The future of the media in Scotland

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
30 Apr 2012

A speech to the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), meeting in Inverness from 23-25 April 2012. See notes and resolution below for details.

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This motion [1] covers a range of complex media concerns, but at its heart it is straightforward. It is about spelling out the action needed to face down serious threats not only to the quality of a free, diverse and responsible media in Scotland and the United Kingdom – but the threats to its very existence.

The mergers, cutbacks and job losses in Scotland (epitomised by the news of the £143 million loss at Johnston Press [2]) tell a very sobering story indeed.

Scotland is entering a major, historic debate about its constitutional future. Whatever view you and I take on the forthcoming referendum, do we really want to enter such an important democratic debate with a national and local media that has become, effectively, the emaciated voice piece of a few corporate interests?

The problem, in a nutshell, is an asset-stripped industry where big – often foreign – money interests are suppressing the alternative economic models needed to make an increasingly digitally driven media work. Where precarious employment, low pay and redundancies are being used to keep costs down and gains in the hands of the few. And where a culture of hostility ends up blaming all journalists and media workers for the corruption within some key institutions.

The National Union of Journalists is playing a significant role in seeking to ensure that the Leveson inquiry into press standards does not end up just blaming a few individuals, getting hooked on hacking (important though that scandal is), and bypassing the really big underlying issues of unequal media ownership, lack of investment and lack of democratic accountability.

People at large are waking up to the reality we have been talking about for many years – the reality that the Murdoch empire and what it represents is all about building a compliant media that lives by fear, keeps workers dependent, thrives on secrecy, and feeds the interests of the rich and powerful.

But Murdoch is only the tip of the iceberg. Yes, News Corp owns some 40 per cent of national UK newspapers and a chunk of TV too. But don’t forget that here in Scotland the Herald is owned by Newsquest (a division of Gannett). [3] As crisis looms, the vultures are circling, which is why we need a proper Scottish Government enquiry into the full range of issues – including the hollowing out and destruction of the local press, the impact of digital media, and the need for a properly remunerated, non-threatening environment for all media workers. That is important to enabling journalists and others to resist those who have been bringing the industry into disrepute, incidentally.

Let us never forget that the strength of our democracy and the capacity of unions, civic groups, the labour movement and social justice causes to get a voice and a profile in public debate depends upon a healthy, plural and commercially sustainable media. And in the digital age that media should belong not just to a few, but to all of us.

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NOTES

[1] STUC Composite E, ‘Future of the Media in Scotland’, propose by the National Union of Journalists (Scotland), seconded by Edinburgh TUC. See full text below.
[2] ‘Troubled Johnston Press to merge print and online titles after £143m loss’, This is Money, 25 April 2012. http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/markets/article-2134944/Troubled-John...
[3] Gannett/Newsquest acquired the Herald newspaper in Scotland with the purchase of the publishing arm of the Scottish Media Group in 2003, in a highly controversial £216 million sale.

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© Simon Barrow was speaking as a delegate for the National Union of Journalists at the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) 2012. He is also co-director of Ekklesia.

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STUC Composite E

That this Congress recognises that free, responsible, diverse and challenging media play a vital role in the life of any democratic society and, therefore, notes with concern the mounting threats to their existence in both Scotland and the UK, due to the decline of the economic models that traditionally supported them. Congress especially notes:

* the devastating consequences for journalists’ pay, working conditions and authors’ rights;
* the collapse of ethical conduct in some newspapers, engendering hostility from politicians and public, and a threat of legislation which may restrict investigative journalism, as well as unacceptable invasions of privacy;
* the rise in unverified ‘free’ journalism provided by PR and other unpaid sources;
* the widespread exploitation of unpaid interns;
* the rapid decline in the availability of local newspapers produced locally;
* the specific threats facing the Scottish media, with print journalism in Scotland suffering round after round of cost-cutting; and
* the difficulty in gaining sufficient income from online media to finance serious journalistic activity.

Congress calls on the General Council to urge the Scottish Government to set up urgently a Commission of Inquiry into the future of the media in Scotland, and to call on all member unions and the Scottish Government to promote the survival of thriving and responsible media, including:

* supporting the creation of a Scottish Digital Broadcasting Network;
* supporting the development of trust models of media ownership, such as the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian and Observer Group;
* campaigning for the development of new forms of community media;
* identifying and prosecuting media behaviour that breaches privacy laws;
developing new regulatory mechanisms to replace the discredited UK Press Complaints Commission; and
* encouraging the development of new sources of funding for investigative journalism, including academic institutions and foundations concerned with civil society and democracy.

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