Here is something curious. At the end of a detailed report on The Daily Business about the Herald & Times leaving their Glasgow office due to financial concerns, it ended with this sentence from the Scottish Government: “We are in discussion with the newspaper industry as we continue to explore how best to support businesses during this immensely challenging period.”
Really? As far as I’m aware, this is a first. The Scottish Government has assiduously ignored the issue of state funding and the media for the understandable (yet unsustainable) reason that it wants to keep its nose out of a sensitive area. But the pandemic is changing many things, and apparently it has been the tipping point for the Scottish Government to enter talks about financial support for an industry that has been in peril for over a decade.
The Scottish Tories called for government support at the start of the month, with the party’s finance spokesperson Donald Cameron proposing a 100 per cent business rates relief, more government advertising in papers and to look at following Denmark in setting up a £25 million media fund.
An interesting set of proposals, but we should have reason to be wary. First of all, it’s not the journalists that get the bailout, it’s the owners. Who is to say a government bailout would lead Newsquest, owners of Herald & Times (which titles include The National and The Herald), to break the habit of a lifetime and use the money to fund journalism, and not just bank it as profits as they continue to cut back to the absolute bare bones? As Michael Gray, journalist at new media site Skotia, pointed out: “Employee numbers were cut from 862 to 392 between 2005 to 2016 at the Herald & Times. Meanwhile from 2014-16 the group’s owners made £25m in post-tax profits.”
Second, at a time when it’s more important than ever to hold the government to account, do we want corporate owners obsessed with the financial bottom-line to have a commercial incentive to soften their editorial line? Some might think that could be a good thing in a Scottish newspaper scene still dominated by titles hostile to Scottish independence, but there’s a crucial difference between a media with diverse perspectives and a media with incentives to be compliant on crunch issues. Frankly, talks between the Scottish Government and newspapers about money right now raises alarm bells in itself.
Let’s not pretend financial strings can’t have a chilling effect on criticism. Devi Sridhar, chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh and one of the sharpest critics of government in this crisis, said on Saturday that “fear of losing grant income is [a] key factor” in why more public health academics in the UK didn’t speak out at the early stages of this crisis.
“Those of us who have been speaking out know it’s going to be very hard to bring in grant money now,” she added.
Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear backed up the idea that scientists were anxious about being forthright, responding to Sridhar by saying: “Almost all scientists briefing on background disagreed fundamentally with herd immunity and the lockdown delay; but almost none in a senior position would go on the record. Many who disagreed privately towed the line in public. Unravelling this dysfunction can’t happen quick enough.”
Sridhar then tweeted last night: “Getting in trouble for my tweets – so taking a break for a while to share baking recipes and cat videos, hopefully that will be more acceptable.”
This was probably meant in a light-hearted tone, but it does highlight the institutional pressure that comes on people, who should be in a position to express their views openly and honestly, to keep quiet. It is a stultifying conformity that should have no place in universities, and neither should it in the media. Scotland needs its journalists and academics to be free to rebel.
The solution isn’t to rehearse tired slogans about “freedom of the press” and continue with a model not fit for the digital age. Tribune has just published a piece from an anonymous journalist working for a major UK title, and their story of just how awful the ‘churnalism’ culture has got and how terrible the working conditions are is a must read. If journalists aren’t free, there is no freedom of the press. And while the media industry has always had a problem with who owns it (and thus sets the editorial line), the Saudi state’s part ownership of the Evening Standard and The Independent takes that threat to a whole new level. There absolutely is a role for regulation in a UK media which is coming under the influence of foreign states.
The answer is not for government to prop-up the owners of a broken newspaper model, but to treat the need for challenging, non-conformist journalism – free of malign corporate and state influence – like the cultural necessity it is. At the end of the day though, we can’t expect governments to support non-conformity; that’s almost a contradiction in terms. The non-conformists have to start the fire themselves.
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