Scottish Newspapers, Language and Identity – Book review, by Joe Owens

LANGUAGE, and how journalists and newspapers use it, is a critical and fruitful field of study, not often reflected upon, perhaps understandably, in the hurly burly of the newsroom but one which shouldn’t be left solely to academics.

That is in no way an implied criticism of this piece of research but a reminder that we in the trade have to pay more attention to how our language, as we practise it, is used, mediated and deployed.

Fiona Douglas’s book takes on the skewed, contradictory, paradoxically static and dynamic beast that is Scottish national identity and examines how it is reflected, refracted, even shaped by the way newspapers use the Scots language.

It is a large subject and the author admits that certain aspects she touches on need, or have had, more attention elsewhere than this investigation permits and, in that, she is right.

Douglas, who lectures in English language at the University of Leeds, studies the use of Scots terms in newspapers between 1995 and 2005 in The Herald, The Scotsman and the Daily Record, using the Times and the Sun as controls.

No Sunday titles are considered, nor are titles you would have thought vital to the exercise, such as the Press and Journal and the Courier. Local newspapers and freesheets are also excluded from the mix. However, it would be churlish to complain given the amount of newsprint that had to be scoured through.

Its conclusions are on the whole unsurprising and provisional: That Scots terms are used more in sport, diary columns and feature articles, for example. That the Daily Record used the words, ‘bevvy’ and ‘ned’ considerably more often than the broadsheets and that literary references and allusion in Scots are carried more frequently in The Scotsman and The Herald.

For all that, and for a’ that, it is an useful and worthwhile piece of work.

From analysing the use of certain stereotypes – Tartanry, the Kailyard and Clydesidism – to examining the inroads made by London-produced titles ( she labels them “interlopers”) and outlining the impact of devolution on areas such as academia and publishing, it has much value. Its examination of and conclusions, such as they are, about how and why newspapers use Scots terms and idioms is particularly interesting and provides plenty of room for debate.

Douglas argues that newspapers “are engaged in an ongoing negotiation of acceptable language styles with their readerships” and claims they use Scots “as much for symbolic purposes, language display and stylistic considerations as  … for communicative import”.

And she makes an important point about what readers find “acceptable”. The occasional use of Scots is OK for humour, for example, but a news report written that way would not be. Going further, in her analysis of the Sun’s raised circulation north of the border, Douglas claims “Scottishness sells” and that they are getting their sales pitch right by tartanising their image.

But she is shrewd enough to recognise that these manoevres are “driven by commerce rather than idealism” and that price wars, special offers, the availability of free newspapers and the internet – alongside habit, class, regional and political factors – are the prime movers in shifting circulation figures.

More for an academic than a general reader (given that it published by a university press, this is neither a surprise nor a rebuke), it is still an engaged and interesting survey, both theoretical and practical and she quotes from a wide range of sources to back up her contentions.

It also, going back to my first point, note that in recent disputes over threatened compulsory redundancies in Scotland, in 2007 at the Herald titles and, before the book was written and at the time of writing, the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, a central focus of journalists’ concerns was the fear that quality would inevitably suffer. This is crucial. The link between journalists, newspapers and their readership was an emphatic aspect of opposition to the plans.

In the ongoing debate about the general future of newspapers, it is a reminder that the specific identity of the Scottish press, its distinctiveness and the distinct role it plays is not underestimated, least of all by those who work in it.

Joe Owens is a journalist and writer.

Scottish Newspapers, Language and Identity, by Fiona Douglas, is published by Edinburgh University Press. ISBN: 978 0 7486 2437 9. Price: £50.