The Scottish Press, Generation Gridlock and Living with Crony Capitalism
Scottish Review, March 21st 2013
The Scottish media and press are not exactly in a healthy state; facing pressures and constrictions from every angle, from the expectations and demands of an independence referendum, to disappearing audiences and revenues.
This is the backdrop to Leveson, the Scottish ‘expert’ response (the McCluskey report), and the debate so far.
Twenty years ago, the atmosphere was completely different, filled with the air of self-congratulation and smugness of everything being labeled ‘Scottish’ and the press defined by ‘Real Scots Read the Record’ versus ‘Rise Now and Be a Nation’ ‘Scottish Sun’.
How things change as Alex Massie’s poignant lament for a world slowly withering made clear. As he also pointed out, parts of the Scottish press with their limited, dwindling resources have been trying their best to do a decent job, unnoticed by large parts of their potential audience.
Yet there are many siren, certain voices who revel in the current situation. The most prevalent strand is that of a nationalist viewpoint who feel independence has not historically and still does not get a fair deal, from what has been until recent decades, a liberal unionist press. This allows them to embrace a rather unattractive schadenfreude and talk of the demise of a declining, failed industry.
Then there was Alex Salmond trying to get on the act post-Leveson with his Lord McCluskey led ‘expert group’ on the media which managed to contain not one current journalist or media practitioner (but room for one former journalist and one former columnist). It seemed to be motivated by that good Scottish trait of being seen to do something, and in producing something in haste (unlike Leveson’s £6 million), has managed to produce a set of ill-focused, dangerous recommendations.
Ruth Wishart, one of the said ‘experts’ in a rare piece in defence of the report and her own handiwork, claimed in ‘The Scotsman’ that it had produced ‘workable proposals’ of ‘universal jurisdiction’ based upon ‘no opting in or out’ which would entail ‘all news related publishers being bound by the codes drawn up by an industry-related regulatory body’. This wouldn’t, Wishart reassured us, involve ‘licensing the press’, but would include practically every printed word, in traditional media, and as she quaintly called it ‘the ubiquitous use of social media’.
This is the sort of second-rate thinking we have had to put up time and again with devolution. Labour place people who knew nothing about a subject deliberately avoiding the issues, or worse, as here, not understanding the consequences of what they were saying. And sadly it still continues with the same people under the SNP. Land reform ‘expert’ groups led by the constantly moving stage figures of ‘civic Scotland’; early years intervention ‘expert’ groups led by former government ministers to disguise that part of Scotland prefers talk to action.
As a side issue when did it become part of the informal Scottish constitution that Ruth Wishart has to be on everything? I mean (and I am carefully using Wishart here as a metaphor) she was on the Christie Commission – as a leading expert on public sector reform. She wrote the Creative Scotland Board papers which contributed to Andrew Dixon’s resignation as CEO. And when I went to see the National Theatre of Scotland’s play ‘Enquirer’ last year based on the demise of Fleet Street and the old media world, one of the three journos who interviewed old hacks was a certain Ruth! This was also a play which included the gem of one old player openly admitting he again and again broke the law in Scotland, which it just wasted.
Am I alone in thinking that one of Donald Dewar’s greatest cheerleaders is with her belated conversion to independence – not exactly one of the best arguments for a ‘Yes’ vote? What she (metaphorically of course) represents is ‘settled will’ complacent liberal elite Scotland – sure that under independence they will continue to keep their feet comfortably under the table. Doubts may exist with those fringe things like EU and NATO membership and the nature of the currency, but Ruth Wishart continues to sleep comfortably at night knowing that her ‘expert’ services will be in demand independence or not.
I am trying to make a wider point in this. There is a generational gridlock in Scotland, evident in the post-war political commentariat. They have told themselves a ‘Baby Boomer’ conceited, self-referential, self-interested story of modern Scotland, and many of us have bought it. It has run along the lines of: wasn’t the post-war welfare state something which made us proud, then along came that nasty Thatcherism stealing and privatising our scones, and even worse, Blairism, with its disappointments, betrayals and war. It is a Scottish version of Ken Loach’s ‘Spirit of 45’ and has as much wrong with it.
This Scottish account has posed that it doesn’t like the way the world is going (not a bad position to take), but believes our best future is in romanticising and returning to the past. A significant part of the Scottish debate, whether SNP or Labour, pro, anti or agnostic on independence, is motivated by this yearning for turning the clock back to a world of certainty and order.
We cannot go back to the Scotland of 1945-75, the land of this elite’s childhood hopes and safety. The world is a more fluid, disordered and fast-changing environment. And our complacent social democracy, the people’s democracy of institutional Scotland, isn’t going to be adequate to protect our most vulnerable, when we can’t have a debate about OAP free bus passes. Or realise that such debates on either side are actually as much of public Scotland is, chimeras, which stop us debating substance and depth on how we could make our public services champions of social justice.
Leveson and McCluskey have raised a lot of fundamental questions, and I don’t mean the fascinating question of how you have a Royal Charter post-devolution, underpinned in English legislation, and the tricky issue of ‘punitive damages’ in Scots law.
First, there are the massive issues about what is meant by the term ‘free press’ in the context of modern day Britain. What would a free press look like, in what way would it be different from today, and what vested interests would have to be taken on to make this possible?
The term ‘free press’ was invented in its current meaning in mid-Victorian Britain, and it is a myth and distortion of the English language to disguise the ownership and patronage of press ownership. It has its roots in the abolition of the advertising, stamp and press duties between 1853-61, the ‘taxes on knowledge’, and the invention of a Whig history of the ‘free press’ as part of the British story of liberty. Maybe we could start by acknowledging that.
Second, the distortions, political evasions and collusion in the increasing concentrations of media and press ownership in the UK have to be addressed. It is because the British political classes for 30 years refused to act in these areas, that they now want to act on Leveson and a Royal Charter.
A free press implies certain dynamics of competition, pluralism and choice; not the craven acts of a cowardly political class who didn’t refer Murdoch to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission 30 years ago, and who were within a hair’s breath of giving Murdoch complete control of BSKyB. The entire class: Thatcher, Blair, Brown, Cameron and Salmond have been at this.
Finally, a corrupted media is about something deeper and far more worrying: a crony, manipulated, near-monopoly capitalism, and with it a shrunken, truncated democracy. That has been the reality of Britain these last few decades, and the realm in which all political discussion and choices have been made.
Scotland for all its progressive credentials and telling ourselves how different we are from the rotten state of Ukania, hasn’t been as different as we like to pretend. We haven’t asked ourselves difficult questions which challenge our own comfort zones, and across our public life we have seen scandals and abuses of power arise, RBS, the Catholic Church, Rangers FC, without much collective soul searching.
Crony capitalism affects and shapes us too; maybe not a very dynamic capitalism, but we do well on the crony aspect. And for this state of affairs to continue the system needs willing, credible cronies to do its biding. One healthy by-product of recent events, is that the actions of Lord McCluskey and Ruth Wishart, have just made all of that a little harder to maintain.