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Scotland’s media, politics and the digital revolution

Published: 7 September 2020

For his chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics, Professor Philip Schlesinger of the University of Glasgow looks at Scotland’s post-devolution media and the wider forces driving change in the communications ecology.

Following Scottish devolution in 1999, the Scottish media became increasingly central to the new democratic polity. A system of political communications, centred on the Scottish government and parliament, along with a new wave of lobbying, rapidly came into play. A variant of the Westminster system was adapted at some speed to Scottish circumstances. The new institutions shifted the centre of gravity of Scottish politics and had a rough ride from the media in the early years of devolution. 

The reshaped relations between media and politics were a new twist in an old story. Scotland has long had a dual public sphere in which both the British and the Scottish dimensions of politics are co-present. You can’t avoid the UK agenda in Scotland; but you can easily ignore the Scottish agenda in the wider UK. There is an in-built communicative asymmetry between Scotland and the UK’s London-centric concentration of power and influence. Of course, this imbalance is also common to other parts of the British state. But in a devolved context, riven by the question of independence, it has been dominated by constitutional arguments.

There are moments, naturally, when the agenda is reset. In August 2020, because it was first in line due to the earlier start-up of its school year, Scotland was a pathfinder for the rest of the UK as the crisis over assessing public exam grades played out.

This doesn’t really detract from the trend: since devolution, mediated Scottish politics has spoken more to itself, become harder to read from the outside, and also increasingly marginal to the awareness of the wider UK public. This tendency was already evident a good decade ago and is only interrupted by crises that demand wider attention. 

As the divisions over Brexit continue to sharpen and the cohesion of the British state experiences exceptional strain, the lack of routine media coverage addressed to a general public across all the UK nations matters increasingly. In fact, it took critical moments such as the independence referendum of 2014 to put post-devolution Scotland firmly on the UK media agenda. And then, after the latest fix to a chronic issue, inevitably public attention outwith Scotland has faded.

The latest upsurge of concern in Westminster about the possibility of Scottish independence that kicked off in the Summer of 2020 once again put constitutional politics firmly on the agenda. The possible break-up of Britain will grab attention periodically between now and the next Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2021. In London, how to game the next independence referendum, if it isn’t blocked, is openly on the political agenda.

Taking distance from current events, we should note that the distinctiveness of Scotland’s public sphere within the union has a long history. Since the eighteenth century at least, the Scottish press has been a significant player north of the border. In the run-up to the creation of the devolved Scottish Parliament, newspapers such as Edinburgh’s The Scotsman and The Herald in Glasgow –  influential in their time in shaping elite opinion and also claiming to speak for the nation – were major cheer-leaders for creating new political institutions north of the border. During the indyref campaign in 2013-14, the devolution-oriented press was overwhelmingly for the union.

The precipitous post-devolution decline in print sales of the Scottish press, the under-investment in quality journalism, and the fading democratic influence of print media, have been regularly discussed by Scotland’s intelligentsia. As legislative powers have shifted north of the border, the collective capacity of the country’s newspapers to hold government to account has declined. In common with the rest of the UK, over the past decade or so the digital revolution has wrought profound change in the media economy. Print media are also preponderantly digital ones. In Scotland, this matters disproportionately. While virtually all major ‘indigenous’ titles have survived the significant shift in consumption from print to mobile devices, because they are provided with deeper pockets, the Scottish editions of the London press have made major headway in the market place. 

When public service broadcasting (PSB) was established, radio (in the 1920s) and television (in the 1950s) acquired a distinctly Scottish dimension. Programmes produced for Scottish audiences are intended to address Scottish distinctiveness. The key broadcasters are BBC Scotland Radio and TV; STV - the commercial station that is part of the Channel 3 (ITV-dominated) network; the Gaelic-language TV service MG Alba; and Channel 4, which is growing its ‘nations and regions’ production. Commercial radio remains popular, despite decreasing amounts of Scottish content, in line with the de-localisation occurring around the UK. North of the border, an insistent question for producer interests has been whether there is enough high-quality Scottish content broadcast on the UK network, whether it is of the right kind, and whether enough is produced by Scottish-based media.

The BBC is always in the eye of the storm. In the SNP’s independence White Paper, Scotland’s Future, BBC Scotland was the focal point of plans to turn it into a Scottish Broadcasting Service.  Pro-independence discontent with the corporation’s media coverage of the 2014 referendum was intense and in some quarters antipathy to the BBC has not disappeared. On a UK level, similar divisions have been evident in the fraught cultures war over Brexit and whether a wide range of audiences and interests are being properly served. 

During the indyref campaign, to counter to the perceived hostility of established media to the independence cause the mediated public sphere expanded somewhat. New political websites were launched and there was intense political use of social media. In 2013-14, this shift was underpinned by Scotland’s widespread political engagement, which for younger generations was a first entry into a politics of commitment. Since then, although this dimension of the public sphere has not disappeared and remains significant, it is less prominent.

Interestingly, it is ‘legacy’ broadcasting that has expanded most of late. There has been a striking Covid-19 effect, with a notable revival of TV viewing during the worst days to date of the pandemic, particularly in Scotland.

Quite apart from the exceptional circumstances that produced a growth in digital audiovisual consumption across the UK both during the pandemic lockdown and since, the key development was the creation, in February 2019, of BBC Scotland’s new television channel. This a response to demands for more Scottish content for the national audience. It has substantially raised the quantity of Scottish production. The jury is still out on whether the channel has been a success and indeed, what its future will be as the BBC redefines its mission in the streaming age, amidst a climate of intensifying political and cultural division and economic stringency. In October 2019, Channel 4 set up one of its new ‘creative hubs’ in Glasgow. After a long hiatus, there was also a renewed focus on public support for the audiovisual sector, marked by the creation of the mini-agency, Screen Scotland. These developments are now playing out in a creative economy profoundly set back by the Covid-19 crisis.

Looking ahead, it is plain that the one-time dominance of scheduled programming on channels has now definitively passed. The UK’s drama market is ever more dominated by streamed audiovisual content distributed by unregulated global platforms such as Netflix, Disney and Prime. These hugely outmatch the broadcast finance available to UK broadcasters. The 16-34 demographic has been steadily abandoning traditional ways of accessing news and viewing mainstream TV. The Covid-19 broadcast media effect may have reversed this somewhat. At most, it might modify the extent to which the digital device-driven transformation of consumption is continuing to displace public service broadcasting from its former centrality. Netflix is now viewed much more in Scotland than the BBC’s iPlayer.

Scotland’s media remain an integral part of a UK communications scene now being rapidly reshaped by digitally-driven technological change, new audience consumption patterns, and the distribution strategies of global actors. The terms finally negotiated when the UK finally leaves the EU single market at the end of 2020 will have far-reaching implications for cultural trade, not least audiovisual content. All of the UK will be equally affected. For the foreseeable future, the continuing drama of the constitutional question will ensure that, at key moments, the UK’s fate as a state will continue to dominate the headlines.

Philip Schlesinger is a Professor in Cultural Theory at the University of Glasgow.

This blog was originally posted in September 2019, and was edited in August 2020 to coincide with the release of the Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics. 'Scotland's Dual Public Sphere and the Media' was published in The Oxford Handbook of Scottish Politics in August 2020 in the UK and Europe by the Oxford University Press. 

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