The world has been turned upside down these last few days. There have been elements of an old-fashioned morality play and Citizen Kane all rolled into one.
The Whig history of the British press has become one of the accepted accounts of the UK: of how, through Victorian times, it aided liberty and literacy and, once press taxation was repealed in 1853-61, came into its own. Whig history is constantly invoked to oppose change: the power of advertising rather than state control seen in its role in the death of the ‘News of the World’, and the supposed perils of regulation.
The argument goes: you may not like the British press, they may not be pretty or well-behaved, but they challenge power and expose wrong-doing. This argument doesn’t hold up. The British media, and most crucially News International, is an integral part of the British establishment. The light of investigation they choose to shine is never into the heart of the system, but on badly-behaved footballers, loose royals and people on the make. And as we now know, some of the most vulnerable people we can conceivably imagine.
All of this raises the question of media and press regulation at a UK and Scottish level. Self-regulation, with the press and Press Complaint’s Commission (PCC) doesn’t work, as it didn’t with banks, politicians and every interest group you care to mention.
Scotland inhabits a different media space to the rest of the UK, one that is different and distinct but not fully autonomous. In this, it mirrors the emerging Scottish political environment which sits within the UK and shares power and sovereignty.
The SNP recently produced the Scottish Broadcasting Commission which made the case for a separate Scottish digital channel. It didn’t address the issue of a wider Scottish digital culture, nor that for years and years we have had little thinking and interventions on the future of the Scottish media.
There is a case for seeing the ensuing crisis as a major opportunity to strike out and make the case for a more distinct Scottish media sphere, one more regulated and administered north of the border. This would include thinking about how we regulate the Scottish print media.
There would be lots of challenges in this. How would it work when many titles are cross-border, and basically English with a ‘kilt around them’? How would ‘The Times’, the ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘Daily Telegraph’ adapt? How would any relevant body be funded in an age where the Scottish print media is increasingly threadbare, resource-wise?
Maybe we could begin to think strategically about the Scottish media as part of our public sphere and what makes Scotland unique and special. Perhaps we could look at the idea of a Scottish Ofcom which combines TV, radio and print media regulation with overseeing the role of internet resources? Or we could consider a separate Press Council like the Irish model which deals with the issue of English titles such as the Times and Mail?
While broadcasting is a reserved matter we have it in our power to create our own Scottish Press Council. This could be brought together by the print media, involving editors, journalists and public. It would be a powerful signal in this crisis, and would perhaps be one way a media which has in parts lost its way, undermined by lack of resources, could begin a way back, beginning with finding and charting a moral course.
This could be seen as a start in developing a different Scottish approach. Few people think the PCC has worked, while many are critical of the role of Ofcom, caught between the industry and government. And we need to have a wider public debate which addresses the long-term role of the BBC and STV north of the border, neither of whom are above criticism in terms of their role and content.
The News International scandal is part of a much deeper, chiasmic crisis about the traditional British way of doing things and how self-regulation became a front for the spiv, dealer culture of the wide boys and girls – whether in banks, politicians or media.
It isn’t an accident that this is the third seismic scandal in as many years to hit Britain. First, there were the banks, then the political classes and their expenses, and now the media. This is related to what the British state, political classes and wider public culture have morphed into these last few decades. This is one which exists for the benefit of advocates and apologists for the narrow global class of winners who exist and inhabit UK plc, London and the South East.
All of this seems to make the case for greater Scottish self-government even more strong and urgent, and reform of every part of the rotten British state needing to be even more fundamental and far-reaching.
A Scottish move towards a more autonomous, modern regulatory framework across all our media – or, more realistically, starting with our print media – would be a powerful signal, practically and on a wider field.
Importantly, it would signal the beginning of the end of the old boy’s gentleman’s club which used to run Britain like a private men’s club. Long ago, that stopped working, to be replaced by a system where the old checks and balances didn’t work, but no new system of rules had been worked out.
It would begin to develop a distinct Scottish media sphere, part of a world which moves to a different beat from Westminster and Wapping, We could begin to look at different models of regulation, ownership and financing.
The moral debris of the Murdoch News International scandal is going to go on for years. We now know this is part of a wider culture at the heart of the British state and public life of wrong-doing across numerous walks of life. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we could take a stand against this which contributed to its end, and took us on a very different path?
Gerry Hassan is a writer and commentator on Scottish and UK politics and author and editor of over a dozen books, the latest of which is Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination. This is a shorter version of an article that first appeared in The Scotsman, on Saturday.