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Don’t hold your breath

January 4, 2011

Two pieces of news today energised my blogging head: strikes are imminent at the Herald newspaper, and the Scots based online opinion site Bellacaledonia announced out of the blue that it was ceasing to operate. Suddenly, the chilly winds of the nascent new year blew that bit colder.

I confess to being a bit of a sucker for newspapers: four on a Saturday and four on a Sunday, but this news is more than a personal concern. Likewise, there were also wider ramifications from the announcement that the opportunity for comment on the Scottish scene that was afforded by Bellacaledonia was closing down.

In Scotland, we are at a crucial time in the political life of the country. There is little doubt that we have the talent in business, politics, the arts, commerce and science to punch above our weight in the world. Equally clearly there are many in positions of power for whom the smothering of this talent is an urgent motivation. We have a Labour Party, formerly out of step with its southern headquarters, now putting more energy into rubbishing the SNP, and small countries worldwide, than attacking the privations of the Tory Government. The LibDems have jumped ship, betraying any pretensions to liberalism they ever had. Scotland holds its breath ahead of cuts and right wing business agendae, seemingly powerless to mount any kind of resistance to a future that appears to have little resonance in the country’s needs or political and social traditions. In the arts, commerce, sport and development, Scotland seems halted in its tracks, bereft of the power or inclination to take up the reins and face its own future.

The system can only change if people and politics are reunited. The obvious channel for this rebirth of philosophical and sociological engagement of the electorate with the body politic is the media. The country’s leading ‘broadsheets’ – The Scotsman and The Herald have a vital role to play.

For most of its history The Scotsman was a defining voice in the Scottish political scene. Operating from what could largely be described as a liberal centrist viewpoint, it made the case for Scotland, or at least a certain kind of Scotland, and served as an agitator and cradle for discussion, debate and reflection. Sadly, in the last few years a deterioration in journalistic standards (with some honourable exceptions), and an Andrew Neil inspired lurch into a right wing no-man’s land under the Barclays, have left it, and its declining readership, more and more irrelevant to the political scene.

The Herald, though not what it was, had seemed to pick up the baton and produced some excellent journalism and contributions to the national debate. The Sunday Herald, in particular, could almost be guaranteed to produce interesting and well researched pieces. You didn’t have to agree with the opinions or the angle from which they were written, but they encouraged thought, debate, and engagement with the important issues of the day. The paper had a pleasant feel and was well produced, even if the colour mag eventually was reduced to two pieces and advertising.

At their best, Scotland’s national newspapers, along with the P and J and the Courier, provided a repository for what was important in Scottish political life, informed the readers, and got them thinking. There was, if you like, a venue for discussion and debate.

With the advent of the internet, bloggers were able to add to this, and, to some extent, make up for the woeful deficit in the area that was presented by BBC Scotland and commercial television north of the border. As more and more people seem to judge what is worth attention by its appearance and importance in the media, the renaissance of a Scottish Parliament and the developing technical opportunities for locally based broadcasting should have been a godsend for the political classes.

Sadly, it hasn’t worked out that way. The major broadsheets are controlled by interests who do not have the political health of Scotland as a priority, and, as we now know, journalists and local management have had to fight tooth and nail for every morsel of integrity that is still present. The redtops, again controlled from outside Scotland, are reduced to scandal sheets filled with puffs for related television shows. They are only interested in visiting the political arena when they sense a hint of scandal. Sites like Bellacaledonia depend overmuch on the willingness of volunteers and are stymied by the establishment media’s fear of competition.

As a result, we can’t be surprised that political debate in Scotland is largely confined to the political classes, and that those who are most affected by the decisions made in Holyrood and Westminster, are hard pressed to find reliable and detailed information, and even less inclined to take an interest.

In the aftermath of the clear failure of the financial and political establishment to look out for the needs of those for whom they were responsible, you would think it was the perfect time for action. What an opportunity for a genuinely pioneering, crusading media: to rally the country together, articulate the fears and concerns of the ordinary Scot, and lead the way in forming an energised, radical, and informed political movement for the good of all our citizens; dailies that inform and report with bravery and accuracy; Sundays that expose, question, and stir debate; bloggers who interact, react and agitate. The vacuum is there to be filled, the people deserve it, the journalists can do it, and politics is desperate for it.

Don’t hold your breath.

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