MacMillan Media Monitor
So far, it has been a not very happy New Year. Our newspapers have been gripped by two vastly contrasting stories. One involves the deaths of more than 150,000 people in the greatest natural disaster the world has seen in 40 years. On January 2 in Scotland, meanwhile, Scotland on Sunday fired the opening salvo in more than a week of coverage devoted to the controversial Spanish holiday of Scotland’s designated first families of the political and media elite, the McConnells and the Wark-Clements’.
The tsunami is a global catastrophe, while Villagate is a sideshow whose billing demonstrates the fickleness of news. At the turn of the year, when all newspapers tend to struggle for sales, a big story, arguably the more tragic the better, is manner from heaven. In terms of sheer professionalism the tsunami continues to be an opportunity for editors to test how truly capable their journalists are. Villagate on the other hand was worthy of attention only because it again exposed the cosiness of Scotland’s media and politicians. No sooner had SoS published “that” picture did the Scottish Daily Mail commission Tom Brown to stoke the fire. For anyone other than Villagate’s dramatis personae the story is unlikely to generate lasting effect, but it was undoubtedly newsworthy given that Scottish papers love nothing more than a political row laced with heavy tones of cronyism. Direct evidence of any favours Kirsty Wark and Jack McConnell have gained from their 16-year friendship remains absent, but the inevitable conclusion drawn from the coverage is that it pays to have friends in high places.
More importantly, the contrasting response to the tsunami and Villagate is a useful pointer to the state of the Scottish press. I cannot be the only one who considers it sad that the number of reporters devoted to the latter far outstripped those sent, three at the time of writing, to report from South Asia on the tsunami’s aftermath. The telephone is undoubtedly a cheap alternative to eyewitness reporting. Coverage of the tsunami has been patchy as a consequence.
One week after the disaster a survey showed that sales of the UK newspapers who immediately sent staff and freelance correspondents to the disaster zone had risen by as much as 10 per cent. Hundreds of thousands of extra copies were sold. The papers singled out for impressive market gains were the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the Times and the Guardian. Time will tell if Scottish papers added any sales but if the immediate response of indigenous titles is anything to go by this seems doubtful. If they do, however, it will have been more through accident than design. Torcuil Crichton of the Sunday Herald was the only Scottish newspaper journalist sent there within days of the disaster. At a time when some newspaper executives privately admit that circulation decline seems inevitable, the above survey is a clear indictment on how wrong they are. Instead, it is proof that parochial attitudes, starvation budgets and an obvious lack of aspiration are the biggest barriers to sales growth.
With an entire coastline flattened and modern communications largely decimated the tsunami has shown that the reporter’s ability to find things out cannot be matched. First hand accounts tend to have greater veracity than the soundbites of government spokesmen keen to sanitise the story – remember Comical Ali? Despite South Asia’s devastation, journalists sent to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia moved with little difficulty between the affected areas. Day after day they filed dispatches that gave a real – and up-to-date – account of what was happening on the ground. Copy from the over-relied on Reuters and Associated Press wire services while competent, inevitably lacks context. Any journalist who claims that a Scotland-based staffer’s rewrite is an adequate way to fill the gap is either on hallucinogenic drugs or they have failed to read quality newspapers since December 27.
Not for a moment am I suggesting that Scottish papers should have staff correspondents dotted around the globe in case a big story develops. That was never the case and never will be. However, when the biggest story since September 11 – and the tsunami is arguably bigger – breaks, is it not reasonable to expect Scottish newspapers to react? Costs, damned costs is the usual plea in mitigation uttered by the suits who force these decisions, but their excuses are pretty feeble given the calamitous events before us. It is the easyJet approach to journalism, without the Jets...and readers are being sold short because of it.
Meanwhile, back in Scotland’s media village, amid the thousands of words devoted to McConnell and Wark’s ill considered holiday the best 13 (unlucky, perhaps) were written by Alison Rowat in the Herald. “There is a line, and Wark has taken an express train over it,” she opined. That sentence sums up the madness of inviting the first minister and his family on holiday. Having already been on the panel that chose the architect for the grossly overpriced Scottish Parliament building, and by being a director of the company subsequently awarded a lucrative contract (the costs of which have since quadrupled) to film the Parliament’s construction, Wark was carrying more baggage than could be safely fitted into her Birkin handbag. Her position has not been helped by the toadies at the BBC who say “they will not comment on journalists’ personal relationships”, even if the BBC’s standards are being called into question. The few impotent statements released by Wark’s primary employer have only confirmed the public’s perception that politicians and the media are as thick as thieves. In this case, the protagonists were certainly thick.
In the real business of selling newspapers it was with excitement that I read of News International’s plans to cut the price of the weekday Scottish Sun by 10 pence, to 20p. Just when people thought the competition between the Sun and the market-leading Daily Record had reached an amicable settlement, News International has upped the ante again. Both papers were filled with reader offers last Saturday but it seems that a reduced cover price remains the lowest, albeit costly, denominator.
There is a reassuring confidence and straightforwardness to managers at Scotland’s tabloids. “Is the price war back on? Looks like it, doesn’t it?” Colin McClatchie, News International’s Scotland and Ireland MD told the Sunday Herald. The dozens of unattributed quotes from sources and “friends” that have fed Villagate, however, shows that McClatchie’s candour is a rare commodity in the Scottish media.