In My Opinion: David Hutchison: Bumpy ride to the referendum?

AS the Scottish and UK governments edge towards an agreement on the arrangements for the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, it would be useful to consider the challenges faced by the Media in what is a very unusual situation.

By ‘Media’, traditionally we tend to think of the Press and broadcasting, but we now live in an age when other forms of media – such as online journals, blogs, Facebook and tweets – have become significant forums where discussion of political events takes place.

Scottish newspapers face the run-up to the referendum in a much-weakened situation. Not only are they suffering serious circulation declines, in common with papers across the Western world, but also they have been losing market share to English titles.

In the mid-1970s, Scottish produced titles accounted for 64 per cent of daily sales and 66 per cent of Sunday sales. Last year, the figures were 44 per cent and 55 per cent.

The reasons for this remarkable transformation in fortunes may well include the failure of the owners of Scottish newspapers – indigenous and non-indigenous companies – to invest in their titles, and the obvious attractions of the broader range of news and features in many English titles, particularly if they editionise sufficiently to provide the appropriate mixes of politics, sport, crime and human interest material which appeal to the segments of the market in which they are operating.

Nonetheless, it is still something of a mystery that, post-devolution, the citizens of Scotland have shown limited loyalty to Scotland-based papers.

The partial exceptions to this lack of commitment are the readers of the dailies produced in Aberdeen and Dundee, where a strong focus on their home regions has ensured that these papers have not suffered declines nearly as precipitate as those endured by the Central Belt titles.

The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood has taken an interest in the decline of weekly newspapers.

Two years ago, a committee inquiry was held into the situation of these titles; it produced some useful recommendations and precipitated the abandonment of a proposal from local authorities that they should be allowed to move public announcements online, a move which would have deprived weeklies of significant advertising revenue.

However, MSPs have shown no appetite for examining the very serious situation facing some Scottish dailies and Sundays. Given the desire of both sides to see a full and informed debate in the run-up to 2014, this is a strange omission, and one MSPs may come to regret.

The position of the broadcasters may, at first glance, appear stronger, for the BBC has its guaranteed income in the shape of the licence fee, and its commercial rival, STV, no longer protests that it cannot afford to produce news programmes; indeed, it offers Newsnight Scotland regular competition – in the shape of Scotland Tonight, and at the arguably more attractive time of 10.30pm.

However, the BBC has been forced, as a consequence of a totally unprecedented intervention, two years ago, by the coalition government, to freeze its income in real terms for the next few years, and to pay for a number of services previously funded by government.

Some journalists’ posts have already been lost north and south of the border. For its part, STV depends largely on advertising revenue, revenue which is unlikely to be buoyant in the face of a recession which is clearly going to stretch beyond 2014.

Newspapers are at liberty to be partisan in their presentation of public events, and tabloid titles – in the traditional sense of the term – have long since given up any pretence of fairness when it comes to politics.

The broadsheets – again in the traditional sense – make a better attempt at fairness, but they are not under the constitutional obligation to be impartial, as the broadcasters are.

There is, however, a factor complicating the position of the latter, particularly the BBC.

The SNP government has been arguing for some time that UK broadcasting spend in Scotland is less than it should be. It has also thrown its weight behind the proposal – which emanated from the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, which it established – that there should be a pan-Scottish digital channel, costing over £70million per year to run.

However, Holyrood has so far declined to find the finance for this channel, and the SNP has continued to use the ‘underfunding argument’, while making it clear that, post-independence, there would be a major restructuring of broadcasting in Scotland – although there would apparently be no danger of viewers losing such programmes as EastEnders.

What all of this means is that both the BBC and STV are not only going to be required to provide fair reporting of the debate – and that will no doubt include set-tos between both sides in front of studio audiences, mini-debates in themselves – but also to find ways in which to respond as corporate entities to the proposals about their own futures, should a majority for independence be secured.

And to do so without laying themselves open to accusations that they are seeking to influence the outcome of the referendum. An additional complication is that Blair Jenkins, who chaired the Broadcasting Commission, and was previously in charge of news and current affairs at both STV and the BBC, is now chief executive of the ‘Yes’ campaign.

The referendum will be like no previous election or, indeed, referendum, since what is at issue is the continuation of the United Kingdom in its present form.

For the politicians involved there can be no second shot in five years’ time. If the ‘Yes’ camp wins, the UK will be no more, and if the ‘No’ camp prevails, the Nationalist project will have failed.

First Minister, Alex Salmond, has made it clear that a referendum is an once-in-a-generation plebiscite. Therefore, we can expect that, at every opportunity, both sides will be seeking to secure advantage, and may not be too scrupulous as to how they do so.

Newspapers cannot be reminded of their duty to be fair, for that is a matter of choice, not obligation, but they can be pressurised to pay more or less attention to this or that aspect of the debate.

That is normal in an election; the complicating factor here is that they will have to deal with permanent winners and losers afterwards, and if they have been particularly partisan, grudges could be borne for a very long time. The Press, generally – and the Press in Scotland, in particular – need help to survive, and it may well be that such help will in the end be in the form of some kind of public subvention as is currently the case, for example, in Norway and Sweden.

Would politicians who have just lost a referendum and are angry at particular newspapers, be willing to consider such subventions?

Another intriguing question is how the Scottish editions of English titles will handle the debate, particularly those which have in the past supported the election of an SNP administration at Holyrood.

If Scotland becomes independent, the BBC in its present form is likely to cease to exist, and we will face a period of great turbulence as new arrangements are negotiated. If the ‘No’ side prevails, the BBC will confront an SNP government which may win re-election in 2016. Some of its members might then take the view that this or that report, debate or discussion damaged the ‘Yes’ campaign very badly, they might wish to argue that the motivation was self-interested, and that the Corporation has therefore forfeited legitimacy. STV might find itself in a similar position.

All of what has just been said is of course entirely speculative and might only be relevant if the going gets rough. But it is hard to believe that the going will not get rough; too much is at stake.

In an ideal situation both sides would be well matched in respect of personnel and expertise, and newspapers and broadcasting organisations would be balanced in their treatment of the discussion.

That is a counsel of perfection, which is even less likely to have attention paid to it in the New Media.

We may have admirable online journals such as The Scottish Review but there are other commentators to whom the notion of evenhandedness is totally unknown. It is often alleged that there is a group of cybernats who will in an instant attack public figures and journalists, who are deemed to have offended their beliefs, either on their own sites or in response to material published on newspaper sites.

It would not be surprising if cyberunionists became equally prominent in the next couple of years.

Partisan and non-partisan blogging and tweeting are bound to have some impact on the two campaigns, not least when material which they generate is taken up by the Press and broadcasting.

And then there is the phenomenon of the growing number of young people who do not read newspapers or bother too much with informational radio and television. Will what is said in cyberspace have far more of an impact on how they vote, than it does on their parents and grandparents?

For media watchers a fascinating period lies ahead; for media executives and journalists, it could be a very bumpy ride.

David Hutchison is co-editor of The Media in Scotland (Edinburgh University Press, 2008). He is also Visiting Professor in Media Policy at Glasgow Caledonian University.