Pepsi Feature Scotland

Mike's media monitor

By The Drum | Administrator

May 5, 2005 | 6 min read

The morning after the night before sees the media’s role in the outcome of the general election under the same scrutiny that will be applied to the party leaders. And there’s an argument that, just as the campaigning has struggled to capture the imagination, so too has the media coverage.

This time around, no newspaper can claim - as The Sun famously did in 1992 - it was it wot won it. Routinely, the news agenda has been driven by whatever the parties have chosen to talk about. And since they have pretty much been going around in circles, so has much of the associated reporting. If it’s Wednesday, it must be Labour talking about health, the Lib Dems focussing on education and the Tories concentrating on immigration. Again. And too many hacks simply report what is fed to them.

It got quite ridiculous on Monday morning. Okay, so it was a Bank Holiday and the mood may have been a bit lighter than normal and the news room might have been a bit short-handed (though I doubt it). But the lead item on the Radio Five Live morning bulletin was about how marginal seats will be crucial.

I didn’t detect the story to be grounded in any great piece of research. It was simply the parroting of what a politician had said. What’s more, it wasn’t even a new story.

So, who might have won it for the victors this morning, emerging bleary-eyed from a couple of hours’ kip and a celebratory glass or two of champagne? The Daily Record, for its loyalty, albeit with a strong bias in favour of Gordon Brown? Or The Express, for having banged on about immigration, for months, maybe even years now?

Perhaps the sad truth is that newspapers and broadcasters do little to sway voters one way or the other. As political parties are discovering, our minds are made up before the election begins, and certainly before we reach for the morning rag.

Maybe the way to win back readers is to cut the cheap attacks and offer some actual reporting, independent of what the parties say.

You might have, of course, been swayed by that letter in The Herald newspaper the other day, signed by some of the great and good of Scottish business.

Simply, they were trying to persuade us that Labour is good for business. One of the signatories is that of Gary O’Donnell, of advertising agency, TBWA, whose London office donated, according to the Electoral Commission, some £15,619 worth of staff time to the cause. And that was only for the first week of campaigning - from April 5 to 11. Presumably, the signature was provided for free.

All eyes last night will have been on the lovely Anne McKenzie, who has a nice voice but a slightly hectoring tone, as far as this writer is concerned. It is the first time since 1987 that the BBC Scotland coverage of the voting has not been presented by Kirsty Wark, her place taken this time around by McKenzie.

Wark was, as you’ll know, packed off to the gulag that was reporting Michael Howard’s campaign. God, all the poor woman did was invite First Minister, Jack McConnell, to her villa for a wee holiday.

Ah, the BBC. At the time of writing, some 150 staff at BBC Scotland had signed a motion of no confidence in their boss, Ken MacQuarrie. It’s been a tough old few weeks for the BBC Scotland controller, who has found himself having to justify just how the cutting of almost 200 editorial jobs at BBC Scotland alone - as part of a UK-wide cull running into thousands - will somehow translate into improved programme-making.

Last week, he was up in front of the Enterprise and Culture Committee of the Scottish Parliament. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s scheduled to make another appearance in front of MSPs, this time the more informal cross-party group on the media. That’s taking place on Tuesday.

And he’s got a ballot on strike action, by members of three trade unions - The National Union of Journalists, BECTU and Amicus - already taking place, the result expected also on Tuesday.

At least strike action has been averted at the Daily Record, which - under other circumstances - might have been struggling to provide any coverage of the election, since staff had earmarked yesterday to stage a one-day walkout. In the end, a gulf of just half a per cent, between the 2.5 per cent pay increase management was offering and what the union was wanting, was easily-enough bridged.

Monday’s Daily Telegraph was predicting the SNP might gain some and lose some, leaving them unchanged on five seats. If that is the case, does that mean the now deceased Scottish Standard had no impact on people’s voting habits?

Arguably, with only seven editions under its belt before publisher, Derek Carstairs, decided to pull the plug, it wasn’t given much of a run at shifting people’s opinions towards its overtly pro-independence position. And then again, being so overt in its leanings, perhaps it was always going to be preaching to the converted.

Clearly, not enough of the converted could be bothered to seek it out, usually in the lower reaches of the newsstand. Popular wisdom has it that its collapse was due to a lack of marketing spend. And there has to be some truth in that. But, think back to the days of another failed new start, that of Business a.m. It may have lacked its own X-Factor, but what it didn’t lack was fine journalism, or promotion.

Which reminds me. As one of the few, the very few perhaps, to have bought a copy of what was to prove the last ever copy of the Scottish Standard, it was a not bad read. It’s first issue content wasn’t too impressive, but by issue seven, the editorial team was appearing to get its act together. And through decent content, rather than political bias, it might have just managed to establish a stable footing.

The truth is, you need more than bias to sell papers. The Record may not actually set up its laptops in Keir Hardie House for the duration of this general election campaign, but they were, as usual, slavish in their devotion to the People’s Party. However, that’s not what sells the rag. It’s the sport in the back, the strong stories at the front and the TV listings in between. The Record may get good stories from Labour, but that’s not what defines it. The rules never change - it’s good journalism and good distribution if you want to survive in the world of papers.

Mike Wilson is a co-director of Scottish media website

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