Scotland’s media landscape is a rather disparate scene. And one in which trust in mainstream sources is dwindling. A recent poll showed that one in three Scots believed the supposedly impartial BBC is biased against Scottish independence. Perhaps this explains why there is such a wide range of alternative outlets, many of which were launched to counter what is seen as an otherwise unionist press. One such alternative website is Bella Caledonia. Established in 2007 as a pro-independence online magazine, it gained prominence as an alternative news source during the 2014 referendum campaign. Editor Mike Small describes Bella as: “an antidote to the unionist press,” one that also offers: “a critique of the media that goes far beyond embedded constitutional bias and attempts to analyse and critique structural problems in the media and how these problems reflect wider problems in democracy”.
However, the future of Bella seemed to hang in the balance in January when it released a statement confirming that it was going to close. The announcement was met by outpourings of support and offers of help on social media from across the political spectrum. Even Scottish Conservative Leader, Ruth Davidson MSP expressed disappointment, tweeting: “It may seem odd (esp as it never thought much of me) as a former hack, I don't like seeing titles go”. Following the shock announcement, an emergency meeting of the Advisory Board of Bella Caledonia was held in which they voted unanimously to keep the magazine going. This reversal of their decision caused Ruth Davidson to seemingly backtrack on her original message, using Twitter to denounce the move as a “funding trawl”, something editor Mike Small described as: “a pitifully stupid thing to say”.
However, funding is a major problem facing independent media, which struggle to gain anything like the levels of advertising and subscription revenue available to its mainstream counterparts. In an attempt to tackle this problem, a new platform was launched at the Media and Democracy Festival in December 2016. The Media Fund is a permanent online crowdfund that channels supporter donations to around 20 alternative media teams across the country. I asked its founder, Thomas Barlow, why there was a need for it. “We need a media that gives accurate info and meets the NUJ code of conduct. To do that it has to be owned and funded by the people” he told me. “Most independent media are too busy doing their thing that they can’t go out and fundraise, so we want to do that for them.”
Speaking about what makes the Media Fund unique he said, “It brings independent media together, allowing greater impact and making it sustainable. The press is going to die. We’re going to see a flowering of independent media and this is how it will be funded. We’ll all be better off if we work together – that’s what the left is all about. That’s the future. We are not only an alternative, but we are the alternative”.
Another Scottish media outlet supported by the Media Fund is CommonSpace, a “digital news and views service” launched in 2015 and owned by the Scottish ‘think and do tank’, Common Weal. Editor, Angela Haggerty, told me she thought ‘fake news’ could be a major challenge to the reputation of independent journalism. “Politicians and others of senior levels in society who should know better have begun using the term to denounce anything that presents a challenge to them. This is potentially a big problem for genuine, independent media which has an uphill struggle from the start in terms of establishing itself as a credible source… Our funding model relies on our readers trusting the kind of media we're creating, but if they see streams of negative comments denouncing us as fake news, liars or other derogatory terms it could jeopardise that. Scotland is not immune to this problem and we must be vigilant.”
She also pointed out the impact that independent media can have on the democratic process. “CommonSpace challenges the political establishment in ways that other media outlets don't – for example, we give a particular prominence to coverage about local campaigns, which would otherwise struggle to get any exposure. This, in turn, builds a profile which becomes harder for politicians to ignore, and we feel that by doing this we're helping elevate democratic action among communities. Journalism is central to a healthy democracy, not just in terms of scrutiny but in terms of empowerment.”
We live in an age where fake news can have real political consequences; winning elections by making or breaking candidates. An age in which Wikipedia editors recently deemed that the UK’s second most widely read newspaper (the Daily Mail) was not fit to be considered a reliable source and in which right-wing millionaires can set the news agenda through funding websites such as Breitbart and Arron Banks’ Westmonster. In a time like this, we, as news consumers, have a greater duty than ever to scrutinise what we read. We have a need for news sources we can trust, professional investigative journalists who can uncover the truth and media that is independent of the political elite.
Bella will announce its restructuring and relaunch in the near future and, for now, that future seems secure. But until the importance of funding independent journalism is properly recognised and funded, Scotland’s alternative media continues to tread a precarious, but vital, path.