The question I put is this, can a newspaper be truly impartial in colonial Scotland? How does it put neutrality into practice, even when its neutrality refers solely to partisan politics? How can it function as a truly Scottish newspaper and not just a facsimile of Westminster values and interests?
Be honest with readers
“Unfortunately, the public doesn’t trust us. We need to think about how to get people to see journalists as their allies instead of as duplicitous, faux-neutral propagandists. We should be honest about our prejudices.” Nathan Robinson, editor Current Affairs
A strange thing happened. Nicola Sturgeon, in her daily coronavirus briefings, took a question from a ‘reporter’ who was not a member of the usual press corps. Paris Gourtsoyannis, Westminster correspondent for the Scotsman newspaper, a man who came to Scotland from Greece to study and stayed, took exception to the question, and ipso facto, the broadcaster represented at the briefing.
The question came from Broadcasting Scotland, an honest partisan, industrious, shoestring run, pro-independence news gatherer that also produces music and interviews. (Shoestring, partisan, chat, music and entertainment also describes BBC Radio Scotland!) Gourtsoyannis felt for the first minister to allow the group access undermined the Scottish Government’s authority “to comment on press standards or regulation, as a minimum”.
Whoa! It was as if he had spotted the Queen shopping at Aldi.
Gourtsoyannis got clobbered for his snobbery by social media and Mark McLaughlin, the politics and education correspondent at The Times was one. “I have no problem with partisan blogs getting questions at the briefing. They’re asking the kind of questions partisan tweeters ask all the time”, he said, in a rejoinder.
Gourtsoyannis misjudged badly the collective confidence in renaissance Scotland, that sense of unity when our values are attacked, especially when embodied in the little man.
Low and double basement low
A day later, Paul Hutcheon of the Daily Record, Scotland’s ‘best’ investigative journalist, won “Political Journalist of the Year” and got universally lampooned by the public for it. His apogee of investigatory achievement was to make an example of a lady Lord Provost for her shoe collection. Andy Dufresne crawling through a mile of effluent and urine to escape from Shawshank prison had nothing on the life of a wee Scottish investigative journo counting shoes.
Anyhow, and still on standards and practice in Scotland’s Fourth Estate, a Times reporter contradicted Gourtsoyannis. His rebuke took the line society has changed irrevocably and he better get used to it. However, Gourtsoyannis has a point. There are standards to uphold, which ones, which principles he did not say, nor how he thought an innocuous question from Broadcasting Scotland lowered the tone of the press briefing.
However, Gourtsoyannis described Broadcast Scotland as a “partisan hobby blog”, which is the equivalent of calling Scotland’s parliament a town council talking shop, not that any self-respecting journalist would do that, of course.
Soon after the insistent Gourtsoyannis compounded his intervention with this: “Then she [Sturgeon] can give up the pretence of a press conference and answer questions on twitter. [sic] Hope she gave a rocket to her communications team after.” He was implying her press team had inadvertently let in a non-accredited journalist.
An honest reaction
I dismissed Gourtsoyannis’ ill temper as a fit of pique. He surely did not mean power lies with the press and the press with the powerful. Like an apple rotting in a fruit bowl, his snub must have worked on my subconscious because later I posted this:
“With one minor exception, all Scottish newspapers believe in the removal of the SNP government and reinstatement of parties supporting the Union. They’re hostile to a populace enjoying full civil and constitutional rights. This, I’m asked to believe, is a sign of a free press.” Grouse Beater
The tweet tossed into the ether attracted almost 45,000 hits in two days, with over 800 people making an active response, those, plus one very angry Martin Williams, a senior journalist working for the Herald who did not win “Political Journalist of the Year”.
Williams fired off a salvo attached to a photostat copy of the Herald’s Letters column which carries in proud capital letters their mission statement:
‘The Herald is committed to fair and impartial coverage of Scotland’s affairs and does not endorse any political party.” The Herald, ‘Scotland’s other national newspaper’
The ironic laughter Williams caused could have toppled the scaffolding on Big Ben. The Herald is the newspaper that published a two-page spread of rapists and serial murders with the byline Alex Salmond is not one of them, and did it prior to Salmond’s court case.
Though I kept my comment general, Williams could not tolerate a member of the public suggesting his newspaper, in particular, is not impartial in all things. Williams was telling me what to think, that the Herald strives for a diversity of opinion. Fair enough, unless that opinion halts progress toward civil and constitutional rights.
I question how a newspaper manages to remain impartial in Scotland when it repeats guff from phony experts, UK government departments and jackass pundits warning Scotland is a potential economic basket case. Black propaganda is rarely spiked. Newspapers have been promoting unionist fabrications since they were founded.
“The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news “objectively” and on the basis of professional news values.” Professor Noam Chomsky, linguist and social philosopher
The argument with Williams developed into the neutrality of a free press. The last time I saw a genuinely free press at work was in a Hollywood western, where the editor was also the owner, pen behind his ear, anti-glare visor permanently fixed to his forehead, determined to print the low-down on the town’s corrupt sheriff, risking life and livelihood in the process, an editor of integrity without an advertiser to worry about.
Contemporary newspapers do not function as if a corner shop. Newspaper are, in the main, part of international conglomerates, the same that own broadcasters and book publishers. This is referred to as top-down monopoly of news and communication, the perfect structure to control and form opinion.
The Tories have been releasing the reins on newspaper owners for decades, knowing they back the Tories. Our own Alex Salmond tried a bit of that; ingratiating himself with the Dirty Digger, Rupert Murdoch, asking that the Scottish Sun be kind to Scotland’s political ambitions – it became ‘neutral’ for a while – that word again, in return for Salmond encouraging News Corporation’s new headquarters to locate in Scotland.
Rupert Murdoch is everyone’s bête noire, their best example of a ruthless press baron. His company bought one of Scotland’s top book publishers, Collins, and immediately cancelled a biography critical of Murdoch and his methods. Harold Evans, the former distinguished editor at the Sunday Times, made clear to the Leveson Inquiry how Rupert Murdoch interfered with the content of the paper. Harold Evans was often rebuked for “not doing what he [Murdoch] wants in political terms.”
“All Murdoch editors, what they do is this: they go on a journey where they end up agreeing with everything Rupert says but you don’t admit to yourself that you’re being influenced.” Harold Evans, former Sunday Times editor
I used to think the Guardian was one of the few free and open-minded newspapers until it took an editorial line hard set against Scotland reinstating its independence. That was it. No half measures, no federalism. The paper’s retired political editor, Michael White, the man with the military moustache, was given the task of disparaging and belittling independence, which he did with gusto but without a moment’s self-awareness.
The Guardian styles itself as the world’s “leading liberal voice” yet has had an unhappy relationship with whistle-blowers such as Julian Assange, and hardly represents the working class, an entire strata of society without newspaper representation, unless you count The Big Issue.
The Scottish press functions in the same subliminal way. It presents us with power. What the yesterday’s man Gordon Brown has to say is of far greater importance than any informed blogger whether a specialist in his or her field or not. In fact, ‘experts’ of unnamed think tanks with no vote in a Scottish election are more important to quote than many a Scot living in Scotland. BBC Scotland follows suit.
Filtered or reported
The internet is extremely valuable if you know what you’re looking for. Most of what I publish or republish on my Twitter timeline is filtered, same as others who reproduce news items. I publish from a multitude of sources having fact checked – a lot of it sent to me – if it has some bearing on the life of Scotland. I give my news bites a satirical heading to attract attention. If the story is complicated I attach a link to the source.
“Those who do not read newspapers are uninformed. Those who do read newspapers are ill-informed.” Mark Twain
My essay site is altogether different, philosophical in outlook with a dash of mordant wit. I am a member of the Writer’s Guild whose trade is obsessed with understanding men’s minds and women’s yearnings. My articles and essays – I’m never sure when one becomes the other – are historical in nature, some from on-location reporting, where I have physically travelled to places to research and report as a vanilla journalist would.
I report what people say and my impressions of what they say. This last year it was Orkney, Dublin and Iceland. Before that, Gibraltar to see how Gibraltarians felt about British betrayal over leaving the EU. And in recent months I reported on two court cases in Edinburgh. Even so, by Gourtsoyannis’ criteria, and perhaps the SNP too, I would not be eligible to ask Nicola Sturgeon a question.
The halls of power
Though a few notable freelancers have shown they understand Scotland’s future rests on self-governance, they would welcome any compromise tomorrow that meant a broken union was sustainable. Scottish journalists are unreliable. They always revert to type.
How can a newspaper working in a colonial reality remain impartial? Merely by being neutral it takes a side, and it is not the side of equality or of justice. It is the photographer taking a snapshot but not intervening in the death he witnesses; it is Mercutio shouting ‘a plague on both your houses!’ It is a hack working to pay his mortgage, buy a round in the pub, doing it without ethics or scruples. It is an editor sidelining a story in case it upsets a big paying advertiser.
Scotland’s journalists live off press handouts from political parties, no source identified. They wait for a politician to say something outrageous and they publish that as if news. They leave flaky statistics unchallenged. If stuck for a good story they trawl Internet social sites, the same ones they condemn for being full of cybernats. They divert attention from the real issues that afflict Scotland and Scottish society.
They like bad, negative news because it works to deaden dissent. They use tabloid terms to inflate conflict: so-and-so slams so-and-so, rather than rebukes an opponent. They are interviewed by their fellow journalists on television, a cosy club. Broadcasters live off the press. Today’s newspaper headline is tomorrow’s television news. Press and broadcaster feed off each other, self-perpetuating, incestuous.
“The press is owned by wealthy men who have every interest in not wanting certain ideas to be expressed, the other is just essentially a good education.” George Orwell
Scotland the afterthought
As a writer you learn quickly there are certain things it wouldn’t do to say – mentioning Hitler in an essay is one of them – and you don’t even think about it any more. It just becomes what Gramsci called “hegemonic common sense”. Do not talk about it. These things simply become internalized.
Courageous people such as Wings, Jeggit, Craig Murray and Peter Bell who discuss the unmentionable sound like crazies. The censorious phrase ‘no right thinking person would say that’ crops up repeatedly spoken by once radical SNP politicians as well as right-wing ideological conformity shapers.
None of what I have written is a reason to see a newspaper close, unless engaged in criminal activity, such as industrial level phone hacking. I offer cogent reasons why no owner should possess more than one newspaper in any country, and I argue good and bad journalism cannot by definition be impartial.
The press is there to bring down the corrupt and illuminate malpractice in high places. With Parliament shutting down for a month to curb the spread of coronavirus, it is left to journalists to be the opposition to Government policy, a task most bloggers are incapable of doing by dint of isolation. Newspaper are indispensable to a democracy. And now journalists have the benefit of reading social sites to gauge public feeling.
“Newspapers are an important part of our lives, not to read, of course, but, when you’re moving you can’t wrap your dishes in a blog.” Stephen Colbert, satirist
Perhaps the question should be, can a newspaper afford to be impartial in a Scotland determined to secure full human rights? They are losing readers hand-over-fist, unable to make any profit while they treat readers as passive. I look to Scotland’s newspapers to inform us we are chronically short changed by Westminster, show us the evidence daily, rebel against the tyranny that is corporate and state control. If only they felt reinstating self-governance a good thing. They want us to buy their newspapers but not to protect the sovereignty of Scotland.
Self-determination is not politically partisan – it is a democratic right.
The need for a robust, independent press has never been greater. Scotland needs newspapers devoted to Scotland not constantly reaffirming and reinforcing Westminster control is benign. Those we have are convinced there is no conspiracy or strategy on the part of the British establishment to keep Scotland servile. Hell mend them!
Banner illustration: Caxton demonstrating his printing press.
The Shame of the Press: https://wp.me/p4fd9j-dC The Scottish Press: https://wp.me/p4fd9j-miL Defoe the Union Spy: https://wp.me/p4fd9j-mUP Professor John Robertson on media bias: https://youtu.be/Ajd4R-9BEIw Mark Poles: MA Philosophy and Politics, Magdalen College, Oxford…..
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