Scottish press will feel the shock of an election upset

Thanks to the efforts of the press, attention in Scotland and elsewhere is focused on the possibility of a remarkable outcome to the parliamentary and local government elections on 3 May.

With a few days to go, poll predictions are that the Scottish National Party will emerge as the biggest single party in the 129-seat parliament, beating Labour into second place, with the Liberal Democrats (in coalition with Labour for the past eight years) edging the Conservatives into fourth place, and the Greens and the split Socialists picking up a few seats.

This is not the outcome the devolution settlement was meant to throw up when it was designed back in 1997-98, and it is not an election scene the Scottish press expected to be covering.

That coverage is extensive, involving straight news, features, supplements, organised public meetings, polls and back-up academic expertise and analysis. So far the politicians have got more out of it than the press: the public may be better informed, but there is no evidence more papers are being sold.

Readers are getting coverage of a fierce campaign among all four major parties on domestic issues, and a furious campaign between Labour supporting the Union and the SNP proposing to hold a referendum on independence within the life of the next four-year parliament.

The press is giving the SNP fair coverage, but so far no one heavyweight title has come out for the nationalists. And there is big coverage of the one platform the other three parties have in common – support for the Union.

Of a blocking combination on this issue, SNP leader Alex Salmond says: “I cannot think of anything more likely to incite the wrath of the people of Scotland; the idea that you can have an election and then attempt to snooker the result.”

Yet the press has played a significant part in the way the present situation has developed. For two decades the influential Scotsman campaigned for a devolved Scotland within a UK federal structure.

Devolution in 1999 was meant to dish the nationalists and improve the quality of devolved government. The Scottish press broadly supported this settlement. But parts of it, including The Scotsman, have exposed the Labour-Lib Dem coalition to withering criticism.

One consequence has been a drift of protest support to the SNP, although only about one in four Scots actually want independence. Labour is desperate to win back this support in the closing stages of the campaign. And the press has to pick its way through this morass as best it can.

If the SNP ends up as the governing party, tectonic plates will move between Edinburgh and London; the Scottish press will be affected. The new government would also influence other developments likely to change the size and profile of the Scottish press.

Labour sympathiser the Daily Record has for years been the biggest single title in Scotland, taking over from the old Scottish Daily Express, an eccentric right of centre. At one time the Express sold more than 700,000 in Scotland; the Record got above 600,000. Now The Scottish Sun, selling 417,000 at 15p a copy in February, has overtaken the Record, selling 383,000 at 35p. The Sun should get a further boost from its new presses, and whoever is running the Scottish Executive after 3 May will be obliged to review the allocation of government advertising between the Sun, the Record and other titles.

The Sun’s stablemate, The Times, will also benefit from the new presses and the appointment of its Scottish columnist, the experienced Magnus Linklater, as the editor of the new Scottish edition. The Times sold 28,000 in Scotland in February and a target of 35,000-40,000 should not be out of reach for the new regime. But the market is crowded and the extra copies will have to come from somewhere.

While The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent perform modestly in Scotland, The Scotsman (57,000) and (Glasgow) Herald (71,000) might be more tempting targets for The Times. Both regard themselves as national titles, but both are losing sales, and the possibility of merging these two distinguished titles will surface yet again.

A merger happened at corporate level when the Dundeebased D C Thomson bought Aberdeen Journals from Northcliffe last year. The morning Press & Journal (84,000)

and the Dundee Courier (77,000) dominate the East, Northeast and North of Scotland markets with a remarkable range of local editions. Thomson is running Aberdeen Journals as an arm’s length investment.

There are two other phenomena in the Scottish press: a success and a failure. The success is the Daily Mail (129,000), behind only The Sun and the Record, which got there without courting the public-sector ethos in which many of its wellpaid readers work. The catastrophe is the Scottish Daily Express, down from an incredible 700,000 in the late 1960s to a parlous 78,000, offset slightly by stablemate the Daily Star, selling a commendable 94,000, but at 15p.

The woes of the Daily Record, which at 383,000 are relative, are also reflected in the decline of the Mirror in Scotland, down to 36,000 and surely facing euthanasia or absorption.

Devolution is a big continuing story. So is the future of the Scottish press.

Roger Nicholson is a former managing director of Thomson Regional Newspapers, and lives in Scotland and London

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