MacMillan's Media Monitor
The new compact Scotsman, blasts JaspanHere we go again. Another row between the Scotsman and Andrew Jaspan, soon to be the former editor of the Sunday Herald. The personal animosity that has stoked ever poorer relations between these two parties since Andrew Neil took charge at the Edinburgh-based newspaper group in 1996 reached a new high last week, following a studio debate on Newsnight Scotland between Jaspan and John McGurk, editorial director of The Scotsman Publications.
They were there, nominally, to discuss the merits of the newly launched Monday–Friday compact Scotsman. During a rigorous but by no means incendiary debate Jaspan said the Scotsman was no longer a serious newspaper and was instead intent on trying to ape the Daily Mail’s mid-market appeal. McGurk did his best to refute these suggestions, claiming that the Scotsman’s editorial content would, in fact, improve as a result of the change in format. These exchanges revolved around, and were given legitimacy by, the very serious problem of declining newspaper sales. Jaspan chronicled the Scotsman’s past attempts to boost circulation, concentrating on the costly price-cutting exercise that saw the paper briefly break the 100,000 barrier before falling back to present-day sales of between 60,000 and 65,000. McGurk again responded by talking up the compact – not tabloid – Scotsman as an attempt to broaden the paper’s appeal. It was all good knockabout stuff, you might say.
But that was just the beginning. When Steven Walker, the managing director of The Scotsman Publications, turned up at BBC Scotland’s door – he had driven McGurk to the Glasgow studios – minutes after the programme ended, he was, from the accounts of bystanders, furious about how the on-screen debate had gone. He then accused Jaspan of telling lies about the Scotsman’s circulation, before leaving the building. Witnesses do not doubt that Walker managed to make his point but the matter was far from closed. By running a full-page story entitled “The lies, damned lies of Andrew Jaspan: the Scotsman answers back with the facts”, in Friday’s paper, the feud boiled over into the news pages of the group’s flagship newspaper for all of Scotland to digest.
I have been reliably informed that this was a decision made by Scotsman editor Iain Martin, and was not the result of an Andrew Neil-issued diktat or subsequent intervention from Walker or McGurk. I sincerely hope it was, because journalists should not worship at the altar of executives’ ego. Even so, it does not seem to have been a decision based on calm, rational news sense. Less than 100,000 people regularly watch “Newsnight Scotland”, a greater number than regularly buy the Scotsman, or the Herald for that matter. It is a select audience, a tiny slice of the Scottish newspaper-buying public. A fiery exchange between two leading newspaper executives is good gossip for the media crowd but such stories do not sell papers and it had no place in the news section of the Scotsman. No matter how angry Martin, McGurk et al were, the decision to publish was knee-jerk in the extreme. Jaspan does not like The Scotsman Publications, who in turn don’t like Jaspan. Nothing new – or newsworthy – there. To run the story – notably without a by-line – was a mistake, a “bad call” as journalists say.
With the power to deliver both facts and opinion to a public audience, journalism is a privileged occupation. When the stakes are high, writers wield a power that can easily be abused. Fortunately, most journalists have the professionalism to rein in their personal prejudices and opinions. Even those who don’t should have sub-editors, section heads and, finally, an editor to filter out any propaganda that masquerades as cold, hard fact. But by running such an intemperate article about Jaspan’s comments on “Newsnight Scotland” it is abundantly clear that these guidelines, which usually serve newspapers well, were, unfortunately, ignored.
No doubt Martin would argue that it was an important attempt to set the record straight about the Scotsman’s circulation figures in recent years. I am told that he and McGurk were particularly annoyed about Jaspan’s claim that sales of the Scotsman fall as low as 45,000 on a Monday. “We hate the fact that when Jaspan talks he portrays everything he says as a fact,” one Scotsman insider said. Unfortunately, however, the Scotsman undermined its argument when, after making the decision to attack Jaspan in Friday’s paper, the incorrect Scotsman circulation figure – 89,000 instead of 80,000 – was used in the article. Walker is understood to have been furious when he learned of the mistake. It is exactly the kind of error that occurs when someone writing an article is too involved in the subject to competently check the facts.
The deeply unfortunate thing about this latest row between Jaspan and the Scotsman is that it overshadowed the first full week of the paper’s compact launch. While it was obvious to journalists that Monday’s Higher exam pass rates story used a six-deck red and black worded headline in the manner of the Independent’s memorable Hutton Inquiry and Butler Report front pages, the punters probably didn’t care. What they do care about is being valued and not treated like mugs. A page seven article devoted to calling Andrew Jaspan a liar is not value for money. It is score settling. Like all papers, there will be good and bad days but the months ahead will prove whether, as Jaspan claimed last week, turning compact is “the last throw of the dice” for the Scotsman. I certainly hope it is not.
MEANWHILE, the race to become editor of the Sunday Herald is entering the finishing straight. By the time you read this an announcement may have been made. Tim Blott, the MD of Newsquest (Herald & Times), held shortlist interviews earlier this week. While he is understandably conscious to take his time selecting the right man – or woman – for the job, an announcement is close. Already there is talk circulating about what was said during the first round of interviews. I just hope that Blott picks someone truly focused on improving a newspaper whose sale only narrowly eclipsed the 50,000 mark last month. With Jaspan soon to leave for the Age in Melbourne, his departure should spell the beginning of a new era for the Sunday Herald, not just the passing of an old one.