John McLellan: Comedy Corbyn helps show why we love Edinburgh festival

Edinburgh's festivals are good for the city; where else can you see cracking comedians like Jeremy Corbyn, wonders John McLellan.

Jeremy Corbyns smash the media barons schtick has John McLellan in stitches (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell)

It’s the weekend for Edinburgh Festival clichés – ‘Festival to go out with a bang’, ‘City breathes again as curtain falls on Festival’, that sort of thing – and whether of contentment or blessed release, there is no doubt that after over a month of intense activity there is always a palpable sense of relief as the calendar ticks over into September.

The numbers won’t be known for a while, but around the High Street at least the crowds did seem deeper than in previous years, although that might be the effect of new performance areas and craft stalls.

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So too have the arguments about tourism and the impact on the city centre intensified, largely because of the city council’s SNP-Labour administration’s ambition to introduce a tourist tax and to limit short-term lets. It is therefore somewhat ironic that Airbnb came out this week in favour of the tautologous Transient Visitor Levy, although that looks like a defensive manoeuvre to redefine them as a revenue opportunity not a network for rogue landlords.

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The administration’s narrative is the rising influx of visitors is straining council services and, as budgets fall, new revenues are needed to cover the cost of keeping the city clean. Similarly, the demand for cheap accommodation encourages the conversion of city centre homes into holiday flats, commercial operators snap up new properties which never become permanent residences, so a crackdown is needed. Add to that the growing belief that Edinburgh has too many hotels and the danger is the whole tourism debate becomes framed as one of tackling a crisis not managing popular demand to maximise an opportunity. By extension, the conclusion will be that the success of the festivals is part of the problem.

It’s obviously not a view shared by Festivals Edinburgh director Julia Amour, whose job is to promote the extravaganza. Addressing councillors this week, she was at pains to point out the benefits, like generating £280m of economic impact for the city and supporting 5,660 full-time equivalent jobs, plus the fact that two-thirds of local people go to shows and three-quarters agree the festivals make Edinburgh a better place to live.

In a briefing document, she conceded that residents must feel comfortable with what is happening, but the difficulty is the majority of those happy survey respondents won’t live in the Old Town where the issues are at their most acute. The flip-side is the city’s policy towards tourism numbers, Airbnb and hotel volume might be driven by the experiences of Old Town residents in August who are likely to be the least content.

The reality, as Amour says, is that short-term letting would not be increasing if demand was only high in August and the boom is driven by a year-round shortage of hotel beds. Those who argue that Edinburgh already has enough hotels and needs more homes are right about the latter but wrong about the former.

A Fringe First for one Jeremy Corbyn
One debut Festival act was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, on cracking form with his “smash the media barons” schtick at the Television Festival, saying that journalists and media workers need to be “set free to do their best work, not held back by media bosses, billionaires or the state”. I worked for billionaires and I think I spoke to them once.

But it was his suggestion that BBC should declare the social class of its staff which really should be up for a comedy award. For BBC Scotland, why not what football team they support too...?

Print newspaper revival

STV was once at the heart of a bold attempt to build a Scottish-based multi-media empire and this week’s announcement that September 2’s Sunday Herald will be its last after 19 years, closes a chapter in that story.

After deals with Sunrise TV and BskyB, STV bought The Herald newspaper for £120m in 1996 and became Scottish Media Group the following year after its £105m takeover of Grampian TV. The spending spree continued with the acquisition of the famous cinema advertising business Pearl & Dean, the outdoor advertising firm Primesight, and a third share of Radio Clyde and Radio Forth parent SRH. It even blew £8m on a 37 per cent share of Hearts.

The Sunday Herald was launched in 1999 because the revamped Scotland on Sunday had proved so successful, peaking at over 130,000 sales in 1998, that lucrative classified advertising was beginning to leak away from the daily title, a key part of the multi-platform advertising strategy.

A bitter circulation and editorial war raged until 2003 when, crippled by debt from the expensive expansion, particularly the disastrous £225m acquisition of Chris Evans’ Ginger Media and Virgin Radio two years earlier, SMG was forced to sell the newspapers to Newsquest. The radio shareholdings soon followed, as did the advertising businesses and by 2008 the focus was firmly on the core television business and the company restored its old identity as STV Ltd.

Even as far back as 2003, the threat to newspaper advertising by low-cost online operators like Gumtree was becoming clear, but the full impact of the mobile revolution had still to be felt. Fifteen years on, Newsquest has taken the sensible decision to turn the Sunday Herald into a seventh day of the daily as the Herald on Sunday, but also to launch a Sunday edition of its pro-independence political daily The National.

Given the Sunday Herald’s audience was distinct from the daily, the move has the potential to grow the Scottish quality Sunday market in the West but is also an opportunity for Scotland on Sunday in the East.

Print advertising is undergoing something of a revival, with national title revenues up in the first quarter of the year for the first time in seven years, according to the Advertising Association, so this could be well-timed.

More piper snow globes

But a sad day for the Edinburgh news trade is the passing of the International Newsagents on the High Street, as of this month another shop swallowed by the souvenir machine. It sold the expected big European titles like El Pais and Die Welt, but also local weeklies like the Shetland Times and Inverness Courier. You could even get Irish weeklies like the Donegal Democrat and, ahem, An Phoblacht without pre-ordering. But at least there’s more choice if you are looking for a piper in a snow globe.