We don’t have many journalists in the Scottish press. We have a lot of reporters. A good journalist offers insight and the benefit of his experience travelling the world. A reporter tells us this or that happened, and uses press hand-outs as a crutch for their own copy. To be ‘impartial’ for a minute, [satire] reporting can rise to the level of fine writing – I cite as evidence Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, a superb work of reportage – but that’s in a wholly different category from what is offered by the Scottish press.
It’s my football and I’ll kick it where I want
These last days has seen an extraordinary outburst from Neil Mackay, quick tempered editor of the Sunday Herald. He castigating his readers for daring to express opinions in robust ways. Like other Scottish newspapers sales are falling even as its website is flourishing. Fearful of oblivion the Sunday Herald has taken to eating itself.
When it comes to choosing one’s words carefully Mackay fails miserably to follow his own advice. He wants dissidence curbed. What he’s asking is uncomplicated: no right-minded person would express themselves in vigorous terms that offend newspaper staff.
This is the first step towards ‘normalising’ what can and what cannot be discussed. It is neo-liberalism balls high. First, deplore open speech you cannot control; second, confine the parameters within which a debate can be conducted; and lastly, proclaim free speech safe … if expressed within strict guidelines laid down by our betters
When Mackay arrived at the paper I sent a brief good luck message. Tweets were shorter then but I added the paper was vague in its support of Scotland’s rights. He disliked that remark enough to send a sharp reply. I answered I was referring to the content of the paper still adhering to neo-liberal dogma either consciously or by habit.
Mackay sprung back. He had “written a book on the subject” and I should go to hell, whereupon he blocked me. I hear he despises Twitter and social sites, his hobby-horse, so I have to assume he’s not read any of my essays on liberty and civil rights, ergo, he owns a closed mind, and a lot of vanity. Criticism cannot include attacks on the integrity of the Sunday Herald or its staff because …. all together now … ‘no right-minded person’ would ever do that. And so it goes on, circular fashion, ad nauseam.
The White Rabbit
Mackay is aided in his search for a peaceful life by Alice in Wonderland Rabbit, Chief Reporter (of what is a mystery) David Leask. By all accounts he’s an affable fellow, inclined so I’m told, to believe there’s something worthwhile in all this independence nonsense. Leask spends a lot of time attacking the editor of Wings website, using incautious terms such as “Putin propaganda.”
When the Herald assumed UK-wide statistics on poverty and wealth related only to Scotland, thus grossly exaggerating our situation, Leask didn’t apologise but instead condemned bloggers for the effrontery in trying to correct the massive error. Now he has before him another apology to publish, better known as a ‘correction’.
How many crass decisions constitute dismissal?
After the newspaper placed a highly misleading photograph on its front page of the triumphant independence March in Glasgow it received a torrent of complaints from people who feel political activism is a good thing.
In a long sanctimonious article bereft of apology Mackay agreed the photograph was not representative of the day’s event. The choice of it was a group decision. That he could have dealt with the small band of Nazi saluting unionists in a separate article and not taint the march seemed not to have entered his head. He trotted off the expected excuse of seeking balance as if all he could publish was one photograph. For a man who has “written a book on neo-liberalism” he’s blind to its existence in his newspaper.
Mackay avers we should stop thinking there are conspiracies indulged by our media. Which is to say, we must realise what we see is gross incompetence.
In a series of shrieking paragraphs Mackay moved onto his main theme, attacks on newspapers are “hatred” incarnate “and dangerous”. He called the SNP to account. (He did not call the Tory Party to corral its extremists.) The march had nothing to do with the SNP other than the Party and Nicola Sturgeon were happy to see the confederacy of unity as active as ever. The march was peaceful and joyful. Mackay chose to sour the success of the march.
The Apologist versus the Abolitionist.
Media’s habit of living off newspapers saw STV’s evening political show Scotland Tonight host a short debate. Simon Pia and Peter Bell were asked a few interesting questions on whether or not the Sunday Herald was right or wrong in its tirade.
Pia was a No voter, a former Labour Party Scottish branch media man, who had a vision on the Road to Damascus and now votes Yes. Bell is a long-time independinista, a consummate composer of fire and brimstone. A Twitter user commented how refreshing it was to see two supporters of independence in a discussion without interruption from a unionist. In one way it was, in another the same old gladiatorial formula.
Pia was invited to argue newspapers ought to be given greater respect than now. He decided he would take the place of the unionist and interrupt Bell. Both men looked uncomfortable. Pia squirmed around in his chair. Bell, a writer I greatly admire, sat like Sphinx-like, immovable, implacable. The discussion demanded better group dynamics; a round table would have helped and at least an hour to discuss such an important issue.
What newspapers does Scotland need?
The question is not how good or stupid is the Sunday Herald and its editor. The question is, what sort of newspapers does Scotland need at a critical time in its history? The answer is independent newspapers.
Owned by unionist press barons with offshore bank accounts our newspapers will never devote themselves wholeheartedly to the cause of demanding full civil and constitutional rights protected by self-governance. As far as they are concerned and those they employ, we live in a capitalist democracy, the best possible system, despite “some flaws”.
“The behaviour of a minority is damaging the hopes of independence” says Mackay in a lather of exaggeration, describing the masses as “the mob”. What a sad sight is a newspaper editor haranguing his readers for daring to have an opinion and actually voicing it. What right do they have, he fulminates, to be angry over our bias, inaccuracies, colonial mentality, and egregious attacks on hope?
When newspapers fail us, they fail the internet, we who use social media each day. Well, the press and media are indispensable. We should look at them critically, read between the lines, and not always take what they print as Gospel. But I am talking about free and independent media not corporate media!
A kinda belief
You either believe in independence or you do not. You can’t say, well, the electorate are not as one therefore we shall keep our options open. You have to sell self-governance, make obvious its benefits, educate, inform. You cannot be passive about a nation’s rights. You cannot be ‘impartial’.
So far, our press and media are failing on their own terms, deluding themselves social media is to blame for their troubles. Newspapers such as the racist Scottish Daily Mail and the duplicitous Scottish Express are a serious danger to Scotland’s progress, a radical insurgency – ideologically extreme, scornful of facts, dismissive of anything remotely like socialism or people power.
Where does the Sunday Herald stand? Neil Mackay its fulminating editor states it plainly:
“Let us make one thing very clear – the Sunday Herald endorses no political party. … This paper is not a closed shop. Unionist voters, Conservative voters, Labour voters, would not be blamed for feeling that the Sunday Herald appeared for a time after the referendum to be something of a closed shop; that there was no home for them here. We wish that perception to change.”
That humbug takes some brass neck from a newspaper a staunch supporter of Labour in Scotland for decades, an anti-independence party. It is a proclamation of cowardice.
I repeat: what Scotland misses is a diverse, free, independent, participatory press media that welcomes dissent and protects civil and constitutional rights, the very basis of any viable democracy. A free press exists to support the masses not to condemn them.
POST SCRIPT: In a 2015 survey it was revealed, for every £100 newspapers lost in print revenue, newspapers only gained £3 in digital revenue. More than 200 local newspapers have closed since 2005. The response from newspaper owners and editors is to turn against social media as the problem, a tactic which is at heart censorious and neo-liberal.
PPS: Neil Mackay resigned not long after this essay was published, citing ‘ill health’.