Robin McAlpine: The time is now for Scotland’s new media to flourish


Get your ticket HERE for the CommonSpace launch party on Sunday 21 June in the Art School, Glasgow

By Robin McAlpine

Freedom of speech is important. Looking back I’ve spent so many long arguments about the limits of free speech, when censorship is wrong and when preventing the expression of abhorrent views may be necessary. And I’ve concluded I’m very liberal on free speech – but that it is also a bit of a trap.

I became increasingly convinced that ‘free speech’ had morphed into one of those other free market freedoms (the freedom to own a private jet, the freedom to live in on a country estate, the freedom to vote for one of two political parties). Imagine the perfect expression of free speech in a free market economy.

It would involve a big building in which you could book a soundproofed room (from a multinational service company naturally) in which you could say absolutely anything you wanted as loud as you wanted for all of your alotted time. When you came back out again, Rupert Murdoch would still own all the newspapers and the BBC would still be running its five-year campaign to persuade us that the First World War was really an unfortunate necessity (though it is a real shame those young men died of course).

“I came to the opinion that the freedom to hear is just as important as the freedom to speak.”

I came to the opinion that the freedom to hear is just as important as the freedom to speak. And that is where the concept of freedom breaks down. Real freedom would not just be our opportunity to say whatever pops into our heads at any moment but to be exposed to a wide range of different ideas, analyses and facts (because, Douglas Alexander, facts are not monolithic and often contradict each other). Once we had access to all those different opinions, ideas and facts, our own freedom of speech would be a richer, more exciting prospect.

If you doubt this is true, look at what happened in the referendum campaign. While I am cautious of what is necessarily a degree of generalisation, the social groups most likely to gather facts and ideas from sources owned by corporations (corporations which did not want independence) were the social groups most likely to vote No.

The social groups more likely to gather information from a range of sources (mainly through social media and the web) were much more likely to vote Yes.

In the Douglas Alexander version of things, this is because the corporations (working with the treasury, the military, the right wing think tanks, the Foregone Office and the banks) are always right and the internet, those who don’t have lots and lots of money and the majority of citizens are simply wrong.

So voting Yes was a result of failing to believe corporate facts and instead believing propaganda from non-corporate sources. Holding this belief is, in turn, why Douglas Alexander doesn’t have a job.

“In the Douglas Alexander version of things the corporations are always right and the internet, those who don’t have lots and lots of money and the majority of citizens, are simply wrong.”

This patrician, post-war belief in the supplicancy of the people before the facts of the establishment is almost certainly over. Our trust in government and the media is in free-fall (at least in relation to our attitudes in the post-war decades).

The economic model of the mainstream media is in crisis. And I fear that many journalists are deprofessionalising their profession (name me another profession in which the professionals concerned tweet contemptuous, personalised comments about their day job for anyone to read – imagine doctors, lawyers or teachers who ran continuous public commentary about their opinions of their patients, clients and pupils).

So the old order is dying – but it is not obvious that the new order has really been born. I am only guessing, but I suspect the future is going to see the curatorial role of the media declining rapidly, leaving their primary role being content generation.

I suspect we’ll get our news via social media where we and others will pick and choose between a wide range of journalistic content, curating our own cocktail of information about the world.

Sure we’ll still read content produced by the Scotsman, the Herald, the BBC and so on. But we’ll take as much from smaller sources – independent journalism, blogs, international news sources.

I think this will be the era of jigsaw news. What I don’t know is from where all the pieces of the jigsaw will come. We are, of course, richly served in Scotland with many, many great blogs and alternative media sites.

At the risk of mentioning only two, I have relied so heavily over the last few years on the analysis and monitoring that Stuart Campbell has produced on Wings Over Scotland and the amazing array of stimulating ideas that Mike Small has pulled together on Bella Caledonia.

“So the old order is dying – but it is not obvious that the new order has really been born.”

But if we’re really going to see a truly diverse and plural jigsaw media we need alternative sources of news reporting as well. Properly reporting news is time-consuming and often boring – poor Liam O’Hare of CommonSpace once spent a week phoning every local authority in Scotland to badger them for information on how many public toilets they are planning to close.

You can’t really do it in your spare time and you probably wouldn’t even if you could. You really do need to employ journalists.

That is precisely why almost exactly a year ago at the Festival of Common Weal I suggested that Common Weal might use its critical mass to try and raise enough money to employ journalists and run a news service.

Thus was CommonSpace born, under editor Angela Haggerty. What Angela and the team have achieved is, I think, quite amazing. With tiny resources they’re posting well over a dozen properly researched and written news stories a day – as well as having columnists and linking to the best of the content elsewhere on the web.

We get over 200,000 readers a month now. (And can I, as always, make the plea that we haven’t yet raised enough recurring income to fully pay the team and so if you do want alternative news reporting and you want it to be sustainable then you really should consider supporting CommonSpace with a small, regular donation).

“What next? For CommonSpace we have many ambitious plans.”

What next? For CommonSpace we have many ambitious plans. We’re going to introduce new ‘channels’ to give us a space for magazine-style content, more humour and a proper events listing. We’re not far away from launching our full social media service (to help activists organise and share information). And we’ve kicked off a project to build a plan for a proper broadcast service producing original TV and film content.

And what next for the media? If we’re not buying a single newspaper which we trust to assemble all our news for us on our behalf, then something different will have to happen. I suspect that CommonSpace may actually be a model that is replicated by others quite soon. We fund journalism not by producing a physical product that you can buy to read on the train but by creating a community of people who want a particular approach to news and, by them sustaining it through donations, supporting content that can be spread widely. Perhaps we’ll see a dozen similar initiatives coming at news reporting from different angles, all providing content from which we can then build up our own news jigsaws.

If we did, if it became easy and normal to do this, then finally we might just possibly have a media model which enables us to have real freedom of hearing, a real exposure to plurality and diversity. After all, surely that is a necessary foundation for a properly functioning democracy.

So you can wait for that new bold future to arrive. Or you could come along to our CommonSpace launch party on Sunday where loads and loads of people in new and alternative media in Scotland are coming together to talk to you about what future they want to see. It’s an exciting and interesting programme with lots to do. And some free beer too.

Picture courtesy of CommonSpace