ARNOLD Kemp’s personal history of post-war Scotland, The Hollow Drum, contains an evocative passage in which the author, then deputy editor of The Scotsman, explores the labyrinthine corridors of the paper’s North Bridge premises: “I wandered through a forgotten entrance into the staircase of the surplus property next door. A disused lift shaft disappeared into the gloom above. There was dust everywhere and the marble tiles on the stair wall were grimy. I felt like a time traveller.”
The surplus property had belonged to the Findlay family, owners of The Scotsman for almost a century until the paper was purchased by a Canadian, Roy Thomson, in 1953; much to the dismay of the Edinburgh establishment.
The dormant property next door had been sold by Thomson in order to restore The Scotsman to a stable financial position. By 1953 the paper had, according to Kemp, drifted into a state of neglect. Its journalism consisted of the “fluting voice of a grey and conservative paper that served a business and professional class famous for its complacency and self-satisfaction”.
Murray Watson, the incumbent editor, resisted the most visible change until his death two years after the Thomson takeover. Watson preferred the old practice of placing classifieds on the front page to a vulgar splash. It would take a new editor, Alastair Dunnett (an imposter from the Daily Record) to end this tradition and usher in a quiet revolution in the Scottish press.
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Kemp’s tale of a Scotland run by decaying Victorian families is presented as a parable of Scotland’s wider industrial decline.
But today, that journey into the dusty past can tell a different story: that change can arrive, unlooked for, even when a social seems preserved in aspic.
If Scottish journalism could be transformed then, why not now?
After a year of work, in June the Scottish Government’s Public Interest Journalism Working Group published a set of recommendations on how to revive the country’s struggling newsrooms.
They received a positive, though non-committal, reply from the Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture Angus Robertson.
Set up in response to the existential crisis faced by many news organisations following the pandemic and peopled by a range of journalists, managers, trade unionists and civil servants, the group’s key recommendation is the establishment of a Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute (SPIJI). This body would administer funding from a range of sources to promote journalism produced to a high standard, particularly at a local level.
The report points to a range of systems for subsidising journalism currently operating in societies such as Norway, the Netherlands and New Zealand. The hybrid model proposed for the SPJI requires £3 million in public funds for its initial three years of operation, with the aim of being self-funding thereafter.
A clutch of other measures – including tax breaks, better distribution of government advertising and community buyouts – are also included.
The report sets out a realistic and measured tone even as news in Scotland in its local, regional and national forms, becomes increasingly difficult to produce.
The roots of this malaise is well known: the financial crash of 2008, legacy costs from the boom years newspapers were a sure bet for investors, the rise of Big Tech companies and shifts in the habits of media consumers.
But despite this knowledge, and frequent tributes to the value of a strong free press, the political will to do anything about journalism’s predicament is notably absent.
The Cabinet Secretary, as a former hack, testified to his own “first-hand knowledge of the importance of a thriving, free, and independent public interest journalism sector as a bedrock of a well-functioning democracy”.
Who could disagree? The problem is that we all, whether politicians or plain citizens, tend to equate the public interest with our own interests and expect journalism to reflect this.
While most of us would agree on the inherent virtues of a plural society and want a pluralistic media to reflect that, we still prefer to talk about journalism in the abstract because we often can’t thole much of it.
Would you, dear reader, feel content with precious public funds subsidising the Scottish Daily Mail? Would readers of the Mail likewise feel comfortable about funding the rank sedition of this separatist rag?
The partisan and scurrilous character of much of the press goes right back to its origins. This creates an understandable fear that either the less salubrious aspects of the trade will slip through the net of any definition of public service, or the press will become more compliant and dial down controversy to keep the funds flowing.
But there’s a wrinkle here that often gets overlooked. Digital media allow us all to be individuals all of the time. We can pick out the choicest morsels of information and content without having to balance our news diet: this incentivises publishers to look for particular, rather than general, audiences.
Back when information was scarce, the power of the newspaper was based on its ubiquity. All sorts of useful material was contained within it and so readers were a diverse whole: some bought it for the politics, others for the sport, or as the old Scotsman once presumed; to read the classifieds on the front page.
These details might seem a bit dull compared to the soaring rhetoric of thriving democracies and informed citizens. But it is precisely the act of disclosing and circulating information for the general good that gives rise to readerships, publics and nations too.
When Thomson disturbed The Scotsman from its long provincial slumber, he ushered in an era that came to define modern Scottish journalism. Following the paper’s modernisation, others including the Glasgow Herald, began to follow suit: both eventually competing to be the best printed version of the nation.
In another step that was instrumental in creating a truly national media system for the first time, Thomson would go on to found Scottish Television in 1957. Although Thomson was only interested in the bottom line these changes helped to establish Scotland as the distinct polity that we know today.
MORE than technology, the biggest gulf between then and now is that we live in an age of fiscal austerity and worsening living standards. Why then should we summon-up the political will to preserve journalism as a public good?
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The answer takes us back to Arnold Kemp. As editor of The Herald he cast off its staid, Unionist past and realigned it with a truly modern Scotland: one that embraced Home Rule, cultural revival and cosmopolitanism.
Yet The Hollow Drum is memorable because it contains so much of the author’s nostalgia for douce old Scotland: run by teachers, lawyers, ministers and bankers who all knew their place and everyone else’s.
Kemp captures the irony of change in that period: as modernisation arrived along with new ideas about the future of the nation, so the things that make Scottish life distinct become more vulnerable and liable to fade.
Perhaps journalism will do just that. But there is no distinct Scottish society or culture without it. How might we define that role without resorting to rhetoric?
Kemp’s modest self-description will suffice: “Like my fellow countrymen, I am a confused traveller, but I travel hopefully.”