A piece for the British Journalism Review on the issue of institutional byline banditry by my The Scotsman, my old (and much-loved) employer in Baghdad.
How much do reporters matter? Not enough for Scotland’s national paper to bother about bylines in its online archive
APART from the odd anxious call from my mother, who didn’t really count, it was the first time anyone had ever rung my satellite phone. After some frantic moments trying to remember how to press the “answer” button, a voice finally came through – fuzzy down the line from Edinburgh, but very welcome.
“Hello, this is the Scotsman foreign desk. Are you in Baghdad? Might you be available to do some stringing for us?”
Available I certainly was. It was May 2003, a month after Saddam Hussein’s statue had fallen, and having failed to find any work since arriving as a wannabe freelancer, a chance to be The Scotsman’s unofficial Baghdad bureau chief was a godsend.
No, The Scotsman wasn’t a big name such as The Times or the Telegraph. Yes, the “bureau” consisted of me, my satellite phone and my $4-a-night hotel room. But back then, The Scotsman had as much enthusiasm and space for foreign coverage as any other broadsheet. For the next two years, I got to write not just news but also history, watching the occupation unravel, covering Iraq’s first elections and joining about 200 other journalists for a “world exclusive” when Saddam got caught in his “spider hole” near Tikrit.
A decade on, The Scotsman is in something of a hole itself. Its circulation is down from a peak of 100,000 to 20,000 today, and the days when it could afford to sustain a grateful network of foreign freelancers like me are over.
Like any other paper, it faces an existential struggle in the digital age: the day may not be far off when the print edition ceases.
As someone born and raised in Edinburgh, that’s a sad thought. There is, however, the consolation of knowing that in years to come, future generations who browse The Scotsman online will be to see my contribution to the city’s great newspaper, which long punched above and beyond its weight. Except… they won’t. Recently, as part of research for another piece, I searched Scotsman.com for one of my old articles about the southern Iraqi marshlands. Nothing came up. I tried a few others. Nothing.
Back in my Baghdad days, I distinctly remembered the Scotsman website
having a comprehensive archive. So much so that I used it to keep track of
how much I could expect to get paid. Now I could find just one piece from
those days – written, sadly enough, about the murder of another Scottish
freelance who’d come to try his luck in Baghdad.
Mystified, I mentioned this in passing to my fellow ex-Scotsman hack,
Gethin Chamberlain, the paper’s former chief news correspondent. He’d
been embedded with the Black Watch during the British invasion down in
Basra, winning awards for his coverage. Much to my surprise, he told me
he too had been airbrushed from history. As had nearly everyone else.
“The actual articles are still there on the website, it’s just the names
have been removed,” he told me gloomily.
Why, I asked? Something to do with a revamp of the website, he’d
heard. There had been a few objections at the time, by all accounts, but
there you go. Not worth going on strike over, was it?
In a sense, he was right. Did a few bylines from years ago really matter?
Besides, both of us had old paper cuttings files too. If we wanted an ego
trip down memory lane, we have the means to do so.
All the same, it grated. Because much as bylines may not matter a jot
to the reading public, they do matter to reporters themselves. In a job that
is increasingly long hours, poor pay and dim prospects, what makes it all
worthwhile is the satisfaction of seeing your name in lights, of knowing
that your contribution is there forever.
Indeed, the shift to online should enhance that sense of immortality.
Unlike some dusty newspaper print archive, accessible only by prior
appointment, a newspaper’s website can bring old correspondents back to
life at a keystroke. Yet at The Scotsman, someone seemed to have decreed
that the souls who actually brought in the stories were no longer a detail
worth remembering. We’d been cut out, like the last paragraph in some
forgettable down-page lead.
What really irked, though, was that this year, The Scotsman has been
making great hay out of its past contributors. January marked 200 years
since two feisty Scots, William Ritchie and Charles Maclaren, started what
was then known as “The Paper Thistle” to take on the Edinburgh
establishment. Over recent months, there have been all sorts of
retrospectives and features marking the paper’s bicentenary, plus an hour-
long television documentary reminding people that “Hoots-mon” was
once the equal of anything south of the border.
A fascinating romp through Auld Reekie’s past, the documentary
covers The Scotsman’s role in everything from the Burke and Hare
bodysnatching trials through to big modern stories such as Piper Alpha,
Dunblane and the independence debate. We also learn that mad, eccentric
editors are nothing new: Charles Maclaren, the paper’s co-founder, once
fought a duel with the editor of the rival Caledonian Mercury over some
perceived slight. For levity, meanwhile, prominent alumni such as Andrew
Marr reminisced about lunchtime marathons in The Jinglin’ Geordie, the
pub next to The Scotsman’s offices, and we saw Jim Naughtie, then a lobby
hack, with an 1980s style ’tache.
To my delight, the documentary even ran through famous front pages,
including one entitled “Saddam found in hole in the ground” with a joint
byline for me and Chamberlain. As the narrator remarked, “If you read
between the lines, you can sense the commitment of the men and women
who have written for the Paper Thistle.”
Quite. So why, in its heritage year, has The Scotsman not seen fit to
honour those men and women by keeping our names in the one place where
people can easily see them? It’s not just about us, after all. What if a
historian or PhD student was researching some long lost story and wanted
to track to the reporter who covered it? What if it was the Edinburgh-
based crime novelist Ian Rankin, researching background for a new
Inspector Rebus novel? What if it was a copper researching an unsolved
case or a miscarriage of justice?
Eventually, my wounded pride could contain itself no longer. I
contacted Johnston Press, the Edinburgh-based regional newspaper
publisher that bought The Scotsman from the Barclay brothers in 2006.
There was much to-ing and fro-ing, and for a while, I felt like Inspector
Rebus in the Case of the Missing Bylines. Eventually I got an answer from
its PR department.
“Dear Colin, as you know, the Scotsman.com content was migrated
when a new site was set up in 2013. One of the technical downsides was
that bylines – not just those of freelancers but of Scotsman staff too – did
not transfer across. Contrary to what you might have been told previously,
this was not a conscious decision by anyone, Unfortunately, reinstating
bylines on thousands of stories is not currently under consideration.”
Chamberlain, who, like me is now freelance again, is not impressed. “It
speaks volumes about the attitude of Johnston Press towards its journalists
and journalism in general that it didn’t even consider the issue of bylines
when it migrated the stories,” he says. “Either no one noticed, which is a
damning indictment in itself, or they did notice but couldn’t be bothered
to correct it because journalists are so low down on their list of priorities.
“We often tell each other that journalists are the only people who read
bylines, but it is not true. As the internet has made it easier to search
through the archives, I find I am contacted more and more by people who
have read something I wrote years ago and either want to republish it, or
talk about a new story based around the original subject, or any number of
other reasons that are only made possible if my name is on the story.
“And on a personal level, that was my work. I put a lot of effort into
some of those stories. There’s months of reporting from Iraq and Darfur
that The Scotsman has just wiped clean of my name. Now it is just generic
Johnston Press copy, for them to do with what they want.”
That same institutional byline banditry, by the way, applies not just to
ex-foot soldiers like Gethin and me, but also to the paper’s luminaries.
Nobody who rummages in the online archive will now learn that this was
once the paper that nurtured broadcaster Andrew Marr, the Spectator editor
Fraser Nelson and other household names. Isn’t this something a newspaper
would want to shout about?
And what of it not being a “conscious decision”? Maybe not. But Paul
Holleran, the national organiser for NUJ Scotland, says complaints were
made afterwards, only for nothing to be done. Another ex-Scotsman
employee, who asked not to be named, added that staff were wary of
making too much fuss. Jobs were being slashed at the time, to the point
where John Innes – The Scotsman’s hardworking fictional in-house byline –
once had half a dozen stories in a single edition.
“Raising one’s head above the parapet was not a good idea,” the ex-staffer
told me. “For me, this was just part of Johnston Press regarding journalists
as content providers rather than individuals who had their own voice.”
Cock-up or conspiracy, I suspect The Scotsman isn’t the only place where
this has happened. On the contrary, I fear it happening on any newspaper
that migrates online. And while I still have my old paper cuttings to fall
back on, what guarantees are there for the hacks of the future? In The
Scotsman documentary, there were warnings that the printed edition could
cease in as soon as five years, and that the Paper Thistle may soon be
digital-only. What happens if someone wipes your bylines then? Time for
duelling pistols at dawn again?