Article Published April 8th, 2020

by David Gow
Editor of Sceptical.scot, Senior Adviser at Social Europe and Senior Adviser at Acumen Public Affairs. He is former European Business Editor of The Guardian and worked for The Scotsman and London Weekend Television.

7th April 2020

This article was first published by Scottish Centre on European Relations

Boris Johnson was just about to be elected prime minister with an 80-seat majority, Christmas and Hogmanay were coming, and Newsquest, owner of the Herald and National titles, was laying off staff in the latest round of savage cuts to hit the Scottish mainstream media.

“Journalism in Scotland and across the UK has faced cut after cut after cut. We can’t go on like this,” tweeted Richard Leonard, Scottish Labour leader. Little did he know.

A few months later and the haemorrhaging is continuing. Indeed, thanks to the Covid19 pandemic, it’s worsening. Newspapers may (or may not) be essential businesses providing information on the pandemic to readers, holding governments to account and acting as mediators between these two. They are still being distributed and bought (just about) in general stores and newsagents.

But their business model, already virtually destroyed by Google and Facebook that, between them, “hoovered up most of the £24bn+ spent on advertising in the UK in 2019,” according to Dominic Sandford, Press Gazette editor, could well be facing its last rites. Advertising has all but evaporated. Local titles across the UK, including Scotland, may simply disappear for ever. Even DC Thomson, owner of the relatively buoyant Press & Journal (Aberdeen) and Courier (Dundee) titles, has reported a drastic fall in earnings.

In Scotland’s central belt the Daily Record, part of the Reach (formerly Trinity Mirror) empire, the Herald and the Scotsman are furloughing ancillary staff and low-paid journalists. Casuals (who pre-date the gig economy) have been fired and freelances, especially those covering live arts events and sports, told they’re no longer wanted (with the odd exception). Many are or will soon be destitute.

Senior journalists, including staffers earning over £18,000 a year, are being told to take a 10-20% pay cut depending on the title and this is happening in newsrooms so devoid of coal-face workers you could probably fire an airgun and hit nobody. JPI Media, reluctant owners of the Scotsman (it wants to sell it), had cut Edinburgh-based staff to around a dozen (alert: fewer than I managed as London Editor 35 years ago) – and wants more to go as it embraces its “digital acceleration programme” overseen by a single editor for six titles.

What this means is that the Covid19 pandemic, coming on top of Brexit, has left mainstream Scottish print media in a perilous position when it comes to covering stories of such global import. This vulnerability has been heightened by the virulent attacks on both outlets and individual journalists prevalent on social media: look no further than the recent trial and acquittal of Alex Salmond, former first minister and SNP leader. And broadcast media, such as the new BBC Scotland channel, could face the axe (its flagship news programme, The Nine, has been watched by as few as 4000 on a given evening).

If and when the pandemic is over and life “returns to normal”, the media operating in Scotland, including the UK-based titles such as the Mail and Times, will face enormous hurdles in providing comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the great political events that lie ahead: Holyrood 2021 (assuming the Scottish parliament elections go ahead on schedule) and/or independence campaigning plus what may be the final stages of the Brexit process in the shape of the UK’s future relations with the EU.

Covid19 obviously dominates the airwaves and news columns in Scotland as around the globe but its legacy, apart from untold/unknown numbers of human deaths, could hasten the demise of swaths of the Scottish media. Who/what will be left to hold the authorities to account? And, further down the line eventually, will a strong, vibrant, independent media exist when or if Scotland opts for independence in Europe…#justasking.