by Ian Bell

All Academic

October 15, 2009 | by Ian Bell

IT TOOK ME a long time to understand that I was employed in something – some things? – called the media. A journalist in the original sense of the word – paper, ink, writing, reading, fact and opinion – winces at the unlovely plural, far less the politicians’ ignorant conviction that one medium yoked to others is suddenly lumpen, and singular. “The media is out of control,” they say. It are, is they?

This is not amour propre, necessarily. The recoiling sub-editor recognises something important. ‘The media’, irrespective of its origins in the language, is insufficiently descriptive, and you can tell as much from the fact that the term, and the field of study it inspires, seems infinitely expandable.

Did ‘the media’ cover the American elections adequately? That depends on whether we are talking about simple hacks filling column inches, or – at random from a long list of things to be taught – advertising, the movies, podcasts, PR, soaps, bloggers, Fox News, radio, Good Morning America, a party-political e-mail campaign, or a Doonesbury strip. These all involve media; all purport to communicate. Are these therefore ‘the media’, connected, familial?

Academic observers, most of them, would say so. Their field of view grows with their commendable industry. In Scotland , ironically but predictably, the disciplines involved are probably in better shape these days than the enterprises they study. Still, it is slightly disconcerting to encounter a volume such as The Media In Scotland, with its wealth of insight and expertise, yet find not a single current ‘media worker’ among the contributors.

There are professors, lecturers, readers and fellows in numbers. There are two past and present politicians – Brian Wilson and Mike Russell – with practical experience behind them. But media theory no longer seems to embrace much media practice. Perhaps that is inevitable; it is certainly revealing. Would you compose a textbook on joinery without consulting a joiner? Or would you assume that the one who hammers and saws lacks the equipment to conceptualise and contextualise his daily toil, to grasp what it signifies and to process its historico-political weight?

Hacks tend to take against media studies, much in the manner that some novelists abhor literary theory and creative writing classes. Unfairly or not, they fail to see the connection. (To which the scholar replies: “Precisely”). ‘Contextualise’ would-n’t get past the subs, if awake. ‘Historico-political’ would be expunged as merely clumsy. As for the pompous use of foreign words and phrases: stick your ‘amour pro-pre’. ‘Media workers’ – we hate that one, too – distrust any theoretical approach to media work. It seems to miss the point. And too often it reads badly.

Does it miss the point? Not always. Most of the people assisting EUP with its inquiries are careful observers. The histories of the press, broadcasting and Scottish film are reliable and revealing, if condensed. But while there is a clear understanding that the condition of The Media In Scotland is dictated – has always been dictated? – by the peculiarity of the country’s place within Britain , and hence the world, there is no equivalent grasp of how ‘media practice’ (night editors long gone, forgive me) is shaped.

How do we function, how do we work, in a political, cultural and economic colony? John Corbett of Glasgow University provides a good survey, for example, of the ways in which “Scots, English and Community Languages” function and have functioned within Scotland’s media. There is nothing in the description to dispute. But there is also no real discussion of habits of mind to match habits of utterance, of suppression, self-censorship, and the relationship between governed and governing. In this, despite the diversions of home rule, Scotland ’s position remains colonial. That’s important. We speak as we are found.

It is true, still, of BBC attitudes towards its flock of ‘nations and regions’. It is true of patterns of ownership in the press. It has always been true of film, where individual talents flourish but the dream of a collective native industry reappears periodically, like Brigadoon, but never endures. It is mostly true of all the cultural efforts that seem like perennial rearguard actions. It is certainly true of a political and media class insisting, uniquely in Europe, that parochialism is our unchanging destiny. A Scottish Six? Twenty odd minutes of news edited in Glasgow? Scots couldn’t, should-n’t, and certainly must not be allowed to make the attempt. Scottish voices say so.

Now that, I think, is odd. North Britain was always a region of the mind, but its survival explains everything that continues to be important about journalism, the media core, in Scotland. Blain and Hutchison’s contributors address the fact too rarely, and too often obliquely. Constitutional confusions connect to confusions of identity, then to a confused discourse. The fact is glimpsed time and again in The Media In Scotland, but the extent to which it cripples theory, far less news reporting, is not stressed.

Themes and issues. Scotland is small. Scotland lacks the audience, and therefore the economic base, to support internationally-competitive media industries. Scotland defines success as acceptance abroad, in London above all. Scotland ’s prickly assertiveness and failures of confidence go hand in hand. Scotland understands itself as distinct, but cannot locate that distinctiveness on the globalised map of language, political power, and economic polarities. You would not mistake the Scottish media for the English (“British”) or American media, but then, you would have to notice the Scottish media first.

Promises of more ‘home-grown’ product for and from TV, radio and film have been made and broken for decades. The belief that a supposedly print-avid Scottish community can sustain Scottish newspapers has been challenged and, year by year, eroded, even as the very idea of the daily paper withers. The hope that the BBC will ever take its own, early version of devolution seriously has proved a mirage, time and again. Meanwhile, here comes the world-wide web, chat without borders, the digestive tract of a single, globalised ‘media’ (singular) with a speck here and there of local colour.

Writers in The Media In Scotland have a tendency to talk of “the niche”, of Scotland the sub-clause. They mean no ill. They begin from the realistic assumption that no purely Scottish blockbuster movies will ever be made. They take it as read that even Tag-gart was a triumph of sorts, not because it was much good (my opinion) but because, just for once, the big English boys at the big English-dominated ITV network gave it prime-time house room. Meanwhile, the book accepts, too, that Scottish newspapers can only cling on, if at all, in the face of English titles in See You Jimmy wigs.

I’m not arguing. Scotland was anomalous (the London view) long before the media, and media ownership, became globalised. In journalism, print and other varieties, the career drift to the south is a tradition, a route to assimilation. Talent is co-opted to the cause of UK plc and it requires an effort of conscious will to decline the ‘opportunity’.

Why should the lone hack worry over the state of the nation, or the industry, he or she leaves behind? But the Scottish media, all of them, have been shaped for generations by that process of emigration. The fact is so obvious – the usual Scottish response – it receives next to no attention here beyond Brian McNair’s parenthetical roll-call of those who have achieved “UK-wide and international reputations” via London.

Niche markets, exported talent, an unreliable economic base, a confused identity, political uncertainty: you could grow depressed without much difficulty reading these essays. Or you could fail to care. When surveyed, the Scottish audience pays lip service to the importance of Scottish media production – patriots all – but its actual choices tell a different story. Trivially, River City fails to compete in Scottish audience numbers with EastEnders, yet the soap designed “for” Scotland initially consumed (it says here) an astonishing £10 million of the £14 million drama budget given (returned?) to BBC Scotland.

The Corporation’s news and current affairs operation is meanwhile granted a 20-minute Newsnight opt-out while a Scottish Six is refused, the better to preserve the Union, and London has to be reminded to mention the Scots in its reporting now and then. BBC Alba finds its niche in the digital TV swarm, but a modest pan-Scottish channel remains a remote idea, encouraged by Alex Salmond, yet awaiting realistic funding from someone, somewhere. Meanwhile, ITV gives up, wherever it can, on regional news.

The press, as elsewhere across the English-speaking world, struggles for traction and dreams of circulation numbers long gone. It attends to Holyrood’s minor scandals, contends with an ideological bi-polar disorder (no newspaper yet endorses the country’s elected government), and finds less and less to say about Westminster. It boasts national’ newspapers and regional franchises simultaneously: a metaphor, if you like, for an unresolved constitutional argument.

Scottish film goes in and out of fashion, dependent still on outside patrons and the accidents of individual talent. Commercial Scottish radio pays scant attention to Scottish popular music and that industry, in turn, is “underdeveloped and highly fragmented”. Harry Lauder and Billy Connolly aside – a revealing pairing – broadcast comedy, in the words of Ian Mowatt, “plays very much third fiddle to England and the USA”. Scottish sport? Not often, not on your TV, and not if you fail to pay a bundle for the privilege. So it goes on.

Neil Blain and Kathryn Burnett “frame the discussion”, in part, with this remark: “The Scottish voice is as likely to get lost in the clamour of the digital age as to be heard through new forms of specialised provision. A Scottish media apparatus of sorts exists, unevenly viable across specific media, but its Scottishness is fragile. As with the rest of the apparatus of nationhood, there are large questions raised here about political will, democracy, empowerment, accountability, resources and identity.”

Alternatively, there may be a further large question: why bother? Throughout The Media In Scotland there is an assumption that representations of the nation make the nation. It is also more or less taken for granted that a media apparatus’ is obligatory for self-respect and necessary for the survival of identity. I wonder. Scottish literature survived the near-eradication of Scottish book publishing. Car-making and ship-building came and went. Equally, three centuries of effort went into the attempt to make dedicated Britons of the Scots amid conditions for indigenous media far less benign than they are today. Identity was not extinguished, not remotely.

This is not heresy for its own sake. Scot-land is defined, still, by whatever validation it receives from elsewhere, above all from London. To think otherwise is to be marked as parochial, as insular. So we grumble when Trainspotting is subtitled to assist those who consume Australian soaps without a second thought. Yet dangle a UK network commission or a metropolitan job title and Scotland thrives, somehow. There is a contradiction in that lot.

The contradiction breeds an error. The mistake – and I attach no blame to anyone – is to believe that anyone south of the Border feels obliged to give a toss. They don’t care and no longer, after Holyrood, feel they have to pretend. “Let the Scots get on with it, if that’s what they want,” tends to be the refrain. Perhaps we should. Read a Lon-don paper, especially one that does not have a tiny S, for Scottish edition, on the occasional slip page, and the extent of Eng-land ’s interest is plain. It barely exists.

Such is the reality for the media in Scot-land. The attempt to alter that reality has failed for decades. The chances for success now, in a globalised, digital age, seem more remote than ever. Unless, of course, you are capable of mistaking a niche for a nation.

Still, when that reality bites at last there will be material aplenty for those who care to study the long-lost traditions of quaint old media cottage industries. Just don’t bother to hold the front page.


The Media In Scotland
Edited by Neil Blain and David Hutchinson
Edinburgh University Press, £17.99 pp286, ISBN 0748628002

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