Robin McAlpine: The Scottish media - really?

Common Weal director Robin McAlpine examines the Scottish mainstream media landscape in this week's column following a dramatic week

I WAS driving up Port Dundas way the other day when I saw them tearing down my first place of employment, the old Sunday Post building.

I thought I could see the remaining three walls of what used to be the smoking room. I remembered drinking coffees there with a chain-smoking Euan McColm when we were both cub reporters (if you'd told me then that he would become a poster boy for the reactionary Scottish-British establishment, I wouldn't have believed you).

I remember clearly the sense you got inside those walls of 'being the media' - in the almost literal sense of there being an 'inside' where important things happen, an 'outside' where punters live, and us sitting round our terminals sort-of deciding which things from the 'inside' we were going to transmit to the 'outside'.

Journalists are never asked to justify their journalism by other journalists. When it comes to news they get to be judge, jury and executioner.

You realised that if we (including the rest of the media) didn't include it in our curated news then for an awful lot of people it really might as well not have happened.

Another clear memory of my introduction to a newsroom was when you were trying to pitch a story to an editor and a single eyebrow would steadily rise sending the clear message: "Really? You think that shit has any chance of getting in the newspaper?"

It is precisely the same 'really?' I've had many times since when trying to sell a story to a journalist which they thought was weak or if I was trying to persuade them of some particular interpretation of events which they just didn't believe.

The many versions of that 'really?' (most involve swear words) were never a question but rather an instruction to go away and come back with a better story or interpretation.

No argument from me on the need for scepticism - otherwise you'd just be reprinting press releases. But it all has consequences. If you print a thousand puff pieces about just how shit-hot our bankers are with your eyebrow steady in its usual position, you create a reality. If instead your eyebrow rises as some disturbed 20- year-old claims a prominent figure in politics or the media had raped them - you create a different reality.

But no, all those unpublished letters from readers critical of a newspaper's inaccurate reporting are no longer hidden. We can see them.

Because as every Spiderman knows, with great power comes great responsibility. Except if you are the media. Since newspapers have a pact whereby they don't criticise each other, they can airbrush their responsibility out of the picture.

Journalists are never asked to justify their journalism by other journalists. When it comes to news they get to be judge, jury and executioner.

Or they used to. In the early 2000s I was still getting hard copies of political magazines sent over from the US because it was the only way I could educate myself on a real critique of the state of the world economy. Now the internet and social media means that journalism on paper is only A media, not THE media.

All those unpublished letters from readers critical of a newspaper's inaccurate reporting are no longer hidden. We can see them. We can discover from people who have good knowledge (or not - such is modernity) why things in newspapers are wrong. And as always, once you discover you've been lied to or manipulated once, it stays with you.

And that's the big problem for the media in Scotland just now - it is us, the public, who are raising an eyebrow and saying 'really?'. And the last week has been a case study and a half.

CommonSpace editor Angela Haggerty is employed by Common Weal Ltd but wrote a column for a newspaper which did not require her to sign any contract. She wrote a column criticising some football fans. The football club phoned the editor. The editor fired her - but totally not because the football club didn't like her column. Instead, there was some spurious nonsense about how her private tweets could be taken to be a legal statement on behalf of a global news corporation she is not contracted to.

And that's the big problem for the media in Scotland just now - it is us, the public, who are raising an eyebrow and saying 'really?'. And the last week has been a case study and a half.

Really? If I pitched a tale that tall to one of your journalists you'd take it seriously? Really?

Or what about Brian Spanner and his non-appearance in the newspapers this week? During the referendum I contributed to a half-hour 'special' on Scotland 2014 because one unnamed independence supporter called someone or other a 'quisling'. Half an hour on the BBC about how horrible independence supporters can be.

But a unionist who is followed on Twitter by half the Scottish media spends a number of years calling older female politicians he (or she) doesn't like 'dried up cunts' or similar and he (or she) gets a free pass? But there's no bias?

Really? You think that doesn't look biased?

JK Rowling uses her 'small island' of lawyers to intimidate people who don't have her wealth and she's a saint. Philippa Whitford gives up her Christmas to perform surgery which saves lives and she's a crook.

Really? You think that was our collective reaction?

The judges are now judged, the new jury is constantly gathering evidence and the execution may be slow but it is unrelenting. That's the sorry picture of mainstream media in Scotland.

JK Rowling uses her 'small island' of lawyers to intimidate people who don't have her wealth and she's a saint. Philippa Whitford gives up her Christmas to perform surgery which saves lives and she's a crook. Really?

When the journalists most hostile to this new environment get together (no need to book a room for that event) they seem to wish this new internet fad would just blow over and they could go back to distorting the news without being held to account.

They can hate Wings Over Scotland all they like - it doesn't change how persuasive Stuart Campbell's meticulous debunking is, or how many people read it.

The Scottish media really hasn't adapted to the new environment. There remains an assumption that new media outlets are a very small and exclusive club. But in our first year, CommonSpace had 1.2 million individual readers.

And shares. That's the big thing. A politician I spoke to recently told me they'd done an experiment. They placed a piece in a national newspaper and then later they placed a piece on CommonSpace. Then they tracked what happened next: The politician's office set a number of criteria for what worked best - tweets, shares, comments, debate, reposts and any sign that the content of the piece was being engaged with, read even. The national newspaper lost badly.

When the journalists most hostile to this new environment get together they seem to wish this new internet fad would just blow over and they could go back to distorting the news without being held to account.

This is the problem the Scottish media is facing. It is no longer in sole control of content, and even worse, it has largely lost its curatorial powers. Plenty people still read articles from the Scotsman and the Herald - because there are still great journalists working in these papers. (For anyone hostile who is groaning, seriously, pack it in - it's crazy to take the whole of Scottish journalism and lump them into the same category. Crazy, wrong and counterproductive).

But readers today put together their own daily news by picking up stories from these sources and the BBC/STV and mixing it with opinion pieces from Bella Caledonia or news on CommonSpace or international news sources or blogs. They curate their own content.

This is an era of jigsaw news. We are all still trying to come to terms with this. But pretending it isn't so won't help.

I generally don't comment on the media in Scotland - partly because so many others do but also because Common Weal tries hard (though with limited success) to work with print media.

They can hate Wings Over Scotland all they like - it doesn't change how persuasive Stuart Campbell's meticulous debunking is, or how many people read it.

About two years ago I wrote a single critical piece about a bad piece of reporting (without even naming the journalist) and someone else on the same group of newspapers told me that I could whistle to get mention of Common Weal in the paper again. They were largely as good as their word.

So I'm sure I'll pay another price for writing about them (we asked a sympathetic BBC insider for tips on getting Common Weal on the radio and the genuine response was 'try a football phone in'). Dying empires always get angry.

But I decided to do this anyway, not because I hate the media but because I'm someone who still believes fundamentally in its importance. If we don't up our game - all of us - we will have no-one reporting on our democracy apart from the BBC, and newspapers will just be giveaways on public transport and gossip columns designed for building sites (and believe me, as someone with lots of friends who work on building sites, they don't believe a lot of the shite in the papers either).

There is barely a local paper in Scotland that doesn't rely on local authority advertising to survive so there is little critical reporting of our local democracy, which is in part why it is so awful so often.

If that happens to Holyrood, no-one wins. If you're not believed, if you're not trusted - and if you're not read - you're of no use to anyone.

If we don't up our game - all of us - we will have no-one reporting on our democracy apart from the BBC, and newspapers will just be giveaways on public transport.

CommonSpace covers the crucial progress of the Land reform and Lobbying Bills , not the big newspapers. If you want to read a defence of free speech after Angela's sacking you need to read Bella or Wings or the Guardian (though kudos to the National for its role ).

For those of us in new media, we may still struggle for resources and we don't get on the newsstands (and are seldom reflected on the BBC). But it's not our offices which are being torn down or sold to computer games firms.

I read the Herald every day of my life for 20 years until I finally decided that I didn't trust its political reporting early on during the referendum. I haven't bought it since. So yes, me, the reader, I could be the problem. And the media may have played no part in its own decline. But I find my eyebrow raising.

Really?

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Picture courtesy of Robin McAlpine