The media supplement of The Guardian recently published its selection of the Top 100 movers and shakers in the UK media. Only two Scots featured in the list: Lord (Stephen) Carter – successively chief executive of the media regulator Ofcom, Gordon Brown’s strategy adviser, and now the outgoing Communications Minister – and Armando Ianucci, originator and scriptwriter of political satires, In the Thick of It, and its film spin-off, In the Loop.
Carter’s entire career has been in London and Ianucci hasn’t been based in Scotland for a decade and a half. No home-based Scot appears – not Blair Jenkins of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, nor BBC Trustee for Scotland, Jeremy Peat; no-one from the Scottish video games industry, no Scottish newspaper editor or advertising chief executive, no Scotland-based internet innovator, no pace-setting Scottish columnist or presenter.
It is tempting to attribute the absence of home-based Scots to The Guardian’s assimilation into metropolitan culture since finally abandoning its native Manchester base and title nearly three decades ago. But that would be a mistake. The root cause is that the Scottish media are in such a weakened state that they simply cannot support figures of the weight needed to push into a UK top 100 list.
The decline of the Scottish media is most evident in the halving in the sales of both the popular Daily Record and the quality Scotsman and Herald over the last 15 years and the associated relentless cuts in staffing.
The threat to Scotland’s local papers has recently attracted the attention of the Scottish Parliament. There has been less public comment on the equally dramatic decline in Scottish commercial television. The state of Scottish public service broadcasting has received more attention, mainly from the creation by the Scottish Government of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission under the chairmanship of Jenkins. The absence of any significant Scottish internet forum on the lines of Guardian Unlimited or OpenDemocracy went virtually without comment until the Jenkins Commission.
Solutions to the problems of Scotland’s printed media are hard to identify in the middle of a recession which has decimated national and local advertising revenues. Reflecting recently on a further six per cent fall in Scottish newspaper circulation last year, all Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee could suggest was the reversal of the Scottish and local government policy of transferring more of their advertising to the internet at an estimated loss to Scottish papers of around £10million a year.
Changes to the tax base of newspaper production might be more to the point.
More radical suggestions have included a merger of at least the production facilities of The Herald and The Scotsman, ideally through a Scottish version of the Scott Trust which supports the Guardian and Observer. But in a Scotland which, despite North Sea oil, is chronically short of capital for long-term investment, that would need a miracle.
Thanks to the Jenkins Commission the debate about the future of Scottish public broadcasting is more advanced. But action stills lag far behind.
Recent BBC commitments to increase Scottish production for the network are welcome but – as the BBC’s own Audience Council for Scotland comments in BBC Scotland’s 2008/9 Report – on far too leisurely a timetable. (The UK BBC’s Report carries a table showing a decline in Scotland’s share of BBC staff from eight per cent in 2007/8 to just six per cent last year).
As Jenkins has pointed out, the transfer of the production of Question Time and the Weakest Link to Scotland – over David Dimbleby’s dead body? – is no substitute for the organic development of a Scottish Digital Network (SDN) spanning broadcasting and the internet and capable of meeting Scotland’s democratic, cultural and economic needs in the new century.
But broadcasting remains a reserved function and the Unionist perspective leaves little space for such Scottish ambitions. Calman referenced the Jenkins report without any significant comment. Lord Carter’s Digital Britain report omits any discussion of the SDN.
As far as this writer is aware, none of the comment on Digital Britain in the London media even acknowledged the SDN as an option for ensuring competition for the BBC’s near monopoly of public service broadcasting.
The contribution of Unionist MSPs was to challenge the Scottish Government to commit Scottish funds even though broadcasting is a reserved function and the Parliament had voted unanimously in favour of Jenkins’ recommendations including options for funding from existing or potential UK broadcasting resources.
As so often, London indifference matched by Scottish fudge and funk.
This article first appeared on the website of the Scottish Independence Convention. Here.
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