In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: More on the IFNCs

HELLO, good evening and welcome to the least-watched television news programme in Scotland.

This will not be the introduction to the government-funded news bulletins on the new Scottish pilot to be run by Johnston Press, DC Thomson and the Herald and Times in conjunction with the new TV production company, Mentorn.

It would, however, most likely reflect the truth of the matter once Scotland’s main newspaper groups get their hands on the £19 million public subsidy that will come their way over two years. But only if Labour is returned to power for a fourth term on May 6.

This would mean DC Thomson, owners of the Sunday Post; Scotsman and weekly group owners, Johnson Press; and the Herald and Times, owned by Newsquest, all looking forward to a Labour victory – and possibly even supporting the Labour election campaign. That would be unthinkable – unless, of course, there was money in it – and there is. It is not quite “a licence to print money,” which is what Roy Thomson enthused about when he was awarded the STV franchise all those years ago, but it is a considerable tranche of guaranteed cash for a Scottish newspaper industry with desperate money troubles.

By the end of this year then, if Labour wins, Scotland will witness the new Scottish News Consortium take over for two years the STV news slot with a multi-platform service. The news that STV’s own proposal for a Scottish Six, produced in partnership with ITN, has been thrown out has shocked industry observers and jolted journalists across Scotland.

Let’s face it, STV was the odds on favourite for this project. They appeared to have the knowledge and experience already in-house in Glasgow to produce an hour-long programme of local, national and international news, much in the same way as Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE) does in Dublin. However, Richard Hooper and his fellow panelists opted for the multi-platform model offered by the Scottish newspaper groups to provide a “multi-layered” service.

Brian McNair, Professor of Journalism and Communications at the University of Strathclyde, said: “Congratulations to SNC, then, for persuading the IFNC panel that newspaper groups used to editorialising and partisanship can be trusted to provide impartial public service journalism. And that long-standing rivals in the Scottish newspaper market can work together to produce a new news brand capable of competing with BBC Scotland.”

But is this really a matter for celebration? Some senior Scottish journalists don’t agree. Joan McAlpine, for example, in her Sunday Times column and on her Go Lassie Go blog is sceptical. She contends that Scotland deserves better than what she calls “parish pump news”.

McAlpine described the winning bidders as “untried” and maintained that STV’s proposed package of “a proper national news service” combining Scottish, British and International stories was “something mature and ambitious that treated us like a grown up country, which the BBC refuse to do”.

She added: “The winning bidders, by contrast, went for hyper local stories provided by weekly newspaper reporters armed with small video cameras (mobile phones?). The winner was picked in London by people with no interest in Scotland, other than their own narrow party political interests. Unionist parties have little to gain from giving Scotland a vigorous, intelligent, challenging quality broadcast sector that builds a sense of national cohesion. Such a development would undermine English cultural dominance, build Scottish self-confidence, and encourage support for further transfer of power to Holyrood.”

That’s the politics, according to Joan. Now what about the journalism?

There is already speculation that this contract could lead to a merger of the Herald and the Scotsman, which is already printed in the west of Scotland. That would leave Scotland with only one ‘quality’ daily newspaper straddling Edinburgh and Glasgow, giving scant coverage to anything beyond the central belt. Given their track record, the managements of these newspapers will be looking for economies of scale, and this could lead to redundancies in the editorial departments.

Is it unthinkable that the Sunday Post could be merged with the Sunday Herald, leading to even more redundancies? And, for example, for PA to be brought in to look after the business pages across all these titles? Or for the number of parliamentary correspondents and political editors at Holyrood and Westminster to be reduced?

If the Johnston weekly titles are to be left to cover the ‘country news’ with mobile phones and hand-held video cameras, as has been suggested, then there will be huge gaps in that coverage since Johnston does not have a presence across the whole nation. Scottish and Universal Newspapers are dominant in Lanarkshire, Ayrshire, Renfrewshire, Dumfries and Galloway and Dunbartonshire, and the Forth and Clyde Weekly Press have a presence from Inverclyde to Inverkeithing. Independent weeklies – there are big ones like the Oban Times, covering vast areas – and most Highland and Island newspapers, like the Shetland Times and the Orcadian, are not included in this deal.

Will this mean then more reporters in the Johnston weeklies, out there in the sticks armed with video cameras and laptops? I doubt it. The trend has been for weekly newspapers to cut back on their editorial staffing, and to move to out-of-town premises combining titles and staff in call centres, even dispensing with editors for individual titles, so don’t put the kettle on for a change of policy in that direction. And what does the future hold for those journalists currently employed by STV? Not a lot, one would have thought as they battle to compete with their new, publicly-subsidised rivals.

And here’s a final thought. Could all this mean that the majority of journalists in Scotland this May will be hoping for a Conservative election victory while their bosses will be praying for a Labour win? Or is that pushing the envelope too far?

Bill Heaney is a former award-winning editor of the Lennox Herald and special adviser to First Minister, Henry McLeish. He was also for four years media adviser to the chair of the Treasury Select Committee. Heaney is an Emeritus Editor of the Society of Editors (Scotland) and a life member of the National Union of Journalists.