General media: SMG – a tale for us all?

THE ‘fall of SMG’ is the morality tale that speaks for the whole of the Scottish media; how the grand claims of a ‘national’ industry ended in an impoverished, regional mediocrity that shames Scotland.

Flick back through SMG’s glossy annual statements and you read of high ambition. In the 1990’s this was the group that had its eye on the bigger game, the company that wanted to play on the international stage.

It owned newspapers and TV. It bought indies, like Ginger Television. It was a player. Now it’s back talking to Ulster TV, about a possible merger, when, barely three months ago, it considered itself too big for a 50-50 split in any combined entity.

Should any hack, producer or media tart be inclined to snigger at SMG’s descent, then look around at the rest of the media; tears are a more appropriate response. Our newspapers and broadcasters are in a sorry state. Over the last decade, we have travelled from uptown ambition to skid row, and, unlike Oscar Wilde, not one of us is looking up at the stars.

Our national papers are all taking a beating. Budgets have been cut repeatedly at The Herald and The Scotsman, with their Sunday editions, The Sunday Herald and Scotland on Sunday, feeling the same pain. These are effectively regional newspaper set-ups, with the ambition to boot. When The Times gets its Scottish operation up and and running next year, we might as well start digging the grave for our national titles.

It looks little better among the ‘red tops’. Trinity Mirror may protest that the PM edition of the Daily Record is here to stay, but no-one is lauding it as a big seller. The bigger worry is for the morning edition, it’s future looking dark as the London suits wonder what to save and what
to sell.

You’ll find no joy at stv – Taggart staggers on, like a knifing victim crawling to A&E, but what else has the merger of stv and Grampian got to offer the wider industry? Over at the Beeb, swingeing cuts in the news department have been met with a shrug of the shoulder. A nation of a five million people is served by a broadcaster haemorrhaging talent and hooked on a news agenda lifted from the papers and press releases.

It is only the decision that more production should take place firth of London that accounts for the mini-boom in independent TV production.

The only ray of hope in our industry comes from a metropolitan commitment to diversity, not from a swell of confidence or talent this side of the border. Seven years after devolution, we have a media industry which lacks energy, ambition and quality.

Alex Bell is a founding director of