Thursday, 4 February 2016

Removal of Herald journalists highlights need for real corporate-free media

The Herald newspaper group has been subject to widespread criticism after its editor-in-chief, Magnus Llewellin, 'lost' one of its most notable journalists and sacked a recently-arrived other.

The removal (or technical resignation) of prominent sports writer Graham Spiers followed a threat of litigation by Rangers Football Club after Spiers had written a Herald column alleging ongoing bigotry at the Glasgow club, and that one of its directors had approved the singing of a notoriously sectarian song.

Angela Haggerty, editor at the online forum CommonSpace, and a recently-appointed columnist at the Sunday Herald, was fired after tweeting a message of support for Spiers:
Solidarity with @GrahamSpiers, again being targeted by the mob for telling some harsh truths
Haggerty's subsequent thoughts on the issue were freely published at the Bella Caledonia site.

Attracting wider attention, the Guardian's Roy Greenslade provided further insight on the story, citing defensive comment from Llewellin on the Herald's position.

In short, Llewellin asks us to believe that, facing an 'indefensible' defamation, crippling legal costs and potential job losses, he was in a legal bind and forced to sacrifice the two journalists.

The first question here is why Llewellin didn't have enough faith in the long-experienced Spiers to defend his account of the issue. Greenslade also asks why any defamation costs would have been borne by the Herald's editorial budget rather than Newsquest/Gannett, its corporate owners.

Secondly, why was it then necessary to sack Haggerty, either for expressing support for Spiers, or for insisting that there's continued bigotry at Rangers? Whether true or not, that's Haggerty's view. Why was her particular opinion deemed beyond the pale? Why was her statement and journalistic reading of the affair seen as an 'undermining of Llewellin', a failure "to act within the spirit of [the Herald's] apology" to Rangers?

A letter to the Herald from Common Weal (which hosts CommonSpace) charts the disturbing history of how Haggerty has been pursued by forces around Rangers, condemns her dismissal and warns that it sends out a "chilling message" to other journalists.

In another probing commentary, political writer Gerry Hassan notes how "[m]ore fundamentally it touched upon the legacy of the Herald as one of the traditional bastions of unionist establishment Scotland, and the continued toxic issue of Rangers FC."

Alongside Haggerty's honourable backing of Spiers, and Bella's solid support for Haggerty, due appreciation should also be given to Sunday Herald editor Neil Mackay for his laudable intervention in trying to keep Haggerty at the paper, and for his own tweeted message distancing himself from the decision:
Important: the decision to remove @AngelaHaggerty as Sunday Herald columnist was not taken by me but by the editor-in-chief Magnus Llewellin.
Following former Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker, Mackay has sought to build the paper's pro-independence and 'leftist' profile. Of course, the extent of that 'radicalism' shouldn't be overstated - it still, after all, has militarist-approving Trevor Royle as a senior correspondent. But, with Mackay at the helm, pushing the Yes agenda, the Sunday Herald is viewed with deep disfavour by a range of establishment and Unionist forces.     

In the wake of so much 'succulent lamb journalism', this latest imbroglio reminds us of the cloying relationships, intimidations and pacifications that still shape much of the media environment in Scotland.

The Herald's "cowardice", says CommonSpace writer James McEnaney, has only "emboldened those who would employ intimidatory tactics". One hopes that Llewellin's lamentable bowing to such elements helps illuminate that truth even more.

But there's a more fundamental problem here: corporate control.

As Haggerty states in her Bella article:
And that’s the key thing here, you have to ask who the winner out of this is. In this episode, it’s Rangers Football Club, but on a wider level it exposes the influence of corporate interests in our media. In the current financial landscape, that influence is ever more prominent. Take a look at the alleged influence of HSBC bank on the Telegraph’s editorial content, for example. [Italics added.] 
True. Yet, consider, as a sharper example, given its claim as a 'leading liberal voice', not the Telegraph, but the Guardian's kowtowing to HSBC, its collaboration with Unilever, its pandering to Apple, and much other cloaked subservience to corporate demands (h/t Media Lens).

Wherever the paper, however left-liberal its face, whatever the permitted editorial remit, the imperatives of corporate compliance still prevail: profit-seeking, placation of major advertisers, careful cultivation of high business interests. 

Recently founded, The National, also formerly edited by Richard Walker, stands rather bravely as Scotland's sole daily pro-independence newspaper. But, while a most valued presence amid a hostile Unionist press, who would safely claim that its same Newquest owners have anything other than a primary commercial motive here? With the surge in SNP support after the independence referendum, Newsquest "sensed an earner", a 'sure thing'. Owned, in turn, by US media giant Gannett, it funded The National at minimal cost and with limited commitment. Kept afloat by dedicated staff and readers, it continues as a thankful check on a virulent establishment press. Yet, while free to publish much welcome pro-indy and progressive comment, The National's editors and journalists are no more assured of true ultimate control over the paper's existence and development than any other corporate-owned title.

In an open exchange at The National over the Herald-Haggerty issue, one of its writers, Michael Gray (also writing at CommonSpace) asserts: 
A starting point is to admit that corporate media is in crisis. There isn’t a free press. And there isn’t equality before the law. In the short-term, this is likely to get worse not better. We can’t continue the hypocrisy of claiming we have a free media system to defend. It is a self-serving mythology. Journalism often lacks freedom and the resources to scrutinise those with real power. That those with heavy wallets can force pressure down, so that protecting stories, journalists and media integrity becomes “complicated”, is a disgrace. What will we, as citizens of a new Scotland, do about it? We can support this paper and the many good journalists across the industry. We can support many online alternatives. We can support defamation reform, the rights of journalists and freedom of expression in wider society. [Italics added.]
Responding to Gray, editor Callum Baird accepts the reality that there's no such thing as a free press, pointing out the many constraints on journalists and editors, most notably, as in this case, the need for papers to protect themselves from legal action over stories that can't be defended with real evidence.

This is a laudable exchange of views, and credit is due to Baird for running it. Yet even this kind of open discussion elides the deeper truth that corporate media - including The National - can never act as a truly disinterested platform for challenging and exposing that very same corporate media. Thus, alongside his guarded mitigations on Llewellin's actions, the vital part of Gray's comment asserting that the "corporate media is in crisis" isn't up for further examination by the editor. Core boundaries still have to be observed.

That doesn't mean deserting The National or Sunday Herald, still valued repositories of Yes-progressive politics - indeed, CommonSpace are now working even closer with The National on key stories. But there's a need to understand the inherent limitations of such papers, and the reinforcing impressions of 'unbound media' their presence helps convey.

While defending The National, Gray makes the case for creating more alternative media - with the seeming approval of Sunday Herald environment editor Rob Edwards. While the debate here is still cursory, it's a promising indication of how the new tension between corporate and social media is being appraised. Hopefully this issue and its fallout will encourage more journalists, editors and wider observers to see with clearer eyes not just the industry-defined constraints on 'free journalism' but the major structural controls.
So, while the removal of Spiers and Haggerty by the Herald hierarchy takes us again to a particular dark side of Scottish media culture, the bigger context here is still the need for real corporate-free media. That wouldn't change the likelihood of wealthy elites using the courts to threaten writers and purge alternative media platforms. But, as with Haggerty's freedom to relate her full account of this issue at Bella, it suggests a much more liberating space, seriously protective of critical journalists. However, true progression of such alternatives involves not just a more palatable version of liberal corporate media, but conscious resistance to corporate forces at large.