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.




From the New Statesman


Not unexpectedly, the Independent newspaper is to cease print production at the end of March.  Thereafter, it plans to continue as a digital-only publication written by a handful of journalists retained from the print version.  But most of its existing staff face redundancy.


The Independent’s demise as a physical entity comes 30 years after it was founded by a trio of journalists – Andreas Whittam Smith, Stephen Glover and Matthew Symonds – in a bid to create a newspaper that didn’t have a proprietor and didn’t suffer from proprietorial interference and bias.  Hence its title and the catchy marketing slogan that accompanied its 1986 launch: “It is.  Are you?”


(c) The Guardian


It was a noble goal – and still is.  Especially as the British print media is largely the property of multimillionaires – the 4th Viscount Rothermere, the Barclay Brothers, soft-porn magnate Richard Desmond and old-what’s-his-face, you know, Jerry Hall’s hunky bloke – whose enthusiasm for right-wing politics goes hand in hand with their enthusiasm for paying as little tax as possible.


The Independent had a happy childhood.  At one point its circulation was above 400,000 and it managed to outsell the Times.  And despite Private Eye dubbing it the ‘Indescribably Boring’, its reputation for journalistic integrity was clearly a selling point.  I have to confess, though, that my reason for starting to read it while I was a 1980s college-student wasn’t because of its journalistic integrity.  It was because I knew a girl who did read the Independent for its journalistic integrity, and I fancied her and wanted to impress her by reading it too.


Of course, claiming that a newspaper is entirely independent and neutral – “free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence” as its masthead used to say – is nonsense, as editors always have to take positions.  Politically and culturally, the Independent belonged to the centre-left, which must have helped it lure a few readers away from the Guardian.


But it was also pro-market.  This was possibly due to its existence being an indirect result of Rupert Murdoch’s actions.  In 1986 Murdoch shifted his newspapers to a new high-tech printing plant at Wapping, East London, and subsequently won an industrial confrontation with the print-workers’ union.  This supposedly freed British newspaper production from old and restrictive printing practices.  Peter Wilby, one-time editor of the Independent’s sister-paper the Independent on Sunday, has written that at the time “it seemed that anyone with a bit of seed capital could set up and run a profitable newspaper.”


Ironically, of all the British newspapers that were born post-Wapping – a group that included not just the Independent but Today, the News on Sunday, the Sunday Correspondent and the European – only the tits-and-aliens-obsessed Sunday Sport will still be on our newsstands after March.


The Independent’s fortunes began to falter in 1993 when Murdoch tore a chunk out of its readership by slashing the price of the Times.  By the mid-1990s it’d acquired what it was never supposed to acquire – a proprietor, in the form of Irish multimillionaire Tony O’Reilly.  Later, in 2010, it passed into the hands of the Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev and at the same time it was rumoured that Rod Liddle, right-wing rentagob columnist in the Sunday Times and Spectator, was going to be its new editor.  The rumour didn’t become reality – giving Liddle editorship of the Independent made as much sense as giving management of the British Museum to ISIS – but it did little to convey the impression that the Independent was now on securer ground.


Crazily, before the 2015 general election, the newspaper chose to back the existing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.  This no doubt turned off readers who’d bought it because it and the Guardian were the only major daily newspapers reporting things from a centre-left perspective.  (Its Wikipedia entry gives its current circulation at just under 58,000.  But when I checked the Press Gazette, its January 2016 figure was 55,193, a drop of 10% in the past year.)


One late success story was the appearance in 2010 of its sister-paper the i, which initially cost 20 pence, was 56 tabloid-sized pages long and was intended as a mini-version of the Independent suitable for people in a hurry, such as commuters.  Last month the i was selling 271,859 copies daily.  However, it’s also been announced that Lebedev has sold the i to the publisher Johnson Press and I suspect its glory days are behind it too – Johnson Press acquired the Scotsman from Barclay Brothers in 2005 and managed the difficult feat of making it even more shit than it was when the terrible twins owned it.


I haven’t been impressed by the Independent for a long time, though admittedly I haven’t lived much in the UK recently and usually I’ve only looked at its website.  And that website is pretty poor, which doesn’t bode well for its going completely online after March.  The site is awkward to navigate and many of its stories are reminiscent of the dire UK edition of the Huffington Post, i.e. they look like they’ve been cobbled together from what the journalists read on Twitter.  For instance, today’s online Independent headlines include YOKO ONO, YES, I’M A WITCH TOO; TENNENT’S ASKED WHY IT DOESN’T DO A LOW-CALORIE LAGER, GIVES A WONDERFULLY SCOTTISH REPLY; I’VE DONNED A WONDERWOMAN COSTUME FOR THE LAST TIME; and SHIA LaBEOUF ‘PUNCHES MAN IN THE FACE’ AT OXFORD LIFT STUNT.  Probably not the sturdy journalistic stuff that 30 years ago Whittam Smith, Glover and Symonds envisioned their newspaper having.


I also find it hard to love its comment pages, which give prominence to the likes of arch-Blairite John Rentoul and cantankerous literary snob Howard Jacobson.  Meanwhile, its comment-threads have been saturated in recent years with the rantings of xenophobic, UKIP-and-worse trolls.  A skim down the racist and misogynistic vitriol posted below anything written by Uganda-born Shia Muslim journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is enough to make you give up hope for humanity.


Still, a few bright spots remain in the Independent during its twilight.  The work of its Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, one of the few members of the British press knowledgeable about the Arab world, is always worth reading; and I’ve enjoyed Christopher Fowler’s column Invisible Ink in the culture pages of the Independent on Sunday about once-popular, now-forgotten authors.  I hope that if they don’t resurface in the wholly-online Independent, both writers find new outlets.  Though in Fisk’s case, given the extreme right-wing mind-set that possesses most of the remaining British press, I’m not holding my breath.




The Indy – now indy shit forever


(c) The Independent


If I split up with human beings as commonly as I split up with newspapers, I’d spend most of my life in the divorce courts.  It wasn’t so long ago that I decided to terminate my 30-year relationship with Scotsman Publications, on account of The Scotsman’s drearily partisan coverage of the build-up to last September’s referendum on Scottish independence.  Now, with the 2015 UK general election almost upon us – two days and counting – I’ve decided to split up with another daily publication that once I perused with fondness and enthusiasm.


This time, the publication in question is The Independent, or ‘The Indy’ as it’s commonly known, which used to have a banner proudly proclaiming it as ‘free from party political bias, free from proprietorial influence.’  And without some obscenely rich, reactionary and invariably tax-dodging proprietor like the 4th Viscount Rothermere (owner of the Daily Mail) or the Barclay Brothers (owners of the Daily Telegraph) at the helm, The Independent’s politics tended to gravitate towards the centre, if not a little to the left.  It also gave prominence to environmental issues.  This made it a breath of fresh air in Britain’s newspaper market, crowded with bellicose right-wing shout-sheets like the Mail, Telegraph, Express, Sun, Star, etc.


Yesterday, though, The Independent decided to crap all over that reputation with an editorial that urged its readers to vote for the continuation of the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition that’s been in power for the past five years.  The reasoning for this, claimed the editorial headline, was ‘in defence of liberal democracy’.  Though I have to say that most of the things the Tory / Lib Dem alliance has inflicted on Britain or nurtured in it since 2010 – welfare cuts, zero-hour contracts, unpaid internships, food-banks, the Bedroom tax, a moribund NHS, exorbitant student fees, tax avoidance – are not what immediately spring to my mind when I think of the term ‘liberal democracy’.




But to be honest, The Independent’s lurch rightwards doesn’t surprise me.  The newspaper has been in a sorry state in recent years, in terms of both its daily circulation figures – just under 64,000 last year (compared with 400,000 a quarter-century earlier) – and its general tone and content.


Because I live overseas, I read its online edition rather than its print edition.  And I have to say that if you remember The Independent in its glory days, the modern-day digital version of it is a depressing thing indeed.  In a purely technical sense, as a website, it’s a shambles.  To get to the comment page, for instance, you have to negotiate your way through something called ‘Voices’.  Then there’s the increasingly naff stories that it tries to peddle as news.  When I checked out its front page today, I was treated to such headlines as ALIEN SOUNDS RECORDED 22 MILES ABOVE THE EARTH; STUDENT IN COURT FOR COVERING HOUSEMATES’ FOOD IN WINDOW-CLEANER AND SPIT; CHUCK NORRIS IS WORRIED ABOUT WHAT THE US MILITARY ARE UP TO IN TEXAS; HOW TO MAXIMISE YOUR SEXUAL POTENTIAL – AN EXPERT’S GUIDE; and IS A MAN’S BEARD REALLY COVERED IN FAECES?  Plus – ooh, a little bit of politics creeping in here – HOW OLD DOES NICK CLEGG’S PHONE THINK HE IS?


It might not be quite as lame as the ghastly, trivia-obsessed UK edition of The Huffington Post, edited by Mehdi Hassan.  But it isn’t far off it.


How different it seems from the original Independent that appeared in the 1980s – 1986, if I remember correctly – which was so determinedly highbrow, sombre and un-flashy that Private Eye magazine was quick to nickname it The Indescribably Boring.  Under the editorship of the crusty but endearing Andreas Whittam Smith, the newspaper tried to do what few, if any, other newspapers did in Britain at the time (or have done since): it actually concentrated on news.  Which meant for a start that it avoided the mind-numbingly obsessive and nauseatingly sycophantic coverage of the British Royal Family that blighted the rest of the British press.  This was during the 1980s, an era when newspapers devoted acres of newsprint to the ever-expanding / shrinking waistline of Sarah ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, Duchess of York, or to the ever-expanding / shrinking love-life of Diana ‘Di’ Spencer, Princess of Wales; and I respected The Independent immensely for ignoring that crap.


Amid the frivolous drivel that soils the modern-day Independent (or at least, the online edition of it that I’m familiar with), there are still things that I’ve found worth reading.  When it comes to writing about the Arab world, the newspaper has the wisest head in British journalism, Robert Fisk.  Although to be honest, Fisk isn’t exactly burdened with competition.  There have also been good items by the sometimes funny left-wing comedian Mark Steel and the sometimes perceptive, but sometimes shrill, left-wing feminist / Muslim commentator Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.  I wonder how the two of them have reacted to their newspaper’s endorsement of the Tory / Lib Dem coalition.  They’ve been strangely silent about it on Twitter so far.


On the other hand, The Independent has often strained my patience by publishing missives by the notorious literary snob Howard Jacobson.  And I’m not impressed by the fact that its chief political commentator is John Rentoul, a man whom Total Politics magazine has described as “probably the most high-profile defender of Tony Blair’s record in the British media”.  (His columns, meanwhile, have been described as “the last bastions of pure, unadulterated Blairism.”)  Rentoul, by the way, has tweeted his reaction to The Independent coming out in favour of the Tories and Lib Dems, and he’s delighted about it.  Presumably he’d rather see a right-wing Tory / Lib Dem government than a slightly-more-left-wing Labour one that’s dared to disown his old hero Tony Blair.


The Independent has also seen fit to publish a regular column by Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing loony / fruitcake United Kingdom Independence Party.  I suppose it would justify this by arguing that, in the interests of fairness, it needs to give voice to political opinions from all points on the spectrum, right and left.  But actually UKIP’s loony / fruitcake opinions on immigration, law and order, defence, education and the environment get articulated every day in the British media – on practically every page of the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Daily Telegraph.


I was annoyed by The Independent’s coverage of the Scottish referendum last year.  The British mainstream media pushed a narrative whereby Scotland, if it voted for independence, would destroy itself, and the UK, and the world, and the entire universe, in a holocaust of economic / social / moral chaos.  But while The Guardian, that other representative of the British left-leaning press, at least tempered the narrative by printing a few pieces with dissenting views by journalists like George Monbiot and Deborah Orr, The Independent stuck steadfastly to the Scottish-independence-equals-Armageddon line.


Possibly this was because, selling only 3000 copies a day in Scotland, the newspaper had neither the resources nor the inclination to send someone to Scotland to report on what was happening there.  So it just rehashed all the horror stories being spouted in London by the Mail, Express and company.  Particularly crass were the cartoons by the Independent’s cartoonist Dave Brown, depicting Alex Salmond as a clownish and corpulent music-hall Scotsman who wore a kilt, sporran, bonnet and sprig of heather.  This allowed Brown to show Salmond flashing his bare arse – because, ha-ha, Scotsmen don’t wear anything under their kilts!


Indeed, the prospect of a minority Labour Party administration dependent on the support of the Scottish National Party is officially a major reason why The Independent feels obliged to back another Tory-Lib Dem administration: “This would be a disaster for the country, unleashing justified fury in England at the inclusion of MPS who – unlike this title – do not wish the Union to exist.”  Here’s a memo to The Independent’s editorial writers: if there’s anything guaranteed to destroy the Union in the near future, it’s another five years of Tory-led rule from London, which the majority of Scots will greet with as much enthusiasm as they would having a bucket of cold sick emptied over their heads.  Especially if, as Cameron has promised, there’s a referendum in 2017 about whether or not the UK remains a member of the European Union – and England votes to leave the EU while Scotland votes to stay in it.


But I very much doubt if The Independent’s enthusiasm for a continued David Cameron premiership (with Nick Clegg acting as Satan’s Little Helper) has really anything to do with the survival of the United Kingdom.  It has likely more to do with the fact that, since 2010, the newspaper has been owned by Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev.  Yes, so much for the old ‘free from proprietorial influence’ blurb that the newspaper used to flaunt.


As Russian oligarchs go, Lebedev seems to be one of the nicer ones.  Even so, I don’t think he was thrilled to hear Ed Miliband vow that, if elected, he would scrap tax exemption for Britain’s ultra-wealthy non-domiciled residents.  As far as I know, Lebedev still lives in Russia – but I’m sure that if he fell out badly with Vladimir Putin, a tax-free existence in the UK would be an attractive alternative for him.  An alternative he wouldn’t want Ed Miliband to spoil.


(c) The Guardian


As I said earlier, The Independent’s readership these days is perilously small.  I suspect many of those remaining readers have kept loyal to it because, despite its many flaws, it’s that rare beast, a left-of-centre British newspaper.  But do they want to stick with it now?  I know I don’t.