It suddenly occurred to me the other day that it was almost exactly ten years ago - I say "almost" because it was November - that I was in Edinburgh doing an unusually glamorous day of work (I'll save that story for my memoirs) and I received an email out of the blue from Stuart Campbell. He was messaging various bloggers asking if we would be interested in participating in a collaborative pro-independence website with which we could take on the overwhelmingly unionist mainstream media at the independence referendum, which by then was less than two years away. I agreed in principle to take part, but not long afterwards Stuart decided on a completely different path - he continued solo, and crowdfunded so he could effectively 'hire himself' as a full-time journalist working on his own website. Several of us later followed his example by individually crowdfunding to blog more or less full-time in the run-up to referendum day. From my own point of view that was a much better outcome, because I strongly value my own editorial freedom - and I think it was also a good model for the Yes movement, because the readership numbers for Scot Goes Pop were astronomical in 2014, and I presume that was being replicated across many of the leading blogs.
As we bloggers are supposed to be egotists, I should really make more of the fact that I was probably the most-read pro-indy blogger during the 2014 indyref campaign. That happened pretty much by accident. I had been a columnist on the International Business Times for two or three years by then, and I suddenly found that around 30% of my columns were being syndicated on Yahoo, where they were reaching enormous audiences - presumably even bigger than Wings Over Scotland. To their tremendous credit, the editorial team at the International Business Times were keen to be part of the antidote to media bias during the campaign, rather than part of the problem, and it really did make a difference in balancing up the content featured on the Yahoo homepage.
Can we be confident that the pro-indy New Media is in a position to make as helpful a contribution in a campaign now? That question really matters, because unless Nicola Sturgeon totally backtracks on what she's promised (and admittedly she did exactly that in 2017), we are now either only fifteen months away from a second independence referendum, or only around two years away from a general election which will be used as a de facto referendum. And I was a bit shocked - although I shouldn't have been - by how overwhelmingly hostile the mainstream media was in the immediate aftermath of Ms Sturgeon's announcement.
Balance in places like the Yahoo homepage and Google News is of course outwith our control - we'll be relying on individual initiatives from enlightened editors, and on the prominence given to articles from our only pro-independence newspaper. (I think I have seen articles from The National featured on Yahoo, but not for a few months.) But the genuinely independent pro-indy New Media is something we do have to claim responsibility for, and that's where I have major concerns about whether enough is being done. The obvious difference from 2014 is that we now have a big black hole where Wings' positive contribution used to be. It may be that if the Supreme Court surprise us all by giving its blessing to a referendum, Stuart will return to full-time blogging of the type he produced eight years ago. But in the more likely scenario that we move on to a plebiscite election, I have grave fears that Stuart will misuse his influence by concentrating on trying to unseat individual SNP MPs who disagree with him on the trans issue. I was absolutely astonished that having got exactly what he wanted last year with the creation of the Alba party, he then spent the entire Holyrood election campaign blogging about the trans debate, rather than trying to create a buzz about independence and urging people to grab hold of the opportunity Alba were offering. Even on polling day itself, his post was devoted to effectively telling his readers to vote for unionist parties in a large number of constituencies where he disapproved of the SNP candidate. That was in direct contravention of the Alba strategy, which was to advocate an SNP constituency vote everywhere in Scotland. If Stuart does the same thing at a plebiscite election, Wings will have to all intents and purposes morphed into a unionist website.
So I'd suggest we urgently need some blue-sky thinking about what can fill the gap left by Wings - and we should probably think even bigger than last time, because after all we didn't actually win the 2014 referendum. My own feeling is that crowdfunded TV or radio channels are a dead end, because they suck up vast resources but end up attracting tiny audiences, if they even get off the ground at all. It's similarly hard to gain much traction with start-up print publications. So it's mostly websites we need to be thinking about, and as good as something like CommonSpace was under Ben Wray's editorship, that had too narrow an appeal. What would be ideal would be a glossy, professional-looking website, with no paywall, packed with new content on a daily basis, and that is capable of bringing in a mass audience, including women, young people and the working-class. I'd suggest to do that at least 50% of the content would have to be about entertainment, sport, lifestyle, etc, etc, acting as a gateway drug for the remaining content about politics and independence, which of course would be strategically placed to catch people's eye.
The obvious barrier to achieving this would be a) money, and b) finding writers and other creatives willing and able to produce large amounts of quality non-political content. But that's the sort of thing we need to start thinking about pretty soon. And if anyone has some alternative ideas, feel free to leave a comment below.
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