The pro-Scottish independence paper launched this week. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Scotland's new pro-independence newspaper deserves its place

Avowedly pro-independence, The National hit the streets on Monday and sold out in a matter of hours.

Something highly unusual happened this week in Scotland – a new daily newspaper was launched on an unsuspecting public.

Avowedly pro-independence, The National hit the streets on Monday and sold out in a matter of hours; soon prompting complaints that it was as tough to track down as the proverbial hens teeth.

A hard copy of the first edition (sold for 50p) can still be bought - but only if you're prepared to fork out at least a tenner for it on eBay. In an era where papers are cutting staff and resources like there’s literally no tomorrow this is pretty stunning stuff.

By any measure then the first few days of this fledgling publication have been an enormous success. There are, of course, good reasons why it has been shifting up to 60,000 copies per day.

Post-referendum things remain very much up in the air. Politically there's plenty of unfinished business, not least the thorny issue of further devolved powers to Holyrood and an ongoing Labour leadership election.

Then there's the media. For those who didn't manage to follow every cough of the independence campaign it’s worth reflecting on the deep grassroots unease – nay, outright anger – on the Yes side about what is seen as an overwhelmingly pro-Union press.

Just one newspaper – The National’s sister paper, the Sunday Herald – came out in favour of independence. Others such as The Scotsman and the traditionally Labour-supporting Daily Record, were never likely to dive headlong into the Yes camp.

That meant the most pronounced and resolutely pro-indy voices were to be found away from the mainstream media on websites such as Wings Over Scotland and Bella Caledonia.

The Sunday Herald certainly did rather well on the back of its independence declaration, increasing by more than a hundred per cent its year on year circulation.

Such numbers are gold dust in these thin times and it can hardly be denied that The National is as much an economic as a democratic venture. Its publishers – Newsquest – have made it clear this is no more than a five-day pilot. It's sink or swim right now, this week.

Wisely The National's editor, Richard Walker, has said he's no knowledge of sales targets and even if he did would not spell out what they are.

Frankly has no need to take any hostages to fortune for his success with the Sunday Herald is evidence enough that the new paper stands more than a fighting chance.

It has a clear raison d’etre and will be welcomed by a large number of the 1.6 million Scots who voted Yes, a fair number of potential readers.

Angela Haggerty is editor of CommonSpace – a digital news and social networking service funded by the pro-independence Common Weal think-tank. She views the advent of The National as a "welcome development” and "certainly a step towards changing a lack of balance in the newspaper industry.”

That may depend on where you stand however, with some pro-Union journalists already gleefully describing the new venture as "McPravda".

A cheap shot this may be, but still, the last thing any newspaper would wish to be is a free-sheet for the party of government.

Doubtless the SNP will be rubbing its hands at the emergence of The National. For its part, its journalists will need to be prepared to hold the Holyrood government and Parliament to account as much as it would do the Smith Commission over devolution.

Indeed there is already some evidence of wider horizons, with child poverty and social inequality featuring as front-page leads.

As Haggerty rightly points out "at the very least the Scottish media has some excitement in it again. It has been a long time coming."

So let's have no knocking of The National, a serious voice reflecting a large chunk of public opinion and the changing landscape of Scottish politics. It deserves to be taken seriously.

Douglas Beattie is a journalist, author of The Rivals Game, Happy Birthday Dear Celtic, and The Pocket Book of Celtic, and a Labour Councillor based in London. He grew up in Scotland

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496