Sunday, 30 November 2014

State of the nation

On the 18th September 2014, approximately 45% of Scotland's population voted for independence. A minority, yes, but a significant one. You'd think, then, that with such a vast number of people all supporting a similar cause, there would be a number of pro-independence newspapers to support their viewpoint -- just as there are newspapers that support the Tories or Labour -- right?

You'd be wrong. Throughout the independence campaign, just one single newspaper supported a Yes vote, and it wasn't even a daily. It was the weekly Sunday Herald, whose sister publication, the Herald, published Monday-Saturday, ultimately backed a No vote, as did the vast majority of the newspapers published in Scotland, either explicitly or implicitly. (The Scottish Sun was one of the only newspapers to make a resolute declaration of neutrality at the eleventh hour.) Almost half the country's population had their opinion reflected by a single weekly paper. A scandalous state of affairs, as I imagine most sane people would agree.

Last week, that gulf narrowed in a small but significant way with the introduction of the first weekly newspaper to explicitly support independence, The National. When it came out for Yes, the Sunday Herald defied all expectations and achieved something that no other newspaper has managed for a very long time indeed: it increased its sales figures. Not merely increased them, but DOUBLED them. Sensing that they were on to a good thing, the publishers behind the Herald and Sunday Herald, NewsQuest, decided to commission a pro-independence weekly using the same editorial team and most of the same contributors. What started off as a week-long trial run was confirmed on Friday to continue indefinitely as the paper broke all expectation in terms of sales figures. In fact, it proved so popular that, by as early as Tuesday, the publisher doubled its print run. There is a healthy appetite, it seems, for a paper that explicitly supports the concept of independence and challenges the establishment narrative.

Myself, I took advantage of the rather generous digital subscription offer of a week's worth of issues (i.e. five -- the paper doesn't publish on Saturdays and Sundays) for £1.50. I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, an avid newspaper reader. For as long as I've had any interest in current affairs, I've been able to get all the information I need online, which I find vastly preferable to picking up a physical paper -- not just because it's less cumbersome to read and I don't get ink on my fingers, but also because it means I can get my information from a variety of sources instead of being restricted to the editorial line of a single publication. In fact, before the Sunday Herald started supporting independence, the only times I'd ever bought a paper were when I was looking for job advertisements. I bought the Sunday Herald most weeks more as a means of supporting the endeavour than because I had any intention of reading it cover to cover (most of their articles are available online anyway), and have decided to do the same with the National. In fact, I just took out a three-month subscription to the digital edition for a very reasonable £16.99.

As far as its content goes, someone -- accurately, I feel -- described it as essentially a Scottish, pro-independence version of the i Newspaper. It's more or less a tabloid, albeit not of the cheap, tawdry variety -- there are no Page 3 girls, for instance, and celebrity gossip is more or less non-existent. (The covers are really its most sensationalist aspect.) The style is accessible, with clear, direct language and lots of large pictures. A few advertisements too, at the moment mostly for pro-Yes outfits like Glasgow's Yesbar and Deacon Blue's upcoming tour, though that appears to be changing, with Friday's edition having been expanded from 32 to 40 pages because of an increase in advertisers wanting to hawk their wares within its covers. Starting tomorrow there's even a crossword puzzle, along with cartoons from the brilliant Greg Moodie. The content is overwhelmingly focused on Scotland and Scottish politics in particular, but there is a decent amount of international content as well. I particularly like the inclusion of a profile of a different world leader each day.

It seems bizarre to be celebrating the fact that independence now has the backing of 3% of the print media, but that's the situation we're living with. Whereas Catalonia has its own television networks and press, which are able to take a pro-independence line, Scotland has for a long time been extremely poorly served by its media, with the establishment (i.e. Westminster, unionist) line being piped in on a daily basis... and nowhere was this more apparent than during the final two-week anti-independence blitzkreig, where the BBC News channel essentially turned into a 24-hour rolling propaganda broadcast, prompting at least one former contributor to condemn it for its Pravda-esque antics. 3% vs. 97% is still a sad indictment of our media, but the tectonic plates are shifting. Where the National has led the way, other publications like the Scottish Independent and Scottish Statesman look set to follow. The times they are a-changing...

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