The End of the Scottish Press?

Peter Geoghegan

Late last year, Rangers played host to Hibernian. Both teams are currently in the Scottish Championship, the second tier of Scottish football – after going into administration in 2012 Rangers had to work its way back up from the bottom division. The two first played more than a century ago; this time Rangers won 4-2. I watched the game on a dodgy internet stream, but could still clearly hear the fans in the Ibrox stands singing ‘The Billy Boys’ (‘We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood/Surrender or you’ll die’). Two days later, on 30 December, Graham Spiers, a freelance sports writer, filed his regular online column for the Herald, and it appeared the same day under the headline ‘Rangers must uphold progress by resisting return of the old songs’. Spiers, a lifelong Rangers fan, had been banned by the club in August. No reason was given, but there had been unhappiness with his criticisms of the board’s behaviour since the club’s financial collapse. His column questioned whether Rangers had the ‘mettle’ to tackle sectarian behaviour during matches. It also included an allegation about a member of the Rangers board. Magnus Llewellin, the Herald’s editor-in-chief, told Spiers his column ‘struck exactly the right tone’. Rangers disagreed and lodged a complaint. A month later, the Herald published an apology; Spiers refused to endorse it and issued a counter-statement accusing Rangers of putting pressure on the Herald. The story didn’t end there. Angela Haggerty, a young journalist who had recently started a weekly column on social media for the Sunday Herald, tweeted her support of Spiers. A Rangers representative swiftly contacted the paper, adducing her tweet as evidence of a breach of the agreed apology. Within an hour, she had been fired.

Companies owned by members of the Rangers board are regular Herald advertisers and in an email in early January, Llewellin had told Spiers that one particular director ‘is always trying to use you and other material he disagrees with as a commercial lever’. Both the Herald and Rangers strongly deny that any threat was made to withdraw advertising either after Spiers’s original article, or Haggerty’s tweet. (A couple of weeks later Haggerty’s column was reinstated, after what the Herald described as ‘a re-examination of the context of her original social media postings’.) While Spiers’s point about Rangers’s unwillingness to confront the sectarian behaviour of its fans is hard to dispute, it’s less clear why his allegation about the Rangers board member was published: it would have been extremely difficult to defend in court. One explanation is that the piece wasn’t sent to the paper’s lawyers. The Herald blamed ‘an editorial staff error’ for this, but subeditors are under increasing pressure to get pieces online quickly, especially stories about the Old Firm. In the centre of the Herald’s skeletally staffed newsroom a bank of monitors displays the most read online articles. Spiers’s were often among them. During the dispute about the piece, Newsquest, which bought the Herald in 2003, announced that up to 25 journalists would be made redundant in the third round of job losses in less than a year. Spiers admits that he was only able to behave as he did because he’s an established writer with a steady supply of freelance work. ‘If I was a 26-year-old on £21,000,’ he told me, ‘I wouldn’t have been able to defend myself.’

Scotland used to boast one of the highest concentrations of newspaper readers in the world. The Sunday Post sold 1.7 million copies every week in a country whose population was barely three times that. Still published in Dundee by D.C. Thomson, which is also responsible for the Beano, it now sells 163,000, close to the sales of the Observer. The glory days of Scottish journalism are long gone. When the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster discussed ‘the crisis in the Scottish press industry’ in 2009, the Herald was selling just under 60,000 copies a day; now that figure is less than 35,000. Of course, Scottish newspapers aren’t the only ones in trouble. The Independent and the Independent on Sunday ceased printing last month following the sale of the papers’ cut-price spin-off, i, to Johnston Press, owners of the Scotsman. Job losses are imminent at the Guardian and rumoured at the Telegraph.

When Newsquest, the UK subdivision of the American local publishing giant Gannett, paid £216 million for the Herald and its stablemates, the Sunday Herald and the tabloid Evening Times, the Sunday Herald’s journalists alone occupied almost an entire floor in the group’s offices; 13 years later, there are ten staff assigned solely to the Sunday paper and just one full-time production journalist. Cover prices have risen while pagination has shrunk. Once a campaigning newspaper, the Herald now seems committed to a single cause: shareholder returns. In the last financial year profits rose by more than a quarter, to £11.6m. Turnover was flat; all the gains were made by cutting more than £2m from costs, mostly staff. Much of the paper is now subedited at Newsquest’s offices in Newport. Judging by rudimentary errors, the finer points of Scottish politics and football are not keenly felt in South Wales. Last year, while I was freelancing for the Herald group, new production systems were being installed in the newsroom. During a tutorial on the software a middle-aged journalist asked where international stories fitted into the template. The youthful Newsquest trainer was nonplussed: ‘There’s no foreign news on the Warrington Guardian.’ Newsquest did cause a splash when, seeing a gap in the market, it launched a pro-independence daily, the National, at the SNP Party Conference in November 2014. The paper’s first edition sold out, but Newsquest hasn’t given adequate resources to its newest title, and with sales now around 10,000, it looks unlikely to be around much longer.

The situation on the east coast is, if anything, worse. ‘This is a great business and these are great newspapers,’ a Johnston Press executive told a room full of Scotsman journalists in December 2005 just after the local media group had purchased the paper and its sister title, Scotland on Sunday, for £160 million, almost double the price paid by the Barclay brothers ten years earlier. Almost immediately the successful Scotsman.com development team was broken up and the website relocated three hundred miles south to Peterborough; advertising was outsourced to a London agency with little local expertise. The biggest change was staffing: in 2005, the Scotsman had more than five hundred journalists and production staff, according to accounts filed at Companies House. Now just 130 produce a paper increasingly lacking decent features, analysis and original reporting. Earlier this year staff threatened strike action over yet more redundancies. Its Brussels bureau and international stringers have long since been axed. In 2014, the Scotsman left its purpose-built £20 million sandstone and glass offices in the shadow of the Scottish Parliament as part of another round of cost-cutting. Rockstar North, creators of Grand Theft Auto, took over the lease. Curiously, penny-pinching at Johnston Press has not extended to the boardroom; in 2014, its chief executive, Ashley Highfield, was paid £1.65 million. Ever more desperate attempts are being made to find new revenue streams: one scheme, Friends of the Scotsman, encourages organisations to take out subscriptions in exchange for editorial content – advertorials. In January, an internal email to Johnston Press staff classified Scotland on Sunday as a ‘sub core’ title, fuelling rumours that it might be sold, or closed. Sales for both papers in the second half of 2015 were around 22,000.

It might seem like the decline of the Herald and the Scotsman is no different from that experienced by papers all over the world, but these papers have seen a particularly steep drop in circulation. Both are now comfortably outsold by D.C. Thomson’s regional titles, the Dundee Courier and the Aberdeen-based Press and Journal, which sold 43,000 and 56,400 respectively in the second half of 2015 and which benefit from a local focus and continued investment. ‘Aberdeen and Dundee are the only places in Scotland with jobs,’ a journalist who recently took voluntary redundancy from the Herald said to me. The Herald and the Scotsman are also struggling unsuccessfully to compete for sales and advertising with the Scottish editions of the London nationals – particularly the Times, which has invested in new staff in Scotland. The once robust Scottish tabloid market is struggling too: sales of the Daily Record plummeted by 63.5 per cent between 1992 and 2011 (it currently sells around 200,000 copies).

The golden age of the Scottish press is often romanticised. Many titles were unadventurous, taking the loyalty of their readers for granted, and unwilling to criticise shibboleths of Scottish society: the Labour Party; the Old Firm, particularly the blue half. But after the 1979 devolution referendum, the press took on the role of national champion. Both the Herald and the Scotsman published their own proposals for a devolved assembly years before the 1997 referendum, but they weren’t concerned only with Scotland: they covered British and international news, and saw themselves as competing with the London nationals.

Rather than further invigorating Scotland’s media, devolution, when it finally arrived, seemed to bring with it a less ambitious Scottish press, and less interest on the part of the London papers in what was going on in the country. During the independence referendum some titles, notably the Scottish editions of the London papers, adopted a conspicuously unionist stance: the referendum day edition of the Times came with a wraparound red, white and blue cover featuring a quote from ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on the reverse and a brief history of the Union on the inside pages. Almost 45 per cent of Scots voted to leave the UK, but only one newspaper, the Sunday Herald, backed a ‘Yes’ vote. The Telegraph’s Scotland editor, Alan Cochrane, appeared to confirm many nationalists’ view of the press when, in his post-referendum memoir, he wrote about spiking an unflattering column about Alistair Darling, head of Better Together: ‘It’s not really good journalism but what the hell does journalism matter? This is much more important.’

The SNP often cultivates the impression that the press corps is unified in its opposition to the party. Twitter avatars with yellow SNP ribbons are particularly unhappy with the news coverage offered by BBC Scotland. The SNP has called for a federal BBC as part of the charter renewal process and the BBC recently agreed to produce three pilot programmes of what’s become known as the ‘Scottish Six’ – rather than cutting away to the news ‘where you are’ after London has covered the important stuff, the whole programme would be produced in Glasgow. It’s far from clear, however, where the cash needed to produce an hour of news every evening would be found. The opposition parties see the proposed bulletin as a concession to the SNP, but nationalists remain highly ambivalent about the BBC. A survey last year found that less than half of Scots were satisfied with BBC output, compared to 55 per cent in Wales and 61 per cent in England.

Many nationalists prefer the new pro-independence websites that sprang up during and after the referendum. The most partisan is the most popular: the former computer games journalist Stuart Campbell’s blog Wings over Scotland attracts more than a quarter of a million unique visitors a month. Sites such as Bella Caledonia and Common Space also have a healthy following. The popularity of these sites attests to the rupture between many Scots and their once hegemonic newspaper industry. As the Herald journalist Iain Macwhirter wrote in 2014, ‘Scotland has a national political system, but is in danger of losing a national media.’ A third successive SNP victory in next month’s Scottish elections is all but guaranteed. The future of the country’s press is far less certain.