Two cultures, one Glasgow
Photograph by Islay McLeod
Stop Press: Part 3
My plan for
saving a great
In modern times, which for these purposes I assume to have started in the mid-1960s, there were two golden periods in the history of Scotland's national newspaper, the Scotsman. The first occurred during the editorship of Alastair Dunnett, one of the few editors who was also a major public figure. His wife Dorothy was as clever as he was, and a better writer. What a couple.
Under Dunnett, an investigative unit was established at the Scotsman. They say that all journalism is investigative, but it isn't true. Most journalism is press release slightly adapted; or, increasingly, just printed as sent. Close Up – the name of this unit – was headed by Magnus Magnusson who had Gus MacDonald and David Kemp (Arnold's brother) as his assistants. A more impressive team of journalists has rarely been assembled in one small room.
I was supposed to be joining them as the junior member; Magnusson had even lined up the subject of my first exposé. Then he left unexpectedly to embark on his glittering career in broadcasting. By the time the offer was renewed, after he'd gone, I had another job. I cursed my luck. One of the remaining pleasures of my life is to make an annual award in Magnusson's name and memory.
I digress. I'm here today to save his old paper. I'd better get on with it. It won't take long.
There is no point in deluding ourselves that the Scotsman can be saved by resurrecting the Close Up unit. There may be the inquiring talent – I wouldn't know – but there isn't the money. Magnus and his friends must have cost the paper a fortune. The investigation they were running when I got involved was into dodgy goings-on at the Highlands Board. It was fabulous stuff, but ruinously expensive. What they did publish in the end was devastating, but it took a lot of time and patience. It couldn't or wouldn't be afforded now. It's cheaper just to use the press release.
That was the first golden period in modern times. The second is of more interest because it's just about do-able as a repeat performance. It occurred a decade or so after the events I have just described, when the Scotsman under the editorship of Eric Mackay became the voice of frustrated Scottish aspiration, the intelligent and critical voice of political self-determination, an open house, a glorious talking shop. Talk is good, said my favourite philosopher. Talk was good then, and you didn't have to look further than the Scotsman to be part of it.
The debate was led by a marvellous man straight out of the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, the one whose name I mentioned two days ago, Neal Ascherson, who was persuaded to live and work in Scotland, writing for the Scotsman, conferring his intellectual brilliance on the discussion. I'm not sure that I can imagine someone of his precious ability working in the Scottish media now, yet look how far we've come without intellectual brilliance of any sort.
The Scotsman needs to win back all the broadsheet people – the ones who take those decisions, the others who influence them – and move out from there to the Scottish idealists and teachers and artists, the many thousands
of us who are alienated by the state of our mainstream media.
What happened to the Scotsman? A simple, perhaps simplistic, answer is that the Barclay brothers happened to it, and then the beyond dismal Johnston Press, which might as well be turning out the proverbial baked beans and whose chief executive badly needs someone to write his public statements. Scary thought: perhaps someone is being paid to write this man's public statements.
It wouldn't take a Close Up-type fortune to re-position the paper politically and make it again the intelligent and critical voice of Scottish self-determination. Actually, forget the politics. It just makes commercial sense. Of course you would need the writers. There are some out there; a few good ones work for the paper already. And I suggest that the paper must have a youngish writer-editor who is recognised as the most important person in the building, not as some disposable functionary.
In case John McLellan requests a second correction in 48 hours, I'm not suggesting that he couldn't write. He wrote rather well. Nor was he a disposable functionary, but like all other Scotsman editors in recent times he was regarded as one. That's a big part of the problem.
The Scotsman, if it is to be successfully re-born, needs to invest – by which I mean long-term invest – in an editor who is a writer and a thinker first and foremost. The words must be paramount. The ideas must be paramount. Is this saviour out there? Again I wouldn't know. He or she possibly lurks outside Scotland and dreams of returning. Go find.
Whoever it is will make a campaigning splash with some 'shock issues' of the type done with such panache by Hugh Cudlipp in the old Mirror. I suggest also that he or she will re-launch the Scotsman in a modern broadsheet format. I do not suggest that it is impossible to publish a serious daily newspaper as a tabloid. The continental Europeans do it all the time, elegantly, but the British are hopeless at this game.
There is another reason for going back to broadsheet: Edinburgh, where the decisions are made, is a broadsheet city. The Scotsman needs to win back all the broadsheet people – the ones who take those decisions, the others who influence them – and move out from there to the idealists and teachers and artists, the many thousands of us who are alienated by the state of our mainstream media. We are there for the taking. We wait for something better. We long for it every day.
Can this be done by the Johnston Press? Clearly not. They talk not of newspapers, but of products. They have failed journalism and they have failed journalists. Their grave is fit only to be danced on. I suggest the Eightsome Reel. I issue this challenge to the wealthy patriots of Scotland, of whom there are many. Get out there, form your consortium, convince us of your honourable motives, and make a reasonable offer to this lot's bankers to take a great newspaper out of their hands. Better still, let's have a trust along the lines of the Guardian's, safeguarding the paper's interests and supported by all who care about Scotland.
By the way (as they say in Glasgow), will any of this happen? Nae chance. It's a dream, my friends – only a dream.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review