[I’m delighted to publish this guest piece about the Sunday Herald by Graham Purnell, who has long years of experience in the Scottish newspaper industry.]
Much has been made of mainstream media bias in Scotland’s independence referendum and it certainly appears that those informed mainly by ‘traditional’ media were more likely to vote No. Whether the media influenced the decisions of the ‘analogue information’ generation, or whether they were more likely to be cautious conservatives anyway, warrants further research. The fact that our major media institutions are not Scottish-owned may also be a contributory factor. The globalisation of media is a new colonialism; local issues and concerns are sacrificed for ‘the bigger picture’, which usually means corporate interests. It therefore surprised nobody that there was such an onslaught against independence from newspapers. That public broadcasters, who have a more stringent legal obligation to be balanced, should also be so demonstrably pro-union was more of a shock. When Sarah Smith, an allegedly impartial presenter, rhetorically asked during an interview on BBC’s Scotland 2014 ‘doesn’t it make you proud to be British?’, it only confirmed that gaining independence would be a steep uphill struggle.
Another unfair press advantage that unionists had over indy campaigners was the omnipresent Metro free paper. This, being a ‘hot off the wires’ amalgam of anti-journalism, contained the same pro-unionist propaganda as other tabloids. And it was free on the bus. And there was no free indy supporting alternative commuters could have chosen. For these reasons I think it should have been banned on public transport during the indyref; it turned buses into propaganda wagons. I can’t imagine a free paper like Metro editorially supporting a political party at the General Election but it was somehow acceptable for them to be partisan during the referendum.
Then… an amazingly optimistic thing happened for indy supporters. The Sunday Herald came out for Yes. They did it early enough that it felt like it was the first of other dominoes that might topple toward Yes, that other newspapers might follow, maybe even the daily Herald. They didn’t. The euphoria surrounding the Sunday Herald’s front page endorsement of Yes and its historical editorial gave way to, for me at least, deep disappointment that a popular daily didn’t follow suit.
Having worked at scotsman.com for 13 years, I have a sceptical view of how newspapers operate as businesses. They are primarily concerned with revenue and however they can raise money is potentially legitimate, from attempting to sell user data to 3rd party businesses, to running online dating and gambling franchises. This is understandable in the digital age when circulation is dropping dramatically. High quality news output is very rarely their primary concern. Investigation and interrogation takes time and money, so let’s grab somebody else’s content off ‘the wires’ and shove it up quick. That most newspapers do the same thing shouldn’t surprise anyone; it’s why most tabloids publish the same content each day with slightly different spin and emphasis. Real journalism is dying and newspapers are over-populated by features writers and columnists. Not that I’m criticising columnists, who remain the last bastion of intelligent thought in many newspapers as the rest of the paper struggles to remain relevant whilst not upsetting investors and advertisers.
It may be considered churlish, but born of my aforementioned scepticism regarding newspapers’ business models, I am one of the few who does not eulogise the Sunday Herald’s endorsement of independence. In fact, it could be viewed as a cynical fence-sitting exercise by the Herald’s publishers. If they were going to sacrifice one title to independence it may as well be the Sunday. Less risky, and would lead to less of a backlash for the publishing group as a whole, whichever way the vote went. This has proved to be the case; The Herald receives less criticism than other daily newspapers for its strongly pro-union stance and for printing the same scare stories with minimal scrutiny that all unionist papers did. Their Sunday sister paper performed as yang to the daily Herald’s yin.
Make no mistake about the power of newspapers in the digital age; even though their circulations are declining, they are still influential. Their content is read online, if not in print, and links to their articles are circulated widely on social media. But greater than their article content is the power of their headlines, even for people who don’t read newspapers. Commuters in train or bus stations were inundated during the indyref with a daily barrage of pro-unionist/anti-independence headlines screaming at them from the newspaper rotunda, even if they didn’t pick one up and buy it. This is subliminal advertising par excellence. It is also the main reason why a Sunday paper has less impact on the public psyche than a daily (beyond the obvious distinction of only being published one day a week); it is not part of the subliminal message to working week commuters. Sunday papers are delivered or a person makes a special trip to get one; they are not seen by the heaving mass of the Scottish commuting public.
The Sunday Herald did a great job of encouraging Yes voters and making them feel as if they weren’t alone in working for a better society, but beyond that catharsis its worth was questionable. The Sunday Herald should have attacked the No camp and left them defensively scrambling for effective retorts on Monday morning; in short, they should have made an impression. Reading Monday morning’s newspapers one would struggle to recognise that a major independence supporting newspaper had been printed the previous day. It needed to aggressively attack ridiculous unionist claims and communicate stridently with No supporters and the undecided; instead it mainly published independence supporting ‘echo chamber’ articles that made a splash with ‘Yessers’ but barely caused a ripple beyond that group. They supplied the print equivalent of a Sunday morning neck and shoulder massage for Yes supporters.
Now if the Sunday Post had come out for Yes…