“This is corporate greed,” says NUJ representative Paul Holleran. “The owners are pleading poverty but the titles are hugely profitable. They are not investing in the papers at all, either in terms of technology or journalism. They will milk the paper until it falls on its knees and dies. How long will people continue to pay a premium price for a quality product if it doesn’t deliver?”
With circulation at a historic low of 70,000, sales at the Herald are already under pressure. Almost all of the redundancies are to come from editorial, with the Sunday Herald poised to lose at least a third of its staff.
Staff anger is partly prompted by the fact that the owners, Newsquest, a subsidiary of American operator Gannett, recently recorded more than £19m of profit. “Morale is so low and the working conditions are in freefall,” adds Holleran. “The Herald group used to be a place where every Scottish journalist aspired to work but not any more. People are already working flat out and they can see it will get even worse.”
Staff have been given until May 3 to decide if they will take redundancy, which coincides with the date of the Scottish parliamentary election.
And although the Scottish Labour party declined to comment on redundancies, a spokesman from the SNP did say: “We are very concerned, particularly about the loss of jobs and opportunities in Scottish journalism.”
Harry Reid, former Herald editor and author of Deadline: The Story of the Scottish Press, is keen for a commission to be set up to look into issues of ownership and Scottish coverage. Commenting on the cost-cuts at the Herald, Reid says: “The Scotsman, the Herald and the Daily Record are national Scottish papers, not London papers pretending to be Scottish by hiring a couple of journalists. But the ironic thing is that the Scottish papers have suffered since devolution. The new owners are demanding an incredible rate of return, which I am not sure newspapers can deliver.”
However, he adds: “It is too soon to write the obituary for Scottish journalism. Things may not be as bad as they first appear.”
The late Arnold Kemp, editor of the Herald for 14 years, had predicted the dilemma that Scottish newspapers now find themselves in. “The UK government, in its media policy, is prepared to intervene to regulate market forces at UK level, but it gives no salience to Scottish interest in this context,” he said in a lecture.
He continued: “Sometimes I have a dream that the serious Scottish papers will not be driven along primarily by the needs of profitability. I dream that perhaps they might be administered by the trusts of the kind that run the Guardian and the Irish Times. The ethics of these institutions are not to ignore the imperatives of profitability and efficiency: they cannot be ignored. But shareholders do not take first place in the scheme of things; that primacy is given to the newspapers themselves, which I think is as it should be.”
According to media commentator Gerry Hassan, other European countries have stricter laws on newspaper ownership. He says: “If this was happening in any other industry, the Labour party would comment. Issues like newspaper ownership were on the agenda in the 70s, but they have fallen off because New Labour is so reluctant to antagonise the press barons and business.”
Monday April 30, 2007