Scottish Media Panel

– in the Scottish Parliament on 29th November 2012.

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Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-02899, in the name of Christine Grahame, on a Scottish media panel. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament would welcome a panel of experts to provide advice to ministers on Scotland’s media industry to help identify a strategy and direction, to help enable stability and growth and ensure that there is no democratic deficit in reporting on the Parliament and politics at what it considers this most important time of social and political change in the Scottish Borders, Midlothian and elsewhere in Scotland; while acknowledging that this is a time of financial restraint, believes that funding such a panel would have longer-term benefits for both the industry and democracy, and understands that such a proposal is currently under consideration by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I thank all who signed the motion for what is a timeous debate, given that the findings of Leveson are due this afternoon—I thank him for his timing. I will refer, if I have time, to the First Minister’s comments on the issue at First Minister’s question time.

The stimulus for my debate was a report to the Welsh Assembly Government on the future outlook of the media in Wales. Two main issues faced Wales in terms of radio and television coverage: first, that Wales was underprovided for by media coverage, which was not beneficial to the reporting and accountability of its civil structures; and, secondly, that media control took place largely outside Wales or was reserved. For Wales, we can substitute Scotland.

In relation to public broadcasting, I pray in aid of my case the BBC’s “News at Ten”, in which Scottish news is reduced to five minutes, and Newsnicht, which is often pruned—and not always neatly—to fit in with London-centric priorities. The success of the recently launched “Scotland Tonight” in the more sociable 10.30 pm slot demonstrates that there is an appetite for longer coverage of topical Scottish issues.

However, timing is not all. Content is frequently skewed to the south-east of England, and a snowfall of a few inches on the London streets can displace international headlines.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Ms Grahame, can I stop you for a moment? Will people who are leaving the gallery please do so quietly? Thank you.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Other offenders in the dock are the 24-hour BBC News Channel, which also churns out news items of a domestic nature with ne’er a regard for the devolved Parliaments, and Radio 4, which I enjoy but which seems deeply rooted in the politics and culture of the south-east of England. It is as if we all had the Archers for our neighbours.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I will give way to the member in a moment.

As for accountability to Scotland through its Parliament, I note the refusal of BBC executives to attend the Education and Culture Committee to answer union charges that cuts and plummeting staff morale could threaten coverage of the historic independence referendum in 2014. Former Radio Scotland producer Peter Murray branded the BBC “irresponsible” over cutbacks in Scotland and said that they have led to a fall in the “breadth and depth” of programmes. He also warned that they could take their toll on coverage of the 2014 vote. If devolution had just arrived, there might be an excuse for those failings, but 13 years on, I think not.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

I speak as a former broadcaster and one who worked with the BBC when there were proper crews on the ground to cover stories. Just now, there are not the crews in Scotland to cover stories to feed into the BBC News Channel or the main news bulletins. That is where we must start.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I think that I touched on that in what I said about the cutbacks, but others might deal with that point, too.

Following the publication of the report in Wales, a broadcasting advisory panel was set up in September. It reports directly to the First Minister of Wales and it gives advice on how to maximise the impact of broadcasting there.

For the avoidance of doubt, I include radio, community radio and local television in my proposal. However, I also suggest that a media panel should include the print media. The sales figures for some of our titles tell their own story. Here are some examples of plummeting circulation in Scotland. Between October 2011 and October 2012, the Daily Mirror’s circulation dropped by 8.2 per cent to 21,000; the Daily Record had an 8.7 per cent drop to 243,000; The Scotsman had a 14.8 per cent drop to 32,500; Scotland on Sunday had a 17.7 per cent drop to 38,000; and the Sunday Post, that stalwart of the decades, had an 18.7 per cent drop to 181,000.

Even if we take account of online readership, those figures make for dismal reading and they present democrats such as us with a real challenge. If we add to the mix the troubles of local papers, a huge and growing democratic deficit is exposed at the very time when, with Scotland’s future up for grabs, no matter which team we play for, we need a full and informed debate across all our media. Heaven forfend that we rely on Facebook and Twitter.

The last thing that print media companies need, be they large or small, is heavy-handed statutory regulation. Here, I make the necessary distinction between statutory regulation and a statutory body such as the ombudsman in Ireland, which the First Minister mentioned. He has stated that he finds that system attractive; later, I will mention the other things that he said in his response today. Certainly, given the misgivings of some editors and proprietors, the Press Complaints Commission is well past its sell-by date, but the wrongs, which in some cases undoubtedly amount to criminal activity, must not blight the print media at large, which reports with integrity.

I unashamedly quote from one of my local papers, The Southern Reporter, which got in touch with me about this debate. It states:

“Our readers trust us and look to us not only to report on the great things happening in our region, but also to challenge those things that are wrong or where standards fall below what we should expect.

No reporter from The Southern Reporter has ever hacked a mobile phone, nor have we paid the police—or anyone else—for a story.”

That is true of the vast majority of our print media. Whatever the remedy, we must defend—most of all, the political establishment must defend—robust reporting, because we all need media that are strong, combative, professional and testing of our politicians. The fourth estate, national and regional, did not earn its soubriquet without merit.

I note what the First Minister said about a meeting of politicians to discuss a way forward following Leveson and what he said about an independent implementation group. I respectfully commend to the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, and, indeed, the First Minister, the establishment of a Scottish media panel, which would comprise respected, experienced journalistic professionals to advise—I stress “advise”—on all matters pertaining to the media, both electronic and print.

The print media is devolved, so the Leveson report could be the first issue on the agenda of that advisory panel, because the last thing that we need is an off-someone-else’s-shelf, knee-jerk solution. The panel would balance that meeting of politicians and show that those seeking a solution are not just politicians, but the journalists and media themselves. There has to be that coming together.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I congratulate Christine Grahame on securing this important debate, which is almost synchronised with the publication of the Leveson report. It is quite timely, but it might have been overtaken by events to an extent. If we listen closely to the First Minister’s statements, we can tell that he clearly has a proposal for a way forward that might not involve a Scottish medial panel, although I think that the idea is certainly a worthwhile contribution to the debate.

In considering whether we should have a Scottish media panel, the First Minister’s alternative or another way forward, it is important to take proper cognisance of the adverse effect that some media coverage has had on ordinary people. One of the most powerful advocates at the Leveson inquiry was Margaret Watson from Glasgow, who sadly lost her daughter when she was murdered more than 20 years ago. There was coverage in the newspapers, and some disparaging remarks in newspaper columns resulted in Mrs Watson’s only remaining child—her son—taking his own life. Newspaper cuttings were found around him when, sadly, he was found dead. Listening to Mrs Watson, I could tell that that clearly had a devastating impact on her family. We saw a line-up of celebrities and VIPs at the Leveson inquiry, and I do not want to downplay the adverse effect that media coverage has had on some of their lives. However, we all represent constituents throughout Scotland and we must ensure that there is a fair and transparent media that properly sticks up for people.

Christine Grahame made some very relevant points about how the media has changed. She quoted figures about some of the Sunday papers—I think she said that Scotland on Sunday’s sales are down to 32,000, and I believe that The Sunday Herald’s are even lower than that, at 28,000. That shows how newspaper sales have changed over the years. Sales will continue to go down.

We have to be aware that people are getting their information from other sources—and not just online versions of newspapers. I smiled wryly to myself when Christine Grahame was a bit disparaging about Facebook and Twitter, but the reality is that many people—particularly young people—who will be looking to engage in the referendum debate will get their information through Twitter.

Margo MacDonald rose—

Christine Grahame rose—

I will give way to Margo MacDonald as she was on her feet first.

Photo of Margo MacDonald Margo MacDonald Independent

James Kelly is absolutely right about papers going online—it is happening already, very quickly. Just as broadsheet papers dumbed down a bit to meet the market, so online papers will dumb down to meet the twittery twits and so on.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

That is a very relevant point, which the Carnegie UK Trust made in a submission. As well as ensuring a voice for people throughout Scotland and taking into account changes following papers going online, we need proper standards in journalism so that the debate can be informed.

I give way quickly to Christine Grahame.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

My point about Twitter and Facebook is that they are totally unregulated; indeed, I think that they are almost impossible to regulate. Whatever happens to the press, if we are going to start regulating, we must have balance. As a result, we cannot get our news from totally unregulated sources.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

That point is probably worthy of a debate itself, but the reality is that Twitter and Facebook exist and are going to grow, and any examination of the media will have to take those issues into account.

I congratulate Christine Grahame on securing the debate, which, with this afternoon’s publication of the Leveson report, is only going to develop over the next week. I look forward to taking part in it.

Photo of Graeme Dey Graeme Dey Scottish National Party

I am extremely pleased to contribute to the debate. A vibrant media that reflects our nation’s current affairs, local aspects and culture is important. However, I am worried by some of the signs out there.

In the two years since I left the field of newspaper journalism, the industry in Scotland, particularly the print side, has become unrecognisable. As advertising revenue has gone down on the back of the recession, the cuts agenda has kicked in across our print media. Experienced journalists, both reporters and sub-editors, have left the industry, albeit in many cases with voluntary severance deals, and standards—and with them circulation—have undoubtedly declined. As mentioned, the circulation figures, with the honourable exception of The Press and Journal, are on a worrying downward spiral. Although that is largely because of the availability of more up-to-date news sources, there is no doubt that the quality of the print product is in some instances also a factor.

The lack of experience and the overburdening of reduced reporting and subbing pools leads, especially in instances where terms of employment and income levels might have been eroded, to poor morale, the making of mistakes and reporters cutting and pasting from press releases or other sources instead of properly researching stories. As for the establishment of contacts that happened in the old days of newspapers, time simply does not allow for it.

I recognise that such issues might appear relatively trivial when over the past year there have been far more dramatic developments at the very top level of the media, including a red-top Sunday paper having to close its doors over phone hacking and Justice Leveson’s inquiry, the outcome of which we are awaiting. However, if we want a healthy written press, these things matter.

The motion calls for the development of a long-term strategy for all aspects of media in Scotland to “enable stability and growth”. I do not pretend to know how that might be delivered but the establishment of a panel of experts to advise and help drive such a process would be a starting point. It would be all too easy for us as politicians, who inevitably will feel on occasion that we have had a raw deal from a newspaper or radio or television station, to leave those news providers to their fate, but we have to be bigger than that and recognise the importance of a thriving broadcast and print media that entertains, informs and—yes—holds politicians to account.

On that basis, I would very much welcome the advent of a media panel to advise the Government on how we might build a Scottish print and broadcast media that is diverse, successful and proud to be distinctively Scottish. I hope that such a set-up would concern itself with everything all the way down to local television provision, community radio and—a specific interest of mine—local weekly newspapers, which I firmly believe have a role even in this digital age.

The challenges facing and indeed the approach of such newspapers will vary across the country. My constituency is fortunate to have three weekly papers—the Arbroath Herald, the Carnoustie Guide & Gazette and the Kirriemuir Herald—all of which provide a good-quality offering to readers. There was a time when in parts of this country weekly papers, which have also suffered their share of resource cuts and are in some cases also struggling, were tail-end Charlies in relation to breaking stories. After all, the local daily paper had already covered the items they were carrying three or four days later. However, in some quarters, a change has occurred. As the daily papers have cut staff and lost their local connection, the weekly papers are increasingly setting the agenda, even though they are still encountering difficulties of their own.

My contention is that people out there retain a trust in their local weekly papers. They tend to be read over several days and, as a parent whose children have at various stages featured in them, I can vouch for the fact that households purchase multiple copies to send to relatives outwith the area. More important, they print stories that the dailies will not run and give local organisations and good causes a publicity platform that they would otherwise be denied. Of course such things matter everywhere, but they matter particularly in rural areas.

As I have said, I firmly believe that there remains a role for weekly papers and that we have to recognise the pressures that such titles are under. Many are in concentrated ownership and face increased centralisation, which carries the threat of a diminution of that distinctive local feel. I hope that the Scottish Government empowers a media panel to pay heed to the needs of and the challenges facing those print titles as well as the more high-profile newspapers and the very important broadcasting sector.

I, too, congratulate Christine Grahame on securing this debate and reiterate my appreciation for the opportunity to contribute to it.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I welcome today’s debate on the idea of a Scottish media panel and congratulate Christine Grahame on securing a debate on the topic. I agreed with much in her opening remarks. We are at the beginning of an important time in Scotland, and it is important that we have media that are able to represent that. I also agree about the need for effective broadcasting in that area. Her mention of “Scotland Tonight” reminded me that in North East Scotland it is now known as “Rangers News”. I hope that the show’s producers will take the hint and begin to broaden its appeal.

In this time of political and social change, we must admit that the print media—in fact, the whole of the Scottish media—are changing rapidly. There has been a 10 per cent decline in newspaper sales across the board, and although—as Graeme Dey mentioned—The Press and Journal appears to be bucking that trend and we might have something to learn from it, the tendency is for sales to be going downhill. We must accept that a new generation is becoming increasingly reliant on new media for its news and is finding ways to ensure that quality material finds its way into those media to be well read by those who are able to do so.

The conclusions of the report to the Welsh Parliament were based on the information that was gathered by the Welsh committee, and it is on that evidence that the recommendation for an independent forum to advise on policy in relation to the media in Wales was based. I suggest that, without similar evidence being taken in Scotland, the recommendations may tell us more about Wales than about Scotland. Consequently, I think that we need to look rather harder. It should at least be acknowledged that the suggestion that we have in front of us is slightly misleading, as the Welsh Government rejected the idea as far back as July.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I do not think that we should just pick up everything—we do not want something off the shelf. However, I think that it is somewhat urgent that we have an independent media panel of experts to advise Government, particularly in the current climate. It would counterbalance the politicians meeting to discuss the response to Leveson, as was suggested in the chamber earlier.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

That is an interesting point.

The motion rightly notes that we live in times of reduced budgets and limited resources. Given that it calls for additional spending, it should be carefully scrutinised. Spending to secure a more strategic direction for the development and growth of the industry in Scotland may well have longer-term benefits for both the industry and democracy, but such conclusions are by no means foregone.

The Scottish Conservatives welcome the opportunity that the debate has provided to discuss the future of the Scottish media. There is no doubt that added strategy and direction would be welcome in the industry, but it may be that the motion puts the cart before the horse in its proposal to go ahead and create a media panel without first taking some distinctive Scottish evidence to back up the conclusions that can be drawn from the Welsh report.

Photo of Sandra White Sandra White Scottish National Party

I congratulate my colleague Christine Grahame on securing this important debate. Two or three years ago, I held a summit in Glasgow with the then minister Jim Mather on this very issue. The concerns that were raised then are being raised now, which makes the debate doubly important.

I thank the Carnegie Trust for the briefing papers that it sent along, and I welcome its new project, neighbourhood news, which is a £50,000 competition to improve local news reporting that seeks applications to develop new and innovative ways of producing local news—I plug the fact that I have lodged a member’s motion on it. It is a very good initiative and that might get across some of the concerns of members, the newspaper industry and our constituents.

I hope that the Presiding Office will indulge me if I widen the debate. The motion calls for a media panel. There has been talk about the newspaper industry, but I wonder whether the cabinet secretary, if she wanted to create such a panel, would widen it to include other aspects of the media, such as the entertainment industry, and look at the situation that it faces in Scotland as highlighted in the Equity make it in Scotland campaign. The campaign is supported by not just Equity’s branches in Scotland but all its branches in the United Kingdom and calls on the entertainment industry and Governments to invest in programmes that are made in Scotland.

A quote from the Equity website about the campaign says:

“Members are frustrated at not getting local opportunities, particularly because they believe there is a wealth of talent outside of London. ‘There’s a perception among the media elite that you can’t be any good unless you go to London, but why shouldn’t Scottish performers and crew be able to make a living in their own country?,’ said actor Michael Mackenzie.

According to Ofcom, 61.8 per cent of spending by public service broadcasting channels in 2010 went to productions made within the M25. Productions in Scotland received 4.6 per cent of spending, Wales 2.6 per cent and Northern Ireland 0.4 per cent.”

The issue is clearly a live one.

I have spoken previously to Equity about the matter, and I went to Equity’s make it in Scotland reception that it held in the Parliament on Tuesday night. It basically said that some programmes that are not made in Scotland are labelled as being made in Scotland. Equity is not calling for all Scottish programmes to have only Scottish actors; it is just asking for justice and fairness.

I know that the powers to make some media regulations—such as those relating to Ofcom—are not delegated to the Scottish Parliament but, as others have said, the issue is not just about radio or newspapers. Margo MacDonald—she is no longer in the chamber—made the valid point that we must get the situation in Scotland sorted first. If we are losing talent, how can that talent be replaced?

I make the plea that if we are looking at having such a panel, we involve other parts of the industry, including the entertainment industry. We have Creative Scotland; we have had loads of fantastic films made, particularly in the Glasgow area; we have had Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt—to name just a few of the people involved, although I did not meet when they were in Glasgow. That shows the strength that we have to make productions in Scotland.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

I congratulate Christine Grahame on securing the debate—her timing is immaculate.

Christine Grahame has long supported the Scottish media and has raised important issues in the Parliament, such as local television and community radio. She is right to highlight the importance of our media. Our media provide the cornerstones of an inclusive and democratic nation. They delight and challenge us, hold power to account and provide jobs and contribute to economic growth.

Of course we have had opportunities in the Parliament, and as a Government, to take on media-related issues. Broadcasting is a reserved matter, but in 2007 the First Minister established the Scottish Broadcasting Commission to investigate the state of broadcasting in Scotland and to define a strategic way forward. The commission’s recommendations have since provided a coherent framework for developing the sector. That began in 2008 when the report was published and unanimously supported by the Parliament. Between 2009 and 2012, as recommended by the commission, the Scottish Government reported progress to the Parliament on implementing the recommendations.

In 2010, I responded to the UK Government’s local television proposals by establishing the Scottish digital network panel, which provided independent advice on options for establishing funding of a new Scottish digital network given that the commission had recommended that, through opt-out programming, we could deliver local television across all Scotland and not just in those cities already best served by the media. I shared the panel’s excellent report with the UK Government, but the UK Government still refused to recognise the importance of the Scottish digital network. However, the panel’s findings have continued to inform our thinking.

Turning from broadcasting to the printed medium, I am aware that today will be eventful not just because of this debate in the Scottish Parliament but because—within the hour or perhaps the next half hour—Lord Justice Leveson’s report will be tabled in the Westminster Parliament. As press regulation is devolved, that report will also engage the Scottish Parliament, given that significant areas of the Leveson inquiry clearly cover devolved matters. As the First Minister made clear when he gave evidence to the inquiry, we will take that most seriously indeed, and we look forward to considering Lord Justice Leveson’s report in detail.

On the wider agenda, we must also ensure that we have a strong media and current affairs sector for the digital age. We need media that have the confidence of our communities and the capacity to fulfil their role in a democratic society. As Christine Grahame mentioned, that wider agenda includes the role of the internet in the digital age and, indeed, the role of social media.

Clearly, even under this devolved Parliament, we have already managed to address a number of issues relating to the media area, but Christine Grahame is right to highlight the need for stability and growth in the media sector. As Alex Johnstone said, the sector’s capacity to report on, and respond to, the debates as those develop over the next few years is also important. Across Government, we have worked to support the media sector in areas such as education and training, business support and shared working. Margo MacDonald is absolutely right that the media’s capacity to respond is really important, and skills and training are part of that.

It is also important to track the improvements. BBC Scotland has improved its commissioning, with the proportion of programmes made in Scotland having gone up to 8.6 per cent from the previous woeful position of 2.6 per cent. I concur with Sandra White on the importance of Equity’s make it in Scotland campaign, which I support although I was unfortunately unable to attend the reception this week. It is important that we have content and actors here in Scotland and that the entertainment sector is also reflected in Scottish production.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

How does the cabinet secretary see the industry responding to that? Is it important perhaps to make a distinction between making programmes that are more representative of Scotland and Scottishness and allowing our creative industries to develop and have their head in producing more generic programmes—as opposed to Scottish programmes—that will sell and succeed internationally?

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The member is absolutely right, but I think that there are three aspects: first, Scotland talking to itself, which is important; secondly, Scotland being able to broadcast and produce productions that can sell not just in England but around the world; and, thirdly, having the technical production capability here. All those aspects are important, but the member is right that we need to be able—we have the capability—to produce excellent content that can be broadcast globally.

Sandra White perhaps got to the nub of what is a real challenge, which is the scope of the proposed media panel. The panel might cover a wide spectrum, including digital entertainment, film and other media including print, broadcast and so on. Today’s debate allows us to consider what that scope might be.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The idea, I think, is that the Scottish media panel would not necessarily be static. People could be co-opted on to the panel for specific items, such as the entertainment industry, digital and so on. That is why I would like the cabinet secretary to take away and consider the proposal, particularly in the light of what the First Minister has said. I agree that there should be consensus in the Parliament and that the Opposition leaders should consider Leveson, but it bothers me a little that the politicians’ fingerprints might be seen to be all over the response.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Cabinet secretary, I will give you your time back.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

The content of Christine Grahame’s motion focuses particularly on the capacity of reporting, which is obviously about editorial control. However, even during the course of this short debate, the contributions from members have covered weekly newspapers, the wider entertainment industry and television production more widely. That is an interesting breadth of scope, which we obviously cannot do justice in this short debate.

Returning to the print media, I am aware that newspapers are facing challenges in the transition to the online world. More immediately, the imminent Leveson report will provide and define a new direction for the press. We need to assess that report once it is produced, and we will play our full part in taking forward our devolved responsibilities on that.

Clearly, it is important that we continue to hold the BBC to account. I was extremely disappointed at both the content and tone of the response from BBC Scotland to a committee of this Parliament.

Keeping on the debate in hand, I acknowledge that Christine Grahame’s motion calls for stability and growth.

I have pointed to how much the sector has been growing in different areas but, as we heard from Graeme Dey, there are significant issues to do with the print media, in particular. Christine Grahame suggests that we should have a Scottish media panel, which could be a rolling media panel that covered different issues at different times.

As far as the immediate issue of the print media is concerned, we await the Leveson report. The First Minister made it quite clear that he takes seriously the capacity, capability and responsibility of this devolved Parliament to take on duties, which is why he has proposed an implementation group.

I want to address the point that Christine Grahame made in her intervention. The First Minister made it quite clear that he wants to have an all-Scotland response and to ensure that all the leaders of the political parties that are represented have an input into the discussions. That is an extremely important position to take. As a media panel would constitute a panel of media experts, it would give the media plenty of opportunity to express their views. The one group that has not been covered as much as it might have been in the debate is the public, although James Kelly addressed the issue. I would not want politicians or the media to have a dominant role in determining what happens. The public’s voice must be heard.

I hope that today’s short debate will cause all of us to reflect on the context of any media discussions. It has been a useful opportunity to think about the scope of future discussions on the media and media policy. If we had full powers, we would be able to develop policy that fitted a world of converging media. Looking to the wider horizon, I think that that is an issue that the Parliament will return to again and again.

13:06 Meeting suspended.

14:30 On resuming—