Don’t believe what you read
By Chris Harvie
Above Cromarty, one of Scotland’s greatest natural harbours, and the wasteland quays of Nigg (that once-and-future centre of marine industry) stands Hugh Miller in stone. 1802 to 1856: geologist, folklorist, journalist, on top of a column. His weekly paper The Witness was as powerful as the eloquence and ‘Godly Commonwealth’ economics of Thomas Chalmers in splitting the Kirk in 1843.
But amid the greatest political controversy to hit Scotland since then, what’s happened to the country’s papers, the qualities in particular?
A recent commission from Catriona MacDonald at Glasgow University and the Scotsman to write about the 1979 referendum provoked some ‘then and now’ comparisons. The paper’s circulation was in 1978 nearly 90,000. It’s now a third of that, after falls which have steepened to 18% annually. I buy it as civic record and to keep up my press-cutting file, as I have to update No Gods and Precious Few Heroes (first published in 1981) and the Oxford Short History of Scotland (2002). Will it or the Herald be around to review them?
Why has literate journalism shrunk? The double-whammy of banking crash and property slump? The depoliticising, despite the sturm und drang of party politics, and online media, of the young? ‘All that lot want to do’, said a friend who taught at Edinburgh Napier, ‘is stuff about celebrities.’ When did I last see a student actually reading a paper?
Modelling Scots papers on the London ‘heavies’ – the cars, the starlets – no longer works. They too are in deep trouble. Even the Financial Times, the only possible rival to Die Zeit and co., sources most of its stories from press releases. Elsewhere the course has been down-market; the BBC assumes a Britain-wide denominator with a taste, as a 1970s Royal Commission found, for ‘human-interest stories’. Metro-fluff you can get for free on a bus seat near you.
Regional papers (Press & Journal, Courier & Advertiser) have a more stable reader-base, with decline only around 5%. This would align them with Tuebingen’s Schwaebisches Tagblatt which has a circulation of 41,000 in a place not much bigger than Perthshire, with a strong factual-investigative, cultural input. It survives against Europe’s best national/commentary press – Die Zeit, Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, etc.
The core of German journalism is the regional daily, the quality civic-minded and high. The likes of the Tagblatt, along with public-service TV, are far more important than Bild-Zeitung, the Springer Press’s right-wing rottweiler. It’s notorious but reaches only 19%. Its British equivalents exceed 60%.
The multi-part paper with separate sections on news, local news, economy, media, technology education, and environment reflects the decentralisation – and feminisation – of politics in a federal state and the strength of the German public service ethic (after a forcible learning-process). It’s there, like the country’s co-ordinated public transport, or publicly-owned theatres, galleries and banks in underpinning a ‘mittelstand’ (SME-dominated) manufacturing-based economy. The Scotsman used to have a masthead ‘the paper that puts business first’ but with the seizure of Royal Bank and HBoS, business is lucky to get a fifth of the space devoted to (almost exclusively male) sport.
We have the colonisation of every bit of the trashblatts by dysfunctional musclemen: on the pitch, out of their faces, in court, in debt, in bed. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung has usually only about three pages out of 70 on sport. A German CEO saying he was ‘a fanatical fan of team XI’ would be out the door in seconds. The economics of the UK sector are now as troubled as its players. Deterrent to most women, half our population, whom it bores to death? Have we reached that ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ moment, where tiny gates, financial despair and energy-guzzling flatscreens are winding the business down? Is it time for Roy of the Rovers to be put to sleep: reborn as a local amateur?
For the commentariat, the ‘mair columns than the Parthenon’ years are long past. The Scotsman’s on-line edition, created by the late great Bobby Campbell and in 1996 a model of its kind, is now a mess. The paper doesn’t lack good writers: Allan Massie, Peter Jones, George Kerevan, Lesley Riddoch and Joyce MacMillan, Battling Bill Jamieson, and promising newcomers like Peter Geohegan. Their copy is based on research and experience. Politics coverage, though, recalls Holyrood at its dreichest: predictable males giving their Sole Speech, adapted to endure.
As for ‘reader comments’ a reason-free zone cages the hecklers of yore, deterring anyone else. The Herald at least implies that readers ought to subscribe before they comment. I suspect ‘rent-a-troll’ personation is loose, if I could be bothered to trudge through the semi-literate tundra. Does this derive from the lack of an evidence base, of an effective historic memory, of awkward investigative journalism? Or has it seeped in from the free-enterprise 1984 ‘Minitruth’ run by Murdoch’s gang?
Here we have a fundamental problem. Scotland’s deindustrialisation has been rapid and near-fatal. Of fifty big (£1 million-plus) Scottish companies in 1978, about five survive. When you trash manufacturing industry you also trash industrial training and the technical and intelligence mechanisms that maintain it. The Germans go from Der Sendung mit der Maus, in which the rodent explains things to kids, to hefty Wissenschaft sections which debate the public culture of a manufacturing state. Stop manufacturing and worse will seep in.
Now if I were an editor of the Hugh Miller type my priority would be to sketch a Domesday Book of ‘Public Scotland’. This would give a context for the economic reconstruction of the country: following the demands likely to be made on us, particularly by North Sea phase two. We have clean energy to the value of 12,000 million tonnes of coal equivalent - annually! - sloshing around our coasts, which can be tapped to pump electricity into Europe. Even with present technology it could meet a quarter of the continent’s needs. Oil infrastructure and technology gives us a head start.
But if we follow the economics we can (a) sell power to Europe in exchange for technical back-up, and (b) tackle ‘worst-case’ world-wide menaces of carbon growth and catastrophic inundation. We can start making these macro-alliances now: the ideas are there: See Word Power’s Unstated symposium http://www.word-power.co.uk/books/unstated-I9780956628398/ We must also regenerate the civic, something tracked in a recent book by New Roads by Alf and Ewan Young (Argyll). I can argue with them about independence, but they’re rightly scornful of the gluey accumulation of ‘public’ bodies and hierarchies who frankly don’t know what they are for, and PR people who play the old tunes. This is something a new regional press for ‘makers, movers and menders’ can remedy. From the German precedent, what will fall away is that comfort blanket of sensation and hype that London media lives off, while it smothers us.
Oh yes …and the next journo to use the word ‘iconic’ gets both barrels.
Chris Harvie, emeritus professor at Tuebingen and onetime MSP, has just published his sixteenth book 1814 YEAR OF WAVERLEY on Walter Scott, with a QR code to access the web. See http://www.clanscotland.co.uk
16 May 2013
Subscribe to Product