Is foreign coverage faltering?
A taste of what’s on offer: some recent foreign news headlines from the Sunday Herald, Scotland on Sunday and the Times.A gasp went up from the 200-strong crowd as John Berry from the Royal Bank of Scotland spoke.
“The judges found the Best Foreign Coverage a difficult category to judge, feeling that overall the quality of foreign coverage in the Scottish press has slipped over the last year,” he said. “Apart from 11 September the judges felt that foreign coverage is a declining area in the Scottish press and decided to give no award.”
It was the Royal Bank of Scotland Newspaper of the Year Awards 2002 and as soon as the words left his lips, one reporter darted out of the room, no doubt to relay these findings to his editor waiting back at HQ.
However, the judges raised a serious question. Is the quality and amount of foreign coverage declining in Scotland’s newspapers?
Andrew Jaspan, editor of the Sunday Herald, which picked up the award for Best Foreign Coverage in 2001 and was the only non-American newspaper to secure a silver award at the SND awards for its coverage of 11 Spetember, is adamant that the quality of foreign journalism has not declined in his title under foreign editor Dave Pratt.
Jaspan says: “The Sunday Herald treats foreign coverage very seriously and I felt let down on behalf of my foreign editor that no award was given. It was a slap in the face. David is out there risking his life in Afghanistan, Somalia, Palestine and Israel and he gets this. He is not the kind of foreign editor to sit on his backside. He gets out there and in turn builds up more contacts which allow us to do an even better job with our foreign coverage.”
John McGurk, editorial director of The Scotsman Publications, echoes Jaspan’s comments: “I was surprised there was no foreign award given and I think it was a slap in the face for the broadsheets.
“I know that the Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday put a lot of effort into foreign news as they are always breaking budgets by sending people abroad.”
In these tough economical times though, where the number of journalists working in Scotland’s editorial departments is constantly being squeezed, is it not often the foreign correspondents who have been the first to find themselves ousted as belts are tightened, as John Penman, editor of Business am, admits: “When it comes to cutting staff numbers it is often the easiest option to get rid of the guys 2,000 miles away. I would imagine when we restructured last October our guys in Washington and Brussels thought ‘Well, that’s it for us then.’ But I took a very difficult decision to keep our guys in Washington and Brussels because I feel we need to be represented there.”
Jaspan disputes that economics are affecting foreign coverage in Scotand: “My managers allowed me to do two extra 24-page supplements around 11 September, that’s an extra 48-pages, and that was right at the time things were getting difficult, so I don’t think foreign is being hit because of economics.”
Until recently The Scotsman Publications had a man in Washington, though he was axed as part of cutbacks, though McGurk says that they still have correspondents whom they can draw foreign coverage from. He says: “We always try to have correspondents in the hotspots of the world. Often we will tap into BBC correspondents and use them. The London press obviously have more resources, but I’d say the Scottish press is comparable to the UK nationals.”
Blair Jenkins, head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, says: “I would say the standard of foreign coverage in the main Scottish broadsheets is pretty high. Certainly a lot of it is agency material, but that's also true of the London titles. I don't feel I need to go beyond the Scottish press to get foreign news, although there are particular correspondents in some of the English papers that I make a point of reading.
“Both the Herald and the Scotsman do a decent job of covering foreign stories, although I think the Sunday Herald is particularly good when it decides that something is interesting and important.
“Generally, I think the Sunday Herald is the best thing to happen in Scottish journalism in recent years. In a more specialist vein, Business am is very adept at linking Scottish business stories to what is happening elsewhere in the world and I try to read it every day.”
So, how does foreign coverage in the Scottish press compare to that on the television and radio?
Jenkins says: “I think it is always difficult to compare such different media. Television and radio news have immediacy and impact, with audio and video material now available almost instantly from almost anywhere. We are fortunate in having access to the biggest and best newsgathering operation in the world in the BBC.
“Where newspapers score is in the depth of coverage they can provide – a broadsheet correspondent can get literally ten times as many words to tell his story as a television news reporter will.
“Each medium has its own strengths – which is why those of us who are serious news junkies tend to use them all: television, radio, newspapers, online and also the great news magazines like Time and Newsweek.”
So, it seems the general concensus is that maybe our judging panel was perhaps a little harsh.
Business am’s Penman certainly thinks so, though he does question how committed the mainstream papers are to foreign.
“Some of the judges’ comments were unfair,” he says. “Overall, I think the foreign coverage in Scottish newspapers is all right. To many editors it is a fascination. They all say that covering foreign issues is very important to them, but I sometimes wonder how committed they are to it?”
McGurk hits back, saying: “We could all do our foreign pages better, but the name of the game is improvement. I cannot imagine any Scottish newspaper giving up on its foreign coverage. This week the Scotsman led twice with the French situation and has given the cover of S2 over to it, so I cannot see any of our titles doing anything but improving.”
The debate could rage for ever, as could the silence that hung in the air when the ‘no award’ decision was announced by John Berry. Glad I didn’t have to tell them, though.