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.


You can’t have your cake and eat it — unless you’re a journalist




It may surprise regular readers of this blog to learn that, dour old leftie though I am, I actually have some time for Alan Massie, the conservative-minded novelist and regular columnist in the Scotsman newspaper.  I don’t agree with Massie’s politics but – something increasingly rare amongst those who use newspaper-pages to air their opinions – he’s usually respectful of those who oppose his views.  At times he even ventures some sympathy, though not support, for their views.


(I’ll also put in a good word for his son Alex, who’s a chip off the old Massie block – a Tory, yes, but not one who believes that everyone who disagrees with him is a communist scumbag deserving to be put against a wall and shot.  He’s one of the few commentators worth reading in that Hooray-Henry-populated magazine the Spectator.  For instance, in the following piece, he pulls no punches whilst analysing the rhetoric of Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, at UKIP’s recent spring conference.  Predictably, the comments thread below the article is packed with gibbering, reactionary Spectator-readers heaping abuse on Massie Junior’s head:


Last week, an opinion piece by Alan Massie in the Scotsman entitled ROAD TO AIRSTRIP ONE PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS caught my eye.  This was written in response to a plan by the Scottish government to provide every child in Scotland with a ‘minder’ who’ll be responsible for making sure he or she is being properly reared and looked after – watching out for “children who are neglected and others who are abused” and “some who are, quite simply, being brought up badly.”  Massie was uncharacteristically severe in his assessment of the plan.  He denounced it, claiming “(t)he assumption may be presented to us as benevolent, but, whatever the intention, the consequences are likely to be nasty in practice as the subjection of individuals and families to the state is deplorable to anyone who values freedom.”


Massie’s opinion has been shared by most people who’ve written about the plan in the press.  Similarly disdainful, for example, was Kevin McKenna writing in the Observer the other Sunday and normally McKenna’s political views are the polar opposite of Massie’s.  Elsewhere, indignant headlines have featured terms like ‘snoopers’, ‘nanny state’ and ‘Big Brother’.


But wait.  If the scheme is so detestable, why would the Scottish government want to impose it on the public in the first place?  I suspect a major reason for it becoming a government policy was the amount of media coverage given in recent years to stories of neglected children, abused children, children running loose in the streets like feral dogs and children being starved or beaten to death by monstrous parents.  Actually, if this image of ‘Broken Britain’ that the press has been so busy creating is true, it seems a miracle that any kids remain alive now to be minded.  The dire situation, newspapers would have you believe, has been aided and abetted by inept social work departments incapable of detecting such neglect and abuse before events reach a tragic climax.


Indeed, if you’re to believe the stories, the British social-work profession is full of incompetents.  Ever since most British newspapers had their great right-wing love-in with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, it’s been fashionable for them to depict public-sector workers as lazy underachievers content to live off taxpayers’ money – unlike those sexy wealth-creators who toil heroically in the private sector.  And social workers have been at the top of the press’s shit-list, despised even more than state-school teachers.  In fact, if there is a dearth of ability in the profession nowadays, it’s probably because a diet of horror stories in the newspapers has convinced new graduates that taking a job in social work is the vocational equivalent of contracting leprosy.


It’s just one example of Britain’s newspapers wanting to have their cake and eat it.  They bang on about an issue that they find disgraceful, scandalous and reprehensible.  Then, when their banging on about it prompts a reaction, they bang on about the reaction being disgraceful, scandalous and reprehensible too.  At other times, though, newspapers are full of insane contradictions because they see nothing wrong about holding two conflicting viewpoints at the same time – either out of hypocrisy or out of plain stupidity.


Here are some other examples of Britain’s newspapers wanting to have their cake and eat it:


Hammering on about the country being infested with paedophiles, who are ready to pounce on unsuspecting children from behind every wall, hedge, bush and tree.  Then hammering on about: (1) parents keeping their kids indoors with only their computers to play with, so that they become timid, unadventurous and fat; and (2) young boys becoming ‘feminised’ by having too many female teachers and too few male teachers who’d otherwise have provided positive male role models.  (Of course many men no longer want to work as primary-school teachers for fear they might be suspected of being paedophiles.)


And hammering on about paedophiles whilst loading the showbiz sections of their websites with photographs of pouting adolescent daughters of famous film stars, clad in bikinis or skimpy dresses.  Yes, Daily Mail, I’m looking at you:


Using the young, tragic face of the now-six-years-missing Madeline McCann to milk their readers’ sympathy and sell newspapers. At the same time slandering Madeline’s parents by accusing them of being involved in her abduction.  That’s the modus operandi of the Daily Express:


Deriding the European Union because it’s packed with loathsome, and foreign, bureaucrats who like nothing better than meddling in British affairs and imposing loathsome, and foreign, ideas like minimum wages and human rights.  Then cheering the President of the EU Commission to the rafters when he warns that an independent Scotland would find it ‘very difficult’ or even ‘impossible’ to join the EU.


Stoking up readers’ fears about immigration into Britain to hysterical levels.  Yet never missing any opportunity to praise London – a city choc-a-bloc with immigrants – for its entrepreneurship, economic dynamism and cultural vibrancy.


Shelling out serious sums of money for photographs – the more intrusive the better – of a certain member of Britain’s Royal Family, with the result that the paparazzi make her life a misery.  Then gnashing their teeth, tearing out their hair, printing black-edged memorial issues and generally indulging in a gigantic blub-a-thon when said Royal-Family-member gets killed in a car crash whilst trying to escape from a pursuing fleet of paparazzi.  Who were only trying to get photographs of her, for which those newspapers were desperate to pay so much money.


Making an almighty clamour when revelations of Jimmy Saville’s industrial-scale abuse of children and young women arose after Saville’s death, which coincidently was a handy way for them to make life uncomfortable for their least favourite public corporation, the BBC.  Then when other TV personalities of Saville’s vintage, such as William Roache and Dave Lee Travis, are accused of perpetrating similar abuse and brought to court and finally found not guilty, complaining about their trials being a ‘waste of money’.


Lamenting about educational standards being dumbed down.  Of course, British newspapers, with their noble tradition of intellectualism, have not contributed to the dumbing down of British society in recent decades in any way.


Both (c) The Sun


Feral kids, paedophiles, child abductors, EU bureaucrats, immigrants, predatory TV stars, mass stupidity…  The common denominator in many of these press stories is fear.  Because, often, fear is what induces people to buy newspapers.  Now that newspaper sales in Britain are in steady decline thanks to people turning to the Internet for news and information – the Scotsman, for instance, has seen its daily readership dip below the 30,000 mark for the first time ever, has cut back its arts coverage to two days a week and is generally dying on its arse – you can expect that fear-factor to be cranked up to higher levels than ever before.  No doubt that means the British press will tie itself in yet bigger knots in terms of consistency and logic.