FROM out of the mists of cyberspace, they’re looming towards you, like chuggers you know you won’t be able to avoid … two indy-friendly websites are starting up their yearly fundraisers – Bella Caledonia this week and Common Weal next week.
I’m a contributing editor to the former, and on the board of the latter (I know: small country). So my opening gambit is, as you would expect me to say, please give generously and wildly to both.
But as we rattle the tin before you, I want to explore this new landscape these sites are part of – and raise a tricky issue. Independence supporters know how to fund independence-supporting media. The question is whether they can still support that same media when it begins to express differences, and host disputes, about the best routes to the desired end.
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We know why the first strategy was necessary. As either websites or blogs, Bella Caledonia began in 2007, Newsnet Scotland in 2010, Wings Over Scotland in 2011, and CommonSpace in 2015 (though CS’s parent organisation, the think-and-do-tank Common Weal, started in 2013).
The obvious point is this: they all launched in the era of SNP government, both minority and majority – and at the very least, saw that political reality as opening up the possibility of independence.
Yet they also all saw how alarmingly tilted against the prospect of indy the Scottish media landscape was. From the subtler framings of Whitehall-influenced broadcast media, to the explicit Unionist line taken by the vast majority of commercial newspapers available in Scotland (present company, and the Sunday Herald, excepted).
To greater or lesser degrees, and using the cheap and ubiquitous tools of digital publishing, these sites ran content which countered, or critiqued, what was available in the mainstream and official media in Scotland. Whether by painstakingly pointing out UK-establishment bias (Wings), or by providing an alternative to their opinion-and-editorial pages (Bella and Newsnet), they have gained tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of identifiable readers each day.
But not just readers’ attention – their money too. And that cash flow was clearly initially triggered by the prospect of an indyref, after the SNP’s startling majority victory at Holyrood in 2011. (The availability of crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, started in 2008-9 but mature and ready by 2011, provided the technical means.)
As the indyref accelerated into its last six months, tens of thousands of pounds were being raised for (non-official) Yes campaign propaganda of various kinds – documentaries, posters, painted fire-engines ... you remember. The sites I’m citing (and others now shuttered, like National Collective), also put their shoulders into the campaign effort.
But if you look back from today, and add up the funding streams for the major editorial sites, some interesting patterns emerge. Ones that help us imagine what it might take for us to support an indy-friendly media going forward.
For example, take these two monthly figures: £12090 and £13220. The former figure comes from dividing the total amount raised on Indiegogo by Wings Over Scotland, since its first pitch for cash in Feb 2013 (£408,023) by the intervening months till now.
The latter figure is the amount Common Weal raises every month through online subscription – which is just over halfway to their desired total of £25K per month.
It’s hard to say who gives you more bang for your buck. Wings may seem like a one-man operation but its regular commission of opinion polling, and the mass production of the Wee Blue Book for the indyref (and now the Wee Black Book, recording the referendum’s most egregious media coverage), makes it as much a campaigning organisation as a daily media monitor.
Common Weal has a staff of 10 people, a mix of full-time and part-time, managing to produce original research papers, the CommonSpace news service, merchandise, events ... it seems a bit miraculous that it happens at all.
But think of the more traditional press titles – their sliding circulations, their considerable physical overheads, the heavy returns-on-investment they shoulder. And then think of these lean, lightly organised and responsive digital operations, already plugged into many thousands of active, committed users.
What form of media seems more like the future to you?
So the indy-minded have given resources to these evidently valuable organisations – and I would argue, even in terms of value for money and performance, should give a lot more.
But we need to iron out a problem that has emerged in the run-up to the last Holyrood election, and somehow get above it.
The independence movement had a serious divergence of strategy coming up to May 5. This was brilliantly laid out in Bella Caledonia itself by Alan Bissett, in a blog titled “No Blame, No Shame, Moving Yes Forward”.
Bissett attempted to lay out the positions of what he called “Both Votes SNP” and the “Indy Left”, in the hope that both sides could at least accept each other’s good faith. But in terms of Yessers supporting what Alan calls our “vibrant (if patchily-resourced) alternative media”, the distinction challenges those who found themselves in one camp or the other.
When the appeals go out for money, are we really only going to devote our cash to those outlets who we perceive fell on either side of this divide? As election fervour gradually cools down, perhaps we could go back and look at the editorial choices of all these major sites and titles in this period. What we might actually see, I’d suggest, is something like the old ideal of “editorial diversity” operating, to some extent, in each one of them.
Now, is Scotland the home of the flyte and the rammy? Is our language of public debate always cool, measured and Socratic? Shall we forgive ourselves for sins committed? Rhetorical questions, I hope.
But now that the people have spoken, and returned an “indy majority” rather than an “SNP majority”, let’s have a calm think about what we need our indy-friendly media to do for us.
We’ll need to take on board the idea that “winning indy by displaying competence in government” now has more than the SNP’s rationale in play. A little of the plurality of forces that made up the Yes movement is now installed in Holyrood, as a result of the Scottish Greens’ advance in the list vote. Isn’t that an opportunity to test again the underlying vision of any independence offer – given the failure of indy-lite to get us over the line?
And given the rise of a hardening Scottish Unionist identity, expressed in Tories doubling their vote, the need to reach out to those No voters who still remain doubtful is urgent. Never mind Bissett’s distinction – what about those distressed Labourites, torn between the SNP’s power and the Tories’ capture of Unionism? Arguments about “Labour for Indy” (or even Home Rule) need to be encouraged. Shouldn’t indy-friendly media outlets be their first port of call?
My essential appeal would be this. We have all, with our diverse longings, come on quite a journey over the last few years. Against all the odds we have forged a lively indy consciousness – not just through activism, but through the creation of our own rich media sphere.
We should value that sphere’s diversity: the battle of ideas within our movement keeps us alive to every possibility for advance.
So here come the appeals. Think of how much you spend on media that doesn’t take your country forward; that doesn’t try to keep its citizens’ minds aflame. And then spare some pounds for Bella Caledonia, Common Weal, and the next ones who you know are looming towards you (and some for The National too).
We have something new here, something that’s part of a future.
It could so easily unravel. Let’s sustain it instead.