Scotland’s referendum is a fork in the road: a choice between two futures. Today the Scottish media stands at a similar crossroad. Pressurised by financial constraints, a market in flux, and an ownership structure that is distant and disinterested in its health, it may struggle and shrink. This prospect should cause great concern. While there are legitimate challenges and criticisms for the Scottish media, the most urgent task is to build a new media model in response to this crisis. An independent Scotland with an invigorated body politic may provide this opportunity; yet the experience of devolution demonstrates that there is no simple catalyst. The media requires tough questions; and it requires answers backed up with purpose, principle, pounds and pence. Below I present 10 questions for such a discussion. These are highly condensed in favour of brevity and omit important issues. This is a starting point: to challenge our media culture and develop a media model fit for the 21st century.
1) Is the crisis of resources fatal?
The old model of media – the printed newspaper – faces a crisis of resources. Falling circulation figures coupled with the advertising prowess of the web had led to cut-backs. Cuts in staff. Cuts in funding. Cuts in content. There are serious questions over whether all Scotland’s major papers will survive the next few years. With a severe crisis in resources, how can the media do its job and how can we as citizens expect high(er) standards? Quality journalism requires funding. As it stands, there is no sound financial solution on offer. This may render the aspirations of this article unworkable in the near future. It shall aspire nonetheless.
SECTION 1: If there is a will: challenges for developing the Scottish media
2) Does the Scottish media feature enough international coverage?
The year 2014 is an opportunity to consider Scotland’s place in the world. Political issues such as Scandinavian social security, cooperation within the EU and UN, international development and defence are prominent within discussions of independence. Therefore understanding the context of modern statehood is more important than ever for the Scottish electorate. Yet how often is Scotland’s politics and culture presented in an international context? Instead the media’s point of comparison is often between Scotland and the UK, Holyrood and Westminster. Today The Scotsman front page features two stories comparing Scotland and England one above the other. This limits our vision. Europe, the world, politics and culture is far more diverse than our media suggests. A media with ambition and confidence would frequently look North, East, South and West when searching for stories and inspiration. The questions that can be posed are vast: What does it mean to be one of 193 independent states in the 21st century? How do other medium sized nations succeed? Can Scotland replicate such success? Global comparisons foster a mature debate – based upon both the opportunities and limitations of independence and statehood.
3) Does Scottish broadcasting meet the needs and expectations of viewers?
Scottish viewers main domestic output is through BBC Scotland and STV. Questions have been raised over the quality of this content and its impacts on Scottish democracy. Due to a resource imbalance and the structure of these organisations, the majority of TV news and political coverage shown in Scotland is produced in London. A great proportion of this coverage in areas of health, education, justice, the arts, therefore, does not affect the Scottish viewing audience. BBC Scotland has been at the centre of many similar stooshies. Scotland invests £325 million through the TV license fee, while BBC Scotland receives £176million in return. BBC Scotland faces cuts and redundancies, which has been criticised by the National Union of Journalists and the Scottish Government. This followed the Scottish Broadcasting Commission which highlighted the lack of support for BBC Scotland.
In response broadcasting commentators have called for greater Scottish production of news and current affairs shows, such as a Scottish News at 6 o’ clock and Scottish Question Time. The need for greater Scottish based production was exemplified by the fallout over BBC Question Time in Edinburgh where Nigel Farage and George Galloway (politicians both rejected by the Scottish electorate) were selected to pacify the rUK audience. An independent Scotland, in contrast, would invest in a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation – which would guarantee greater investment in home programming. Iain MacWhirter commented, in an excellent debate on Scottish broadcasting, that the devolution of broadcasting powers is inevitable. However, success in broadcasting is also down to those who live and work in Scotland and their collective determination to improve the quality of public discussion on TV. If broadcasting power were devolved tomorrow, what would Scotland wish to change and how would it be funded?
4) Does the Scottish media hold power to account?
A central democratic duty of the media is to be a ‘watchdog’ of the powerful. In theory, this ensures accountability. However, the liberal watchdog thesis remains focused on government. A 21st century watchdog thesis would critique all concentrations of power. According to Jürgen Habermas, the liberal mythology of communication “cannot be applied to the actual conditions of industrial advanced mass democracy.” In other words, the media can’t deal with citizens and governments in isolation. It also deals with organised interests, private actors and supranational organisations, all of which hold significant influence over public life. From Blackwater to Tesco, Serco to the IMF and World Bank, private actors shape the modern world. According to James Curran, the private ownership structure of the media creates conflicts of interest when monitoring other private organisations which can be a disincentive to criticism. For a democratic media and a informed public, private forms of power must also be held to account by the Scottish media: whether that means Tory donors like Ian Taylor (who is bankrolling the no campaign) or Donald Trump and his controversial construction projects.
5) Does the Scottish media enhance the democratic process?
Some claim that the prominence of the watchdog thesis creates a reactive and cynical media. It allows criticism to thrive, yet limits democratic confidence and consensus, representation, education and empowerment. What form the media takes stems from democratic assumptions – whether democracy is an elite process to be ‘monitored’ or a collective duty of citizenship. (See Aristotle, Schumpeter vs J.S. Mill, Robert Dahl, David Held) James Curran’s media model opts for the later. The Scottish media, in Curran’s case, has a democratic duty to bring social groups (not only political leaders) together for meaningful discussion, to represent the plurality of voices in public life, to provide accurate information from academic and independent sources (not simply campaign press releases), and to empower the voices of those commonly under-represented at present. (eg. on grounds such as gender, class and age) Is a Scottish media without a single female editor succeeding in this role? Do unpaid internships prevent social mobility in the media? Can a media fixated with entertainment, celebrity and sensation ever reach such democratic aspirations? For the media and its audience, these democratic questions require deep introspection.
SECTION 2: The future.
6) Can we build a new Scottish media?
Through digital platforms and communication technology, the media is changing. Online consumption now far outstrips print consumption. The future is digital. Yet while The Guardian and The Daily Mail have harnessed this to great success, Scotland’s media has largely played catch up. New journalistic initiatives such as Pro-Publica, Politico and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism have blossomed through technology – as have the likes of The Huffington Post and Reddit, but what has happened in Scotland? Initiatives such as Caledonian Mercury and The Scottish Times have attempted to build a foothold in online media, while the independence movement has spurred the growth of various online platforms such as National Collective, Bella Caledonia, Wings Over Scotland, A Thousand Flowers and many others. Despite this expanding body of talent, online platforms in Scotland are yet to mirror their passion with the professionalism and resources that are required to replicate the full activities of media organisations. If print mediums are to fade – with the damaging and depressing implications for Scottish democracy – then professional online platforms must fill their place. Can they?
7) Who will own the media?
As it stands, the media is owned by rich and powerful men and corporations. The Herald is owned by Gannet. The Scotsman is one of around 200 papers owned by Johnston Press. The Scottish Sun is owned by News UK (formerly News International) within the Murdoch empire. The Daily Mail is within Viscount Rothermere’s Daily Mail and General Trust. This often centralises control of journalistic organisations in the hands of distant executives whose interests are in profit and shareholder dividends. The Herald group is currently facing redundancies and cuts from its U.S. owner. The National Union of Journalists released several scathing statements in response, targeting problems with the ownership structure.
Online platforms can develop new ownership structures. One example would be developing media cooperatives – owned and organised by their employees. In the Basque country the Mondragon corporation includes 256 cooperative companies employing over 83,000 workers. This matters. The Guardian, for instance, has maintained a ‘trust’ status. While it has faced financial pressures, its ownership status and running structure has kept those who care for journalism and its purpose in charge. A new media model is an opportunity for new owners.
8) Who will produce the media?
Greater access to the means of media production has created the citizen journalist. The democratic potential of technology, digital platforms and social media is vast. There has been an explosion in the creation of digital content – written blogs and reports, photography and videos. If properly supported, everyone can have the ability to express their views and creativity. Whether the content that is produced can fuse together into an active and informed citizenship – bypassing the current mainstream media and filling the gaps left by a lack of resources – is a far greater challenge. A great deal of digital content is responsive rather than proactive. Standards vary; and often the ability to report and inform requires resources and training – neither of which online writers have in abundance. The blogsphere in isolation cannot replace television or newspapers; but inventive digital platforms can succeed if they harness large online audiences and/or find a sustainable financial model.
9) What will happen to media consumption?
The consumption of media content has a clear trajectory. Audiences are going digital, the level of consumption is growing, and its form has an increased flexibility. The number of people in the UK accessing news online has more than doubled in seven years to over 50% of the population by 2013. By 2014, mobile Internet usage is expected to exceed desktop Internet usage. Surfing online content is becoming an evermore ubiquitous activity. Websites allow the consumption of huge magnitudes of information; and this is enhanced by the fact that a great deal is free and open.
10) Who will fund the media?
A new media model is spurred by the possibilities of production and the growth in online consumption. Yet the question of ‘Who pays and how?’ still looms large. There are three approaches that could fund digital platforms.
The first is a mass market approach to advertising. Much in the way that newspapers sell their readership, popular online sites can source advertising space. However, with fierce competition online undercutting advertising revenue this is unlikely to be enough on its own.
The second approach is a subscription model. The ‘pay-wall’ implemented by the New York Times and certain Murdoch papers requires a monthly payment to access online content. However, this suits specialist groups such as The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal more than mass media groups seeking larger audiences. Subscriptions also require a unique product: consistent and high quality content that cannot be found elsewhere online for free.
The third approach to funding is crowd-sourcing. Between the short-falls of providing creative content for free and placing all readers within a set subscription straight-jacket, this model allows the audience to name their price. Radiohead pioneered this approach with their album In Rainbows. Within a Scottish context, Wings Over Scotland crowd-sourced funding to support political writing up to the referendum. This suits media organisations which develop online communities, whose members and supporters often feel a greater affinity with the organisation than they necessarily would with the traditional media. Whether a Scottish online media platform – professionally organised, with training and expertise – could raise the six figures sums to run a crowd-sourced media group remains to be seen. With a successful funding drive, a new media model could thrive.
— Michael Gray (@GrayInGlasgow) August 20, 2013