Robin Mcalpine: Scotland is in desperate need of good journalism – this is how we can have it

Common Weal Versus the Virus: The virus is exposing the reality of the weaknesses in our economy, society and democracy. Over the last six years Common Weal has been showing that the weaknesses can all be fixed. Over the next few weeks Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine will write a series of columns showing how Common […]

Common Weal Versus the Virus: The virus is exposing the reality of the weaknesses in our economy, society and democracy. Over the last six years Common Weal has been showing that the weaknesses can all be fixed. Over the next few weeks Common Weal Director Robin McAlpine will write a series of columns showing how Common Weal policy is the best way to survive this virus and then rebuild when its over. Today – Scotland’s media

Squaring up my fundamental and principled belief that good journalism is crucial to democracy with the reality of the media we have is difficult. What we have is a mess and it fails its democratic responsibility, partly through ideology, partly through underinvestment.

I don’t want our media to fail – but I am deeply unenthusiastic about it succeeding. So what to do? Here I want to argue that if only we could understand the difference between journalism and newspapers there is a really vibrant solution that would serve Scotland well.

First, what’s the problem?

I’m writing this the day after publication of another in the burgeoning sub-genre of ‘high unionists explain the independence movement’; in this case David Leask again managing not to understand what’s going on.

(Note to the Herald Editor; if you want us to take your reporting seriously perhaps don’t give the job of analysing the independence movement to someone who was caught red-handed informing on members of the indy movement to shady secret service propaganda outfits to help them undermine the cause.)

This piece was symptomatic of everything that is wrong with journalism in Scotland. First, it was littered with the errors and massive omissions which come from covering big stories with small resources. I think I counted no more than three or four sources for the whole piece. That isn’t even nearly reporting.

Second it was in the place where proper news should be. At a time when Scotland looks like it might well have the highest virus death toll in care homes of any developed nation, and at a time when the UK media is belatedly realising it should have asked some bloody questions about the UK response to the virus from the start, Scotland’s media seems uninterested in investigating.

(Again, a hint to Scotland’s media if it is helpful – when a politician tells you they were ‘just following the advice’, immediately and without fail ask when we can expect that advice to be published for scrutiny. I mean, you wouldn’t just take their word for it, would you?)

Finally, the piece is not journalism but activism. I’ve written already on how unionist media figures are trying desperately to prevent any policy or strategy change in the SNP and the Scottish Government. This is unionism trying to create its own future.

If you pick a ‘Scot with average political views’, Scotland’s media is wildly to the right of them and miles away from them on the spectrum of views on independence. The media does not reflect the reality of Scotland.

Running on loose change, clueless about what really matters and totally obsessed with pursuing ideological agendas above all else, it’s hard to make a case for the media we have

But why is this happening?

Scotland has some really bad journalists – but this noisy cluster (you may know them from the Twitter-sphere) don’t represent Scottish journalism.

Scotland has an excellent tradition of journalism, many good journalists and many of the most eminent media figures in the UK started in Scotland. The problem is most certainly not the journalists. It’s not even the editors. It’s the ethos, the very ideology of journalism itself.

Media is pretty well the only sector of public life that gets to judge itself (the first rule of media club is you don’t criticise media club). The ‘official narrative’ is that these are tireless warriors for the truth, fighting corrupt politicians and greedy fat cats on behalf of democracy.

It still maintains this high-minded self-promotion even as it chases footballers wives round the country for ‘candid’ up-skirt photos. It ‘self regulates’ like the mafia self regulates; the IPCC is an actual joke and everyone knows it.

(For your information, Common Weal’s Source chose to subject itself to the much, much more rigorous regulation of the genuinely independent Impress, an initiative which, like Leveson, the entire newspaper industry as one has tried to destroy.)

The problem is ideology. Like second amendment gun nuts in the US, they really believe that the foundation for human society is their rights. The media is ‘free’ – or we live in tyranny.

The problem is their definition of free. I mean, editors are free to ignore whatever they want but owning newspapers is an expensive business and most proprietors are in it for influence rather than money.

They don’t believe they have to answer to anyone, they don’t believe they should be regulated, they don’t believe there should ever be any consequences of failure, they believe they are fair and high-minded when they know they bend content round commercial advertisers and they chase clicks and call it democracy.

The fundamental problem is ‘freedom of the press’. That is explicitly not free journalism, that’s the freedom to buy up the means of deciding what journalism the public gets to see – and what journalism the public doesn’t get to see. From that single false belief, all else follows.

Democracy needs freedom to hear

There is actually a much better way to frame the democratic imperative of journalism. It isn’t about powerful people having the right to print, it’s about ordinary people having the right to be exposed to broad-based and accurate information.

Everyone goes on and on about freedom of speech; but the freedom to hear is equally important. A bunch of bully boys using their wealth to shout over the top of everyone else isn’t democracy. 

If you can’t hear the questions you have about your society being asked and answered in print, something isn’t working. If you never see news analysis which reflects your political opinions, something isn’t working. But if you ONLY see news analysis which reflects your own opinions, something isn’t working.

If we’re going to have a plural democracy (and please god can we have a plural democracy) it needs a plurality of journalism. Scotland does not have that.

Journalists are servants – but professionally so

Many of you won’t have much interaction with journalists. I’ve worked closely with them my whole life (I was one for a while) and it introduced me to many great people over the years. But they have a lot of power and a lot of control and they know it.

They will never, ever say it in public (the first rule of media club…) but in private they roll their eyes at the blatantly obvious agendas their colleagues pursue. They talk in public about providing a democratic service, but they know how hollow the claim is.

It would do great service to Scotland if journalists approached their jobs with the modesty and commitment to service of a nurse, not the swagger of celebrity.

Which takes me to another bug bear – in which other profession is it acceptable to make snide comments on Twitter about people you work with? Imagine a doctor tweeted out every embarrassing case that crossed their desk – just for lols. 

Why oh why oh why do journalists think it is acceptable even to be on Twitter professionally? They have all told each other it is part of the job, but it is no such thing. Their ‘we need to grow our audience’ schtick is for the marketing department. You need to be trusted, not famous.

It’s about journalism, not newspapers

Let’s put this together. We start (I presume) with the shared assumption that journalism really is essential to a democracy by at least putting a doubt in the minds of powerful people that they might be held to account.

Then we add in that journalism is a public service which should help to expose the public to a wide range of accurate information which they trust and we’re just about there without hitting any controversy.

Because if we then look at the real-world context (collapsing newsprint sales, difficulty of monetising online news, the finite limits of advertising) you start to come to a conclusion.

The conclusion is that journalism is essential – but newspapers aren’t. Most of the distorting impacts identified here come not from journalism but from the ownership of journalism platforms (which previously meant newspapers).

In fact, if we could have journalism without newspapers it might well be a good thing. I’m not arguing against newspapers, I’m arguing against the democratic imperative of newspapers. It’s like the difference between farmers and supermarkets – one we need, the other we could live without.

And we might need to – Scotland’s media was in a perilous state pre-virus and now no-one pretends they can survive without public subsidy. A media wholly beholden to its government is a scary thought.

So let’s create public journalism

There is another way we could go with this – fund journalism. That’s what I want to propose. It’s not that tricky; let’s set up a national news agency and employ say 100 journalists. For anyone who doesn’t know, a news agency is a company that produces a broad base of news stories (often in bare-bones form) which it then sells to newspapers. This is how newspapers keep broad coverage.

This news agency would pay a decent professional salary to the journalists and they would do their job with security and without explicit ideological editorial pressure. They would provide that broad and accurate information we need – it’s not that hard, just take out the endless editorialising.

(Seriously, it’s really not that hard to write unbiased news – just stick to the facts, seek a balanced range of comments and avoid all tendencies to start offering your own opinions. Who-what-where-when-how – and then a diverse range of other people offering views on why.)

There would need to be management of overlap and to ensure everything was being covered. There would be specialism – a return to subject correspondents. And there would be an editorial team, not deciding what is and isn’t news but rather ensuring subject coverage and preventing duplication.

The whole system would then be driven by the prestige conferred by the quality of work. By not rewarding journalists for clicks, their status would be based on the quality of what they write. This in itself would drive up standards.

The real power lies in what comes next

What is really powerful in this model is what it enables. A load of non-curated news stories in a long list isn’t necessarily providing information in a useable way for citizens; it is here that curation can come in.

Because this news agency would then be a pretty direct subsidy to newspapers. It would do the bulk of the core reporting and newspapers would become ‘adapters’ of copy – curating, adding, embellishing, illustrating, mixing ideology back in.

The news agency creates the story, the newspapers take those bones and flesh them out. If there is a story about a financial scandal, the news agency can report the facts. Then the Mail can see what Piers Morgan thinks about it, the Herald can check the initial thoughts of Alison Rowat, the Daily Record can tell the story through the lens of the cast of Still Game and the Guardian can get the hot take from Sophie Waller-Bridge (obviously).

But the stuff that matters that these outlets don’t value or rate is still there. And it massively lowers the bar for new entrants.

In fact, imagine a ‘Public Journalism’ website where you could get all the unadorned stories but you could also choose from or subscribe to a good range of curated online news services. Here you could sign up to a regular payment to the Record, the Herald or the Guardian.

But a very modest small grant scheme could mean that many new online services could be established, reporting news from a very particular angle or specialising (an entire publication of environmental-related news perhaps). It would only take a very small team to turn the free content into a proper news service.

You get three things. You get the reporting dry, you get the old-guard supported to do what they do, and you make it easy for a new generation to come in and start achieving the diversity and range we so sorely lack.

And this would all benefit from the public journalists being told to act like damned professionals by staying the hell away from bloody Twitter. (In fact, there is a good case from barring them from meeting each other and comparing notes, the source of the clumsy group-think of Scottish journalism).

Oh, and it goes without saying – no advertising within a country mile.

Now don’t let me pretend that news is ever uncontroversial

I made neutrality sound quite straightforward there. Of course it is no such thing. Mostly we can all agree on the who-what-when-where-how parts of a news story, but frankly that is often covered in the first paragraph. From there it’s choices – and those never lack the risk of bias.

So there would need to be strong governance procedures. That would have three layers. Layer one would be a code of practice enshrining the above principles in a much clearer and more systematic way than I have here. It would be a ‘neutrality style guide’. It should be crystal clear what is and is not acceptable.

Then this should be overseen and managed by an editorial panel. Not a single editor but a group which would seek strenuously to ensure that the principles were being met (while also ensuring breadth of coverage and lack of duplication as above).

And then on top of this would be governance of the whole thing. Most importantly, this must have the strongest possible firewalls to government and I’m tempted to suggest that the funding should be mandatory (so we don’t have the BBC bullying that is now routine in the UK).

What is needed is a broad, balanced and service-focused Editorial Board. This should be selected democratically but with steps in place to make sure of the diversity and balance, from left to right on the political spectrum.

The Board would then monitor output against principles and provide constant advice to the editorial team to make sure it is meeting its principles. I suggest that a separate and independent complaints committee should be established so that there is no conflict of interests.

Localism

And if our national media is in trouble, this is no longer the case for our local media. It’s already dead (unless you include beautiful baby competitions).

This is as big a worry – local authorities have about as much accountability as a medieval pope. They just aren’t scrutinised. I’d suggest that we need another 100 journalists so that at least three could cover each local authority area, and that is hardly generous. Local news is every bit as important as national news.

The results

In the morning you would wake up and click ‘publicnews.scot’ or whatever. There you would have the option of following free news services or subscribing to paid-for ones, and then you could chose how you want your news.

You could read your morning newspaper online like you do now, or you could browse two or three sources including some specialist sources you are particularly interested in, or you could set up various compilation criteria so you got a morning news list made up of what you actually want to read based on your own choices, or you could just browse the unadorned original content.

It would be truly up to you – a genuinely ‘free press’. It would bring revenue and in-kind subsidy to existing newspapers, enable a flurry of new start-ups and restore Scotland to being a nation which is properly and thoroughly reported.

To set this up, add in the local journalism and even give grants to say 20 or 30 new-starts, it would still only come to single-figure millions each year. That is not serious money in terms of the real democratic imperative.

Scotland deserves better journalism. So let’s invest in it – for the public good.

Up Next: the post-virus fight for a Green New Deal