucky enough to share my schooldays with.


And I hate its constant bleating against censorship.  It bemoans censorship both from politicians, via the proposed royal charter, and from ‘the left’, in the name of that hated evil, political correctness.  In fact, for decades, Britain’s newspapers have rarely stopped calling for other things to be censored: comics, horror films, computer games, the Internet, half the programmes on the newspapers’ great bête noir, the BBC.  (I well remember the 1980s, when the bare-breast-laden Sun would fulminate against the TV plays of the late Dennis Potter.)  Small wonder that the stereotypical front-page headline for the Daily Mail has become BAN THIS SICK FILTH!


I could bang on about those newspapers – about their homophobia, Europhobia and Islamophobia; about their obsession with dead princesses (step forward the Daily Express); about their instant blackening of the character of anyone under suspicion of committing a crime, long before that person has been found guilty or innocent (again, step forward the Daily Express, with its treatment of Kate and Gerry McCann); about their brainwashing of parents into believing that the country is overrun with drooling paedophiles (even while the Daily Mail slathers its websites with photographs of young ladies under the age of 16 in revealing costumes – but they’re celebrities’ daughters, so that’s okay.)  These multitudinous crimes against ethics and the intellect have resulted in a coarsening, dumbing-down and increasing mean-spiritedness of British society.  If the standard of public discourse in this country is represented by the headlines screaming at us every day from the newspaper racks, we’re in a sorry state indeed.


And yet…  And yet…  Although I detest Britain’s newspapers, and though the idea that politicians should slap draconian rules on them to make them get their house in order sometimes appeals to me, at the end of the day I don’t agree with there being a royal charter.  That would be a type of censorship; and I think censorship of Britain’s newspapers, no matter how pathetic and hypocritical they might be, is wrong.  Those newspapers may be ignorant and offensive, but I think their ongoing freedom to be ignorant and offensive is a necessary evil in a democratic society.  And as the recent revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency in the USA (leaked by Edward Snowden) have indicated, the very last thing we need is more regulation, control and censorship of information by politicians.  Politicians, after all, have been free and easy about harvesting information about us.


Phone hacking and invasions of privacy are criminal, of course, but there are already laws in place in Britain to deal with these.  Otherwise, Brooks, Coulson and Kuttner wouldn’t be in court at the moment.


In any case, British politicians may not need to enact legislation to bring the newspapers to heel.  The market – which our mostly right-wing press seems to worship as if it’s a deity – may eventually kill them off anyway.  The newspapers’ readership figures are sliding while more and more people turn to the Internet to get their news, free of charge.  It may well be that this is a bad thing, because often the news available on the Internet is even less well-researched and even more biased than it is in the newspapers.  But as far as I’m concerned, Britain’s newspapers have had their chance to set a moral example in news-reporting and, for the most part, they’ve blown it.  They’ve sacrificed their journalistic integrity in their rush into the maelstrom of trivia, tittle-tattle, prurience, bitchiness and snobbery that prevails today.


If all Britain’s newspapers have died on their arses in 10 or 20 years’ time, I shan’t miss them.