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June 15, 2016

What’s missing in the modern media

While the internet has completely transformed the way we consume news media, it is worth pausing to reflect on what, if anything, has been lost along the way in this headlong pursuit of technological innovation. With such a proliferation of media sources, one aspect of news coverage from the pre-internet era that seems to have suffered is what might be considered the minutiae of local news – court reporting, local council committee meetings and so on. Good piece in Scottish Review about the implications this has for local democracy and accountability.


Donald S Murray, The Scottish Review

Many years ago, when I was but a fledgling teacher, I used to see another young man often going about his work in my home-town of Stornoway. He would step nimbly across the school playground, leaving the grey chambers of the council buildings and heading to his workplace in Francis Street, near the centre of the town. We would exchange a few words, perhaps about the meeting he had just attended or the one at the Stornoway Trust or Harbour Authority which he was going to later that evening.

A few days afterwards, a full account of the disputes and agreements he had witnessed would appear in the columns of the newspaper, the Stornoway Gazette, for which he worked; each expression noted, the eccentricities and earnest qualities of each individual councillor and what they tried to do for their ward outlined on its pages. Alongside this, there would often be a short excerpt from Hansard, telling of the questions asked by the local MP in parliament in recent times.

This form of activity still goes on in Shetland. I often see such sterling reporters as Ryan Taylor of the Shetland Times and Neil Riddell of the local news website (imaginatively titled Shetland News) making their way from the town hall to their cars bearing something that resembles that Stornoway Gazette reporter’s little black notebook. They too are weighed down by the views and opinions of the councillors they have had the pleasure of listening to, words buzzing like fleas in their ears. They also might have a meeting of the Shetland Trust or sometimes even the local sports and arts organisations later in the evening, mute observers of all the titanic struggles going on there.

Sometimes they are even accompanied by a clutch of BBC reporters, recording all that is the subject of debate, the entire gamut of opinion from ‘Aye’ to ‘Nay’ occurring within Lerwick’s civic buildings. Every week, alternating with one or other, both the MP and MSP report back to the electorate on what has happened in their respective legislative chambers each week.

Little of that occurs in the Western Isles these days, its press and media illustrating a problem that now afflicts much of Scotland. The Stornoway Gazette has long stopped being the paper of record for the islands it purports to serve. It no longer even seeks to satisfy the purpose which provided pages and pages for readers like my friend John Neil Munro to scour and study, supplying stories which highlighted the Free Church’s disapproval of disco-dancing or life-long vendettas over the ownership of peat-banks.

Unlike the Shetland Times, still owned by people who live within the community, it has all but given up on the pretence of being a local newspaper. A strange exotic bird, its claim to supply a news service at all seem to be as frail and tenuous as the clutch on the perch of Monty Python’s famous Norwegian Blue parrot. If the trademark of island newspapers and perhaps, island life more generally is the ‘avoidance and obfuscation’ that, in Irish writer John McGahern’s view is often found in small places, it exists in fully-fledged form at the north-western edge of the Johnston Press empire.

And as for the other media outlets in these islands? Some of the community newspapers are excellent, sharp and well-written though their range is inevitably narrow. (Together with its local volunteer radio station, there is little doubt that its community news-sheets are much better than Shetland’s coverage, a reflection, perhaps, of the poor quality of much of the attention the Stornoway Gazette has given to its outlying areas. There is also an extremely well-written ‘freebie’ publication called Events.)

One looks with regret, however, at that former paid-up member of the awkward squad, the West Highland Free Press. Though one local SNP representative still refuses to speak to it on the grounds that it is a Labour-supporting newspaper, one can only wonder what merits his stand. It is – I believe – a profoundly mistaken way for any democratically-elected politician to behave. (Surely we have a duty to talk to those with whom we disagree.) It is, however, made dafter still by the way little remains – apart from its fine arts coverage – in that paper’s reporting to suggest it has the sharp edge it once possessed.

There are also the news websites, poor relations both in content and number of employees of their excellent northern equivalent, Shetland News. There is little doubt that the Island News and Advertiser is well-written and presented. However, it does suffer from the fact that it only has one full-time employee. This is also the case with Hebrides News. For all that its news is more wide-ranging than its rival, there are questions about much of its coverage. Like much of the internet, it turns CP Scott’s dictum about a good newspaper – ‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred’ – on its head. In this case, content is free but the facts are all too often clumsily written and politically-skewed fiction. This is particularly true of its letters policy where the owner time and time again panders to his own prejudices when deciding whether to publish particular offerings or not. Democratic, it ain’t. Unlike its Shetland counterpart, Shetland News, it does not openly declare its political allegiance in its occasional editorial. Instead, it sneaks it in.

And then there is the radio, its news content whittled away by the last few decades. In 1976 when Radio Highland was introduced, there used to be an hour and 10 minutes of news content, much of it covering the Western Isles. This provided time for proper analysis and detailed discussion of local issues. Nowadays, this time has been whittled down to random bulletins of six minutes in length and there is little sense of radio being a voice of either record or discussion. This is a particular issue in the Western Isles where much of the output is in Gaelic. This means that, for instance, an MP can confess on air that he left papers relating to the important local issue of marine protection areas mouldering on his desk for 18 months without many in his audience either listening or understanding.

And what does all this mean for democracy? A great deal, I would argue. While the internet has great value, it has done little for accountability at a local level. This is especially true of the various councils, trusts and other bodies that inform and influence lives. They are no longer either assisted or held in check by newspaper men like the one that used to cross the school playground years ago. The same is true of our parliamentary representatives. They may boast in their newspaper columns that they have made ‘X’ number of contributions in the past number of months. Few (if any of our) media outlets examine the nature and quality of the discourse. The man or woman speaks. That is all.

This, too, has its effect on the centre and, indeed, national democracy as a whole. Once upon a time, journalists in Glasgow or Edinburgh used to have my friend John Neil’s habit, scouring the newspapers of the fringes for any little snippets they could use. There is no doubt that some of the news they used was fun and irrelevant, tales like the Free Church’s ban on disco-dancing or the squabble of two men over a peat-bank in North Lochs. Some, however, was vital in ensuring local accountability, a way of keeping an eye on how well (or badly) democracy on the edge is working, how, too, the flight and ferry networks were operating, whether crofters and small farmers were receiving their grants in time. These local concerns were given an airing in the national press, in that way reaching the ears of both national government and the civil service.

Nowadays, however, there are all too many places where the local voice Is not being heard – a state of affairs which has major repercussions for the nature and quality of our nation’s democracy.