More power to Glasgow’s online journalists
The Guardian, by Kevin McKenna
The writing on Bella Caledonia and Wings Over Scotland websites is of a very high quality and often surpasses what appears in paid-for titles
To those who know about these things, the signs and symbols that recently began to appear buried deep beneath the streets of Glasgow were unmistakable: the cybernats are coming to get us and our children are in peril. It was these fears presumably that must have informed the decision of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport to outlaw a series of unique and paid-for adverts by the nationalist website Wings Over Scotland: "There are 37 national or daily newspapers in Scotland. Just five of them are owned in Scotland. None of the 37 supports independence. Wouldn’t you at least like to hear both sides of the story?"
It was bold, imaginative, thought-provoking and sought to address a democratic deficit in the pattern of newspaper ownership in Scotland. The SPT banned the adverts though, on the grounds that they were political. An outdoor advertising agency had accepted the commission in error, it insisted, and a large volume of complaints about the adverts had been received. The transport bosses obviously failed to see the irony of banning an advert for being politically partisan that was actually seeking merely to point out widespread political bias in Scotland’s national press.
Glasgow’s underground provides a service largely limited to the west of the city, so the number of complaints is hardly surprising. Glasgow’s west end – all red corduroys, ponytails and beards – is where the country’s media and political elite are domiciled. On Saturday afternoons on the neighbourhood’s exalted thoroughfare, Byres Road, there are more papooses per square yard than anywhere else outside Alaska.
The Wings Over Scotland website will not be unknown to many of these. For, along with several other of its kind, it has come to represent a significant challenge to Scotland’s old media order and is a daily tormentor of those who defend the union by portraying Scotland as a third-world banana republic without England.
Wings over Scotland, Bella Caledonia, Newsnet Scotland and National Collective are probably the four most outstanding examples of this new online publishing phenomenon. The daily readership of each rivals that of all of Scotland’s main broadsheets. The Wings site is run by a single nationalist enthusiast who lives in Bath called the Rev Stuart Campbell and attracts more than 200,000 readers every month. Neither are these sites for etch-a-sketch journalism produced by eager amateurs. The writing on Bella Caledonia and Wings itself is of a very high quality and daily challenges and surpasses that which appears in the country’s paid-for titles.
Unsurprisingly, they have attracted bucketfuls of opprobrium by several among Scotland’s mainstream media who really ought to know better. Their attempts to dismiss and denigrate Campbell especially are familiar to those who have been following the downfall of Rangers. Scotland’s mainstream football writers have been trying to disparage the efforts of a handful of internet chroniclers who embarrassed them repeatedly with their expert coverage of the Rangers story.
Indeed, the Wings website and some of the others have been dismissed as cybernats, implying that they have participated in abusive baiting of political opponents. I’ll leave aside the fact that much of the vilest material I’ve seen online has been directed personally at Alex Salmond by unionists.
Really though, many of the journalists who claim to be offended by some of the more saucy and belligerent postings really need to behave themselves and get a grip. We occupy an exclusive and hallowed place. We are all paid for the privilege of sticking the boot into anyone who might have upset us that week; we can hardly complain when some of our readers convey online stookies to us in retaliation. Until a few years ago, newspaper columnists were a protected species, able to assemble firing squads all over the shop and only accountable to an editor. Occasionally, the editor of the letters page might slip in a critical letter by way of a sop to a disgruntled reader. Now, we are at the tender mercies of an informed online readership that will scrutinise our facts, criticise our prose style and question our sense of fairness.
Long may it continue. If you doubt that, simply look at the comments that will appear underneath the electronic version of this offering. Why, not so long ago, following one of my attempts at humour I was sharply rebuked thus: "McKenna, you’re nothing but a fucking bastard." It was harsh, and factually incorrect in at least one aspect, but who am I to say it wasn’t fair?
I don’t know this Rev Campbell chappie, beyond a few desultory emails. But he seems to be a bit of a rebel, a buccaneer and a brigand who’s got far too much to say for himself. He doesn’t retreat and gets into fights with everyone. Newspapers used to be like that too. I like his style. Some in my trade have tried to write him off as merely a "Game journalist", as his specialism until now has been writing about the gaming industry. This makes me laugh, because his opinions are probably more relevant to more people in the trendy and funky age groups than anything I or my crusty old colleagues write.
The rise of "citizen journalism" (a term I regret as it seems condescending) will probably prove to be the salvation of journalism in the UK. And those who abjure it among my confreres ought to get with the picture. In Scotland, newspaper sales have collapsed and the numbers of job losses in journalism have been unprecedented in the last decade or so. However, Scotland still produces many talented writers and blogs such as Wings Over Scotland and Bella Caledonia represent the long-term future of the industry.
The narrow pattern of ownership of the media in the UK has always belied the industry’s lofty claim to be the fourth estate and the sentinels of democracy. Our national newspapers, with the exception of this one and its sister, the Guardian, are at the heart of the very establishment we purport to hold to account. The best of the political blogs and websites are already beginning to challenge and rebuke the way that the course of politics is ordered in this country and how that is conveyed to the rest of us.