The National loves Scotland.
In fact, it loves Scotland so much it spells its own name with a map of the country in place of the letter “i”. A patriotic touch, to be sure, but it does give the unfortunate impression that the paper is called the Nat Onal.
The pro-independence daily marks its first anniversary on Tuesday, 12 months on from a noisy entry to the Scottish newspaper market.
Back then, its objective was clear:
“The raison d’etre of the National is to redress the balance and cogently to argue the case for independence. This does not mean, however, that we are a mouthpiece of the Scottish National Party and the government it leads. That would not be a healthy course to follow. We will be critical where appropriate and complimentary when merited.”
A cynic might aver that this attractive mission statement was undermined somewhat by the editor’s decision to announce the launch at an SNP rally in Glasgow. But there was an obvious need for a daily newspaper that reflected the views of 45% of the electorate and so I was cautiously pessimistic about its future.
After all, the launch editor was print maestro Richard Walker and he was joined by a number of talented journalists (some of whom remain). Politics soon did for the lofty ambitions and the National set about doggedly holding the opposition to account. The paper developed an obsession with Jim Murphy — nothing wrong with that — and became fixated with pictures of hands, a phenomenon which led Labour activist Paul Cruikshank to set up #HandWatch. The best that can be said for its front pages is that they vindicate Adobe’s strict enforcement of Photoshop licences.
Today the National features a line-up of incisive columnists: Cat Boyd (“austerity is bad, vote Yes”), Carolyn Leckie (“capitalism is bad, vote Yes“), and Lesley Riddoch (“I love Norway, so I do”). Another leading commentator is Angry Salmond. An Alex Salmond parody Twitter account which sprung up during the referendum, Angry Salmondembodies the great tradition of nationalist humour by satirising the former SNP leader’s opponents rather than him. It’s cutting-edge stuff: “New study says English accent is ‘eroding’ while Scottish accent is ‘flourishing’. I assume it’s because our head isn’t in America’s arse.”
There is one must-read columnist, the fearless and punchy Kevin McKenna. Paul Kavanagh, a blogger who assumes the persona of his Wee Ginger Dug — “little red-headed dog” for those unfamiliar with Scottish slang — is politically formulaic but writes compellingly. (As a pug myself, I fully approve of such diverse hiring practices.)
The National wears its heart on its sleeve and its 15 Yes badges on its lapel. Headlines range from the trite “Why are Unionists so eager to do Scotland down?” (an editorial) to the downright offensive “Inhuman treatment of society’s vulnerable echoes Nazi Germany” (an op-ed on the Department for Work and Pensions, natch).
In June, the Scottish Parliament approved the Community Empowerment Bill, which gives local people the opportunity to take over land and put it to public use. Here are two write-ups on the passage of the legislation:
“A new law which will give communities more powers to take on land and buildings and to have a say on how their services are delivered, has been approved by the Scottish Parliament.”
“A new law which will change lives and make dreams come true for thousands of communities was passed in the Scottish Parliament last night in what was hailed as a ‘momentous step’ for people’s rights.”
The National, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, is the only paper in Scotland that’s not afraid to tell the truth: that everything is just fine.
Partisanship is nothing new in the British press. The Daily Mail is aggressively Conservative but more likely to set the government’s line than toe it. (It’s hard to imagine the National mildly rebuking Nicola Sturgeon let alone accusing her of sexual relations with a farmyard animal.) The Daily Record is Labour to its bones but has lost much of its tribalism of late, employing a strident Nationalist columnist in Joan McAlpine and giving the Sturgeon government a fair crack of the whip.
The National’s problem originates in the legend on its masthead: “The newspaper that supports an independent Scotland”. Other newspapers offer readers a package: News, sport, telly listings, a bit of politics and lots of filler features. Everything in the National is presented through the prism of the constitution. Politics is all that matters to its readers and by politics I mean nationalism, the only politics in Scotland anymore. This approach shifts 17,000 copies every day, small beer compared to the Daily Record’s 182,000 or the Scottish Daily Mail’s 89,000 but respectable when set against the Scotsman’s 24,000 and the Herald’s 34,000 circulation.
Outsiders looking in might wonder at the market for comical confirmation bias in the land of rational enquiry, of Smith and Hume. That is the Old Scotland. The New Scotland is a country where 42% believe the UK Government covered up the existence of secret oil fields in the North Sea to swing last year’s referendum result. Where one of its architects declares the SNP’s case for independence a fraud and is summarily dismissed with all the other heretics.
Little wonder sloppiness has set in. While trying to sound the alarm on hate crimes in a weekend splash, the National managed to understate the number of racially motivated incidents in Scotland a staggering 35-fold. It issued a correction last week after claiming the Daily Mail had wrongly accused Nicola Sturgeon of expressing “passionate hatred” for Margaret Thatcher. The original article had actually appeared in the Mail on Sunday and the First Minister has said: “Thatcher was the motivation for my entire political career. I hated everything she stood for.” In pandering to those who despise a critical media it makes sense that the National has pioneered a brand of anti-journalism.
There is an opening for a nationalist daily and a model meriting study. Common Space, a grassroots news and opinion website from a left-wing, pro-independence perspective, does not shy away from criticising the Scottish Government or the nationalist establishment. Some shortsighted observers (including, privately, me) assumed it was too earnest and right-on to prosper but while confirmed in its views it has defied the critics with news exclusives and insightful commentary.
The political imbalance of newspapers in Scotland is real and stark and in need of correction. The National is not the solution but a caricature of one, an inky Fox News that doesn’t even pretend to be fair and balanced. It supports independence for everything except itself.