Robin McAlpine: Why we'll keep CommonSpace going – even if it's hard

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal director Robin McAlpine marks the departure of CommonSpace editor Angela Haggerty with a commitment to the future

BY THE time this article is published we should have appointed a new editor for CommonSpace (we're finishing interviews this morning and many thanks to Paul Kavanagh - aka Wee Ginger Dug - for sitting on the panel).

So let me be honest with you – there are times I wonder whether we should have bothered setting up CommonSpace. This is not because it's a bad idea or not important, but because it is, well, hard.

Apart from among absolute political opponents, the work of Common Weal the think tank has been very well received. We're starting to have some real policy influence in Scotland and we managed to attract a lot of the small donors who fund us (though never enough folks...).

While I recognise that what is difficult for us is difficult for everyone and I genuinely do have empathy even for news outlets I strongly disagree with, you wouldn't describe the Scottish or UK media as diverse.

But if there are two things I've learned about running a media outlet in the last three and a half years it's (a) not very many people actually want to pay for news these days and (b) it is simply impossible to create a full daily news service and still manage to keep all of your audience happy all of the time.

We couldn't keep CommonSpace going without the critical mass of support for Common Weal (given what I know about its finance and fundraising I don't think a stand-alone version of CommonSpace could survive in Scotland unless it had a very generous patron).

And because a small but vocal group don't like some of the things we've covered they've campaigned for people to defund Common Weal as a whole. I sometimes despair and wonder if it is worth it.

And then I look at the news landscape. While I recognise that what is difficult for us is difficult for everyone and I genuinely do have empathy even for news outlets I strongly disagree with (it's hard when you're being judged article-by-article), you wouldn't describe the Scottish or UK media as diverse.

Let's have a look at this last week alone. Tell me this; if RT was invited into a Russian chemical weapons research institute for what looked like a PR puff piece and no journalist asked a difficult question, what would that be called?

Let's have a look at this last week alone. Tell me this; if RT was invited into a Russian chemical weapons research institute for what looked like a PR puff piece and no journalist asked a difficult question, what would that be called?

So what is it called when the BBC does a puff piece on Porton Down? Did you spot any challenging questions?

Yes, I know that the pro-security service journalists will be bleeding from the eyes again given that I've the cheek to ask questions about the whole 'it was definitely Russia' thing. I'm not saying it wasn't; I'm saying there are an awful lot of questions simply not being asked.

And as you scream at me for being naïve or worse, you think I've not been here before? You know that those Iraqi WMD didn't exist, right? Do you remember screaming at me in rage when me and people like me asked for the evidence to be gathered before war? Have you learned nothing?

So which media outlet is asking the difficult questions? Have I just missed them?

(And before you all call me a Putin apologist, I was sharply critical of his much worse crimes in Chechnya a decade ago which many of you conveniently overlooked because it fit with the narrative of a 'war on terror'. I require no lectures on authoritarian regimes.)

So what is it called when the BBC does a puff piece on Porton Down? Did you spot any challenging questions?

Unless it's Spanish, in which case I'm apparently supposed to accept that arresting and jailing political opponents is fine if the government doing it is democratically elected, and the courts appointed by it do the dirty work.

Three cheers to Catherine Stihler, the one unionist I can find who has had the honesty to admit that this is outrageous and no way to conduct politics in the liberal, democratic west. Where are the rest of you exactly?

Scotland (and by extension the UK – this isn't a 'regional issue') may be about to hand over an academic for extradition and jail for the crime of 'rebellion'. You'd think the UK media might find this noteworthy.

Or let's consider the latest wave of allegations of antisemitism being supported or at least allowed by Jeremy Corbyn. Is the possibility that this is at least in part a concerted attempt to make it much harder for the Labour party to take a more critical line on Israel not one that can at least be discussed as a possibility, somewhere, anywhere in the mainstream media?

(Do I need to add that antisemitism is appalling? Am I allowed to add that the definition of antisemitism is growing rather a lot and that it is becoming harder and harder to criticise the appalling behaviour of Israel without being accused of it?)

What amazes me is just how much of both the media and political establishment appears to feel fury if you wish to ask some sensible, carefully considered questions about any of these issues.

Or what about Scotland? Yesterday the Scotsman had an opinion piece saying that the 'long awaited' Scottish National Investment Bank (Snib) had been unveiled. Long awaited? Common Weal campaigned (along with a small number of other groups including Friends of the Earth) pretty well alone on this subject for a long time.

If it was so long-awaited, why couldn't we get the Scotsman to publish a single word about it? It was barely covered when it was launched.

Now, you may believe the Russians trying to kill the Skripals is an open-and-shut case. You may believe that the UK security services should be treated as always being a force for good until proven otherwise. You may think linking antisemitism and Israel is in itself antisemitic.

You might believe that campaigners for Catalan independence should be in jail. You may have thought that the Scottish public would not benefit from being exposed to the idea that a Scottish National Investment Bank was a practical idea.

What amazes me is just how much of both the media and political establishment appears to feel fury if you wish to ask some sensible, carefully considered questions about any of these issues. The question 'was pressure put on the Foreign Office to make its initial findings on the Skripal case sound more certain than they really were?' seems to me to be prudent given the UK's recent history.

So we'll keep going. We'll stick to our original concept – that we'll try and cover news that isn't covered elsewhere and try and find questions to ask that others haven't asked.

Dissent in mainstream media and politics in Britain seems to me to be in retreat. Your likelihood of being accused of being an idiot or a traitor or a conspiracy nut seems much higher than it was even a few years ago. You'd almost think the ideological edifice of the British state feels vulnerable at the moment.

From the McCarthy trials to Vietnam to Apartheid to the Velvet Revolution to Iraqi 'weapons of mass destruction' to the 2008 financial crisis, the dissenters proved to be right and it took a long time for the mainstream to accept that.

Now I'm not suggesting CommonSpace belongs in that august lineage; we're young and have limited resources. We haven't broken a 'Watergate' story. But in a much smaller way, thinking about a Scotland where we don't have at least some resources behind what really are voices of dissent is an unattractive thought.

So we'll keep going. We'll stick to our original concept – that we'll try and cover news that isn't covered elsewhere and try and find questions to ask that others haven't asked. We won’t just print what makes our readers feel comfortable, but what makes them feel more equipped – yes, even when they don't like the story.

And we'll do it with honesty. When CommonSpace was first set up and we recruited outgoing editor Angela to the job, I told her two things. One, she was completely editorially independent from me and Common Weal and I didn't get to tell her what to cover.

We won’t just print what makes our readers feel comfortable, but what makes them feel more equipped – yes, even when they don't like the story.

And two, if Common Weal made a mistake, messed up, deserved criticism, CommonSpace should cover it. I told her this very clearly many times; it stood for something for me. It stood for my (and our) personal commitment to news integrity, to not being afraid of criticism.

I don't know how many times I've written now that my personal political beliefs are all built around the idea of pluralism, of many and different voices, of never being certain you're right. Over recent years I'm surprised how radical that position seems to have become with some people.

For many people these feel like dark times; evermore compliance with the dominant stories doesn't seem to me the way to bring light. So call me what you want; I'll always welcome dissent.

(Which leaves me only to offer my very sincerest thanks to my friend and colleague Angela Haggerty who next week becomes news editor at the Sunday Herald. It is she who has made and shaped CommonSpace, built it into what it is. I know the personal toll that some of the really unpleasant attacks she's faced has taken on her at times. I admire her courage in pressing on anyway. And I'm proud that we created a chance for a fresh, strong new female voice to break onto the media scene in Scotland. So cheerio Angela – you'll be missed very much.)

Picture courtesy of Documenting Yes

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