Pete Martin: Newspapers united on the referendum

Scotland's newspapers speak with a disappointing consistency, according to Pete Martin. Picture: TSPL
Scotland's newspapers speak with a disappointing consistency, according to Pete Martin. Picture: TSPL
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THE mainstream press don’t usually speak with a single voice. But there is a disappointing unanimity on the most crucial question Scots have faced for years, writes Pete Martin

Newspaper men are meant to be cynics. And, lest we forget Rebekah Brooks – the former News International chief executive – so are newspaper women. She’s currently in the dock, along with David Cameron’s crony and former News of the World editor Andy Coulson. Allegedly, an entire cadre of aptly-named hacks peeped into celebrity lives and loves, and a little girl’s death: there have been accusations of breaking the laws on telecommunications; bribing public servants; door-stepping the bereaved; printing big lies and tiny retractions; using private dicks, malicious methods and public humiliations; all in a trade war just to sell papers.

Paradoxically, it’s old news, and hardly anyone can raise an eyebrow. The trial of Brooks et al trundles on, but the sour social fizz has been taken out of the story. Its headline-hogging allegations of corruption were overtaken by the even weirder high society shenanigans of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite adman, Charles Saatchi, and, lest we forget, former Tory chancellor Nigel Lawson’s daughter, TV coke … sorry cook, Nigella – a world in which nearly £700,000 could be considered too trivial to mention.

Scotland’s news organisations have been largely blameless in this bumper crop of misbehaviour from the rich and powerful, the socially and politically connected, the high Tories with low standards. Sadly, it’s possibly lack of cash and political clout rather than probity which has kept our own ink-stained wretches on the straight and narrow.

The waning sales and influence of Scotland’s traditional, tree-based media is plain for all to see. Circulation has been falling across every Scottish-based title by 10 to 20 per cent a year, for years.

Surprisingly, or perhaps tragically depending on your viewpoint, News International’s Scottish Sun is the most popular paper in Scotland. Despite dropping sales, the “Currant Bun” averages about 260,000 copies a day – outselling our own, indigenous red top, the Daily Record, by about 35,000 copies. In case you’re wondering, about ten times more people read the Scottish Sun than the paper you have in your hands right now.

If you’re reading online via or on the iPad app, you are browsing Scotland’s biggest online medium. You’re one of about 700,000 unique users a week, an increase of 50 per cent on the previous year. But, like many digital platforms, The Scotsman faces the classic online conundrum – how to turn readers into revenue.

But still, come on … we’re talking about newshounds here: hard-bitten, glass-chewing cynics who want to make sure the public gets what the public wants.

With dwindling readerships and financial problems aplenty, you’d think Scotland’s editors would stop at nothing, stoop to anything, to boost circulation. They would bend over for Satan, red hot poker in hand, for an extra sale.

Apparently not. There’s one sales ploy to which no Scottish-based title is prepared to sink. And that’s coming out in favour of Scottish independence.

I find that fascinating, and surprising. As yet, no mainstream Scottish medium clearly supports the Yes campaign.

Now, I’m not much of a nationalist and never have been, but the quality of the debate around the referendum continues to amaze me.

I’m amazed that – at a time of potentially seismic national change – there is so little diversity in our mainstream media. Naturally, the differing views within the debate are reported but, in the main, from a doubt-filled perspective. From open hostility to status quo “neutrality” (which is inevitably interpreted by indy supporters as a veiled pro-Union bias), the overwhelming impression is non-positive. Which, for all practical purposes, is the same as negative.

From a wider, historical perspective, the lack of mainstream media support is surprising too. Consider, for example, Ireland. Today, the Irish Independent is not dissimilar to The Scotsman. Both are former broadsheets turned compact, socially liberal if economically conservative. In bygone days, the Irish Independent was (as the name implies) a nationalist title, while the Irish Times was a pro-unionist paper. Guess which is Ireland’s best-selling newspaper today? The Irish Independent outsells the Irish Times by about 70 per cent. On a daily basis, “the Indo” sells about 120,000 copies – roughly four times the daily sale of The Scotsman. At the weekend, Ireland’s Sunday Independent sells about 250,000 copies, maybe five times the circulation of Scotland On Sunday.

So, given the sales struggles of our media, I’m even more amazed that no-one has considered the pro-indy position as a commercial opportunity. Perhaps, as an ad man to trade, I really am more cynical than any journalist. But imagine you were running a business. Year after year, you’ve seen sales fall. What would you do? (Bearing in mind that to keep doing the same thing and expecting something different to happen is a definition of madness.) You’d do something different, wouldn’t you? You’d strike out in a bold, new direction.

According to the International Futures Forum, you’d be bang on. Studies of people who find themselves in bad situations – accidents, plane crashes, ship wrecks, getting lost in the wilderness, failing business models – show that those who do nothing tend to perish. “Rule one for survivors: abandon the hope of rescue”.

There seems to be something about inaction that saps the human spirit and makes you unlucky. Imagine you are marooned on a desert island, eating coconuts. They’re all right. But, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, there’s no fun or future in it. From time to time, luck washes ashore a little cargo, and that gives you a lift. There’s assumed safety in passivity, so you sit and wait for help, and go slightly out of your mind. You begin to believe that your desert island is the only reality. Escape isn’t impossible, but the idea becomes unthinkable. Reasonable risks turn to sea-monsters in the mind.

You settle for that lonely life, crack open another coconut, and now you’re truly lost.

So why wouldn’t a Scottish newspaper make a bid to break free from the media pack? Could they win more custom by appealing to the purchasing power of the committed, passionate, pro-Yes contingent?

Maybe so. There are some 2.4 million households in Scotland. The top-selling title, the Scottish Sun, sells to just one in ten households, though you presume not many readers take it home. The Scotsman sells to, say, one in a hundred households.

Suppose 25-30 per cent of Scottish households support the Yes campaign. That’s about 750,000 homes – maybe 1.3 million potential voters/readers who might be interested in a pro-indy point of view. If just one in five Yes supporters made a point of buying a pro-indy paper, it could be Scotland’s best-selling title.

This won’t happen, of course. The Scottish Sun is the most likely candidate, having supported the SNP in past elections. But that looked like a marketing tactic simply to target the Daily Record’s left-leaning audience more than any genuine enthusiasm for Scottish nationalism. And, besides, you can’t really see the News International powers-that-be buying it.

The Scotsman could do it, just for a laugh and to put the cat among the pigeons, but it won’t – even though it would make worldwide news.

In the meantime, in default of delivery by traditional media, there’s a self-made digital publishing phenomenon happening in Scotland. From the fanzine style of WingsOverScotland, the work-in-progress of the Caledonian Mercury, the creativity of the National Collective, the bravura of BellaCaledonia and the sheer cool of AllOfUsFirst, new progressive thinking about Scotland’s future is bubbling up online.

It may be a sign of media weakness and an under-served market. But it’s also a sign of civic vitality. And that’s to be welcomed – whether you like the politics or not.

One day soon perhaps, one of our major media outlets will break ranks and make the #indyref debate more interesting. Until then, pass me a coconut, would you?