Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Future of newspapers part I, part II and part III

Part I

I'm  very exercised by the fact that readers in the Western Isles can't get a copy of their daily newspaper now until the ferry arrives in the afternoon.

Loganair, the airline that supplied the islanders with their daily blatt, has upped their freight prices and made the exercise uneconomic, which is a huge blow to the reading public, the newsagents and the life on the edge.

My brother Donald Crichton is at the forefront of the campaign to have the decision reversed or to reach a happy compromise, hopefully that will bear some fruit.

Of course, I have a personal stake in all this (if we don't sell newspapers my job is on the line, and not just online). Also, one of the regular joys of going home is being able to read all the papers in the morning without having to actually do anything about what they contain - a pleasure denied.

For anyone feeling deprived of their morning read can I recommend the Daily Record App for your i-Pad which gives you an excellent "read as you see it in print" view of the paper. The app is free to download and free to read.

Not every bodach on Lewis has an i-Fhad yet, I realise, and the wireless connection leaves a lot to desired, but they're working on it I'm told. It probably is the future.

Part II

Other newspaper apps are available. I'm thinking of having to sign up for The Times app myself, just to make sure I can keep up with some of the Scottish news and comment from fellow Leosach Anguish MacLeod and others.

Michael Settle, my Herald colleague in the lobby, pointed out this morning that the Balkanisation of the British press is now almost complete. Of all the London papers today only the Financial Times carried an account of the Treasury report on the options for a Scottish currency post-independence.

I'm sure all the Scottish editions of the national newspapers did but readers in England are being deprived of the referendum debate which, believe me, they do have an interest in.

Despite the appetite news editors prefer to ghettoise Scottish news into Scottish editions. Breaking news - there are 800,000 Scots in England and a whole lot of other people who want to have a stake, and a voice, in the debate. Nationalism will be strengthened when England turns it back on Scotland, and the London newspapers are shaping that kind of future

Part III

This is a great time to be a Scottish journalist. There are huge stories to look forward to - from  the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup - and every day throws up a new twist on the path to a referendum.

Times are hard, people are losing their jobs in each year of newspaper cuts,  but during the Scottish Press Awards last week all the speeches seemed to largely reflect the huge uncertainty we feel as an industry, and the legal challenges, with little fanfare about the opportunities we face as a profession.

I felt we were being a bit hard on ourselves, especially when the room was brimful of talented people being patted on the back for doing a great job.

We are feeling a bit fragile I suppose (I certainly was), but the choice is to embrace what is a great period for newswriting, or just live in fear of the future.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Scenes along the funeral route

Early morning, London
It feels like it might rain. I've just finished walking the course, as the commentators say before the racedays, from St Paul's Cathedral down to the Palace of Westminster under a typically slate-grey London sky.

The City of London police are lining the road in their silver buttoned uniforms, service medals shining, white gloves gleaming. They give way to the Met officers at  St Clement Danes, the boundary of the City of London, who have wisely dressed for the weather and not the occasion.

There are crowd barriers all along the two mile route, but apart from the steps of the Cathedral where some of the public have gathered, the streets at 7.30am were only busy with commuters on the way to work.

Behind the railings a group of  Para veterans, in their maroon berets and blazers, have stationed themselves on Ludgate Hill, where protesters had planned to turn their backs on Margaret Thatcher's coffin. If you want to dis-respect Thatcher then I guess you have to get up earlier than a Falklands veteran.

The police will facilitate protest, but not disorder, today. In a completely empty Trafalgar Square it didn't look as if anything was going to kick off soon. But neither did it look as if the streets were going to be thronged with mourners, even if Tory MPs have organised buses to come in from the shires.

Along the Strand and down Whitehall some had forgotten their manners, or perhaps forgotten that their buildings had flagstaffs and that the banners should be lowered.

The Scotland Office was cutting it fine, their St Andrew's Cross and Union flag still flying at 8am, when the government order had all Whitehall departments lowering to half mast from dawn to dusk. That was fixed shortly afterwards, just as the roads were being given a final sweep and sand was being sprayed onto Fleet Street's slimy surface so the bearers would not lose their grip on that last mile.

Big Ben chimed the hour but the further away from the tolling bell, which will be silenced shortly - last chime at 9.45 am  next at 12.59 am -  the less this spectacle resonates.

Two-thirds of  Scotland's councils have refused to lower their flags to half-mast in memory of Margaret Thatcher.

There will be lots of words today, but let's start with  Glasgow City Council leader Gordon Matheson who said it would not be appropriate to mark the funeral.

He said: “It is always sad when someone dies and I offer my condolences to the family of Lady Thatcher. The scenes of people celebrating in the city were embarrassing and distasteful.

“But In terms of the government led by Lady Thatcher, it created social and economic divisions which destroyed families and communities.

“The government she led was a disaster for the city and it would not be appropriate for Glasgow to honour that political legacy with such a tribute.”

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

How my Basque friends marked Franco's death

From my Daily Record column:

I have a friend from the Basque country whose stories about growing up in Franco’s Spain the Sixties are similar to those my father told about Scotland in the Hungry Thirties - no shoes going to school, no cars on the road, no meat in the pot.

When the dictator died in his bed in 1975 my friend Alberto and his brother, then young men, ran out and bought a bottle of champagne, which would have been the equivalent of buying a crate of the stuff last Monday.

The nationalist Basques lived under Franco’s heel for nearly 40 years, they had reason to celebrate.

It was an ETA bomb that killed Carrero Blanco, Franco’s heir apparent, in 1973 which they argued paved the road to democratic transition.

My jubilant pal and his brother were ready to pop the champagne cork at home when they were pulled up short by their mother.

She was an anti-Francoist who had witnessed the bombing of Guernica by the Germans and had a deep sense of ethics.

Alberto recalls she said: "We fought tooth and nail against him, but there is no honour in dancing over his dead body now."

It was a convincing argument. The brothers compromised, and drank the champagne to toast their dignified mother.

Monday, 15 April 2013

The punk monster Scotland created

My Monday column for the Daily Record

Star turn from Richard Dormer as Terri Hooley. the godfather of late 70s Belfast punk

It’s 1979 all over again - from the brilliant Belfast punk movie "Good Vibrations"   to the election re-runs on television last Saturday. It’s all a reminder of how we got to this place, to the divisive pomp of a Thatcher funeral.

Why David Cameron chose to pour the remnants of Olympic feelgood down the drain with a Commons session baffles me. Churchill had 45 minutes of tributes, she had a whole day, just to retoxify the Tories.

The ‘79 imagery reminded us too how 11 SNP MPs went into the voting lobby with the Tories to bring down the Labour government by one vote.

Jim Callaghan, all gallows humour, said it was the "first time in recorded history that turkeys have been known to vote for an early Christmas."

The SNP lost all but two of their seats in May, Thatcher was elected, the rest is history and rather a lot of myth.

There are more legends about Thatcher and Scotland than there are around Loch Ness. She presided over the destruction of the old heavy industries that gave central Scotland its 20th century Labour identity. The deep mines, the shipyards, the steelworks and the certainties they provided for a largely male workforce are gone.

She waged war on the miners, showed no compassion for the jobless misery of monetarism. But Thatcher didn’t just discriminate against the Scots, she had it in for working people all across Britain.

Somewhere we forgot she was just Queen of the South, not the Queen of England, and that she was in the tide of history as much as making history

We took Margaret Thatcher’s medicine very personally. Instead of dismissing her as the poster girl of globalisation, which swept away the Soviet Union as surely as it closed Scottish shipyards, Scots made her the lightning rod for intense pain of these worldchanging forces.

We held her responsible for every ill visited on our native heath. We didn’t like her policies, we didn’t like her "we in Scotland" tone, we didn’t like the poll tax.

In fact, most of the UK hated her but put up with it all because there was no opposition alternative.

In many ways she was a failure, her economic policies were more bonkers than Osborne’s. The welfare budget under the Tories, then as now, increased. She lurched on lubricated by North Sea oil receipts, the blood of the Falklands and late night whiskies to steady her nerves.

But instead of ridiculing her Labour demonised her and instilled fear among voters. Labour succeeded in making voting Tory a taboo in Scotland, and created a Frankenstein monster that came back to haunt it.

Having completed a one move chess game the party didn’t stop to think what the consequences would be.These Scottish Tory voters didn’t become socialist converts, they gathered around an anti-Labour alternative, the SNP.

The SNP, which took former Tory strongholds in north east, became the true inheritors of Thatcher’s division. From a rural, conservative base Alex Salmond managed to built, and hold together over two decades, a nationalist coalition that can talk left and walk right.

Labour was still fighting Margaret Thatcher in 2011, putting her face on Holyrood election leaflet and leaving the keys to the parliament under Alex Salmond’s mat.

Holyrood, her lasting legacy, was born from a collective determination to "never see her like again" more than any grassroots demand for home rule.

While she pulled us to the right, and we stayed there, she also put us on the road to self determination. Where that leads exactly we don’t know, but the SNP can be grateful for the convenient signpost she and Labour in inadvertently provided.

The SNP doesn’t like inconvenient history, like Hugh MacDiarmid’s shady fascist politics, and how it ushered in Thatcher’s Tory government.

Angus Robertson’s "We will never forget, we will never forgive" SNP declamation of the poll tax in the Westminster debate on Wednesday, reinforced the Scottish mix of malice and mythmaking around Thatcher.

She is divisive even in death. A Labour MP who stayed away on Wednesday vowed to me with equal bitterness that he would "never forget or forgive" the SNP’s role in unbottling Thatherism.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Agent Mendez, Argo hero, reporting for duty

CIA agent Tony Mendez: "If you were in the field during the Blitz, you wore a trench coat. If you were tracking Ivan, you had Harris Tweed."

My first Gaelic column for the Daily Record  (Suil Eile, every Monday) was about CIA agent Tony Mendez, the real-life American hero behind the Iran hostage rescue featured in Argo.

While watching the Ben Affleck movie I said to myself: "Wait a minute, I recognise that jacket!"

Sure enough, some research revealed that Mendez, played by Affleck, always wore a Harris Tweed jacket. The  clothes designer on Argo dressed the Hollywood star in the same style and Affleck made 70s tweed look ultra all over again.

Someone obviously thought this was a marketing opportunity too good to miss. Now Agent Mendez, whose Harris Tweed jacket is giving the fabric its highest-profile Hollywood exposure in decades,  has been honoured for his services to the cloth, the Clo Mor.
Tony was guest of honour at the launch of a new social media site, Need for Tweed, in New York this week, a Harris Tweed Hebrides intitiative to celebrate the heritage of Harris Tweed in North America as well current, cutting-edge use.

Speaking in New York, Mendez confirmed that the movie reflected reality and that Harris Tweed had been “part of what every agent wore” during his time in the service. “I wore it all the time,” he  said.

"The jackets were representative of our group. Those of us in the CIA who did overseas work, work in the field. If you were in the field during the Blitz, you wore a trench coat. If you were tracking Ivan (the Soviet Union and its allies), you had Harris Tweed."

When Ben Affleck asked him how he dressed during the Argo mission, Tony couriered to Hollywood the jacket he wore during the rescue drama in Iran more than 30 years ago – and which he had refused to part with.

His wardrobe has now been replenished – Tony was presented with a brand new Harris Tweed jacket by Brian Wilson, the former Labour MP and journalist who chairs Harris Tweed Hebrides.

Brian said: “Argo is the perfect link. Tony represents an era when every well-dressed American had Harris Tweed in his closet while Ben Affleck confirms why that would again be a great idea.

“By telling the story and honouring Tony, we hope everyone who sees Argo will be more likely to say – that’s a great Harris Tweed jacket Ben Affleck is wearing. I want one of them”.

You know Brian, that's what I thought too. Seo an colbh mar a sgriobh mi air 25/02/13.

Sùil eile... air fasan nan Oscars

Am faca sibh na h-Oscars a-raoir? Ainm gaisgeil Gàidhealach airson prìomh dhuaisean saoghal nam fiolmaichean, nach e?

Am fiolm a b' fheàrr a chòrd rium fhìn, 's e Argo, le Ben Affleck, mu dheidhinn Aimeireaganaich a bha fo bhruid ann an Iran anns na seachdadan.

Coimhead ris a' fiolm, thuirt mi rium fhìn, “tha mi ag aithneachadh na seacaid sin,” is i cho coltach ri tè a bh' aig bràthair mo mhàthar.

Rinn mi rannsachadh, agus ceart gu leòr, mhìnich an tè a rinn an t-aodach ann an agallamh gur e seacaid Chlò Hearaich a th' air Tony Mendez, caractar Ben Affleck, fad a' movie.

Bho na seachdadan gun t-seachdain-sa chaidh, bho Tehran gu Àird Thunga, chan eil càil cho fasanta ris a' Chlò Mhòr.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Thatcher and Scotland - the legacy of self-rule

Lady Thatcher has died, and while it is wrong to speak ill of the dead, the former Prime Minister was so demonised in Scotland that there will be few homes in which the mirrors will be draped with black cloth tonight.

There are more myths about Thatcher and Scotland than there are around Loch Ness, so they are best put to rest before the orations are made or before an arm stretches for the bottle cork.

In the mists of time she will be remembered for imposing the poll tax on Scotland, for the demolition of heavy industry like Ravenscraig steelworks and for reducing the number of Scots Tory MPs to nil. In fact, she did none of these three things.

It was the Scottish Tories themselves who demanded that the community charge, an individual local levy for services, be introduced in Scotland because they feared the backlash that would come from a long overdue rates re-evaluation.

Little did they know what they had sown, and the poll tax, introduced a year early in Scotland as a result, went down as a Thatcherite experiment on the back of an browbeaten nation.

Ravenscraig, of course, did not close until John Major was Prime Minister, and Margaret Thatcher actually gave British Steel extra subsidy to keep the steelworks open. Scotland kept returning Tory MPs, including her greatest disciple Michael Forsyth, for seven years after she left office.

There is only one certainty in Thatcher’s Scottish legacy - the movement for self-government and the independence would not have become half as strong had it not been for how unfairly Scots felt Thatcher had treated them.

Her biggest legacy in Scotland was that she engendered so much hatred that collectively the nation decided they never wanted to see her like again.

She hastened the movement for home rule and in 11 years as Prime Minister she made the process of devolution unstoppable.

The body politics of Scotland scorns Thatcherism, it is like a touchstone of the nation. But virtually all politicians are bound to the political path she established - private sector delivery of services, cuts in the size of the state, and market competition almost unfettered by government rules. She moved all of Britain to the right, and we have stayed there, even  though she could not destroy the spirit of 1945 that laid the basis for the welfare state.

She re-discovered British patriotism - the Falklands saved her and 255 servicemen paid in blood - but she hated the real patriotism people showed to loved institutions like the BBC and the NHS, and the spirit of British tolerance. Few will dance on her grave, but Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening was a balletic response to how Britain overcame her legacy of division.

Her philosophy was summed up in the notorious Sermon on the Mound, her address to the Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 in which she tried to twist Christianity into a theology for capitalism and the market economy.

It was so far removed from the consensual, social Scotland that the speech provoked uproar and was seen as pivotal moment in the relationship between a Prime Minister who thought there was “no such thing as society” and a country which deeply valued its communities and sense of belonging.

Without Thatcher Scotland would be a completely different country, an unimaginable one.

She presided over the destruction of the old heavy industries that gave central Scotland its 20th century Labour identity. The deep mines, the shipyards and steelworks, the state industries and the certainties they provided for a largely male workforce are almost all gone.

They may have staggered on with the subsidy of a devolved Scottish Assembly, had it happened, or re-elected Labour government but they were wiped out by her Tory government and the march of globalisation.

She moved the great giants of the state -electricity, gas, telecoms and railways - wholesale into the private sector and undermined the power of the trade unions by using the police and the law against them.

The war with the miners, it could not be described as anything less, destroyed not just an industry but the basis for the existence of whole communities. From one end of Britain to the other Thatcher left communities without purpose, or reason, or hope. These deep wounds are still felt collectively and in some places she will never be forgiven for that radical change to our lives.

What is remarkable about modern Scotland is how much of that community and political cohesiveness survives as the country forges a new identity on a completely different economic base.

Yes, without Thatcher Scotland would now be a different country, one that would not be so far down the road of self-determination.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Cameron sails into uncharted waters

There is an old  political adage, played out in the tv drama the West Wing - never let a good crisis go to waste.

As the nation woke to the news of the US deploying anti-missile batteries in Guam to counter a threatened nuclear strike by a rogue North Korea, David Cameron chose to issue a timely reminder of why he wants Britain to keep its nuclear deterrent.

But ramming home his case for nuclear arms with an audacious sail up the Clyde aboard a Vanguard submarine also sends the independence debate to Defcon Two, one step away from total war. 

The symbolism couldn’t be more explicit. While Alex Salmond is away gallivanting in New York the Prime Minister is parking tanks, or should it be subs, on his lawn.

Cameron has dismissed the idea of a one-on-one  independence debate with Salmond but here he is picking a fight on his own terms, with the biggest club in the armoury.
Downing Street want to make Cameron look like a duffle-coated Jack Hawkins (The Cruel Sea) in charge of our defence destiny, and reduce Alex Salmond to pipe-puffing Para Handy (The Vital Spark).

Cameron knows one of the big uncertainties for Scottish voters is what would happen to defence jobs and defence of the realm under independence. The SNP has not been able to assure the public on the issue and now Cameron is driving home the advantage.
Defence is one thing, but the multi- billion Trident deterrent is a divisive issue in Scotland. Having the city killer parked on the Clyde is a source of resentment for many Scots, but also a source of employment for many others. 

One result form the sub stunt is guaranteed - the SNP will go ballistic. Trident is a touchstone issue for nationalists. Opposition to nuclear weapons is one of the reasons many people joined the party in the first place, and focus group evidence tells the SNP it is one of the issues that appeals not only to the faithful but helps slice off some left wing votes that could otherwise be with the Union.

The SNP leadership will feign outrage, be privately delighted, and then use the pictures of “Kim Jong-Cam” astride the nuclear sub for the next 18 months.

But Downing Street is sensing that the SNP is on the back foot. With a tremendous election winning year in 2011 Salmond won the first round of the Battle for Britain.

Cameron, unlike the Spanish government, which has goaded Catalans into the hands of nationalists at each cack-handed turn, boxed clever and calmed the waters.

The PM offered to clear any legal impediment to a referendum vote in Scotland, so long as it was only one question and done and dusted by the end of 2014.

The talks were headed by the slow pulse Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, leaving Salmond only air to punch at. In what the SNP described as a historic deal, he was boxed into a one question vote within a time limit. Round two, in 2012, went to Cameron. 
In the 2013 phoney war, with over a year to run to a vote, experienced strategists are telling Cameron to up the tempo to stop any chance of Salmond getting back onto the front foot.
The SNP leader has suffered various slings and arrows this year, nothing fatal, but once you start losing forward political traction it is very difficult to regain.
Having the Prime Minister come up the Clyde in a nuclear sub is bound to provoke a reaction - a nuclear one from the independence camp for sure. But it will focus the minds of the majority of voters on the defence issue and independence and on that deep, almost subconscious concern, who guard us in our sleep. 
In that sense you see the pared-down strategy of Cameron’s Australian election guru Lynton Crosby having its effect on the referendum debate, combining with the tv opportunism of Craig Oliver, Downing Street’s Scottish-born director of communications. 
The must have thought it was a good idea, but this stunt is not like flipping burgers at a Downing Street barbeque with Barack Obama, where all that could go wrong was a singed chicken wing. 

As a photo opportunity this is high risk, potentially explosive even, and the debate could swing the other way. Remember, it is not just the Royal Navy that  has form for putting its own ships onto the rocks