Scotland's journalists have come in for fulsome praise at this year's Scottish Press Awards ceremony. Chair of the judges, Denise West, told guests at the glitzy annual event in Glasgow: 'The quality of output has never been higher'.
Denise, a long-time chair of the judging panel, knows what she is talking about. She has worked at the highest managerial level in several Scottish newspaper groups for more than 30 years – in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee – and is a past-president of the Scottish Newspaper Society (SNS) which organises the Scottish Press Awards.
Former chief commercial officer of DC Thomson Media and an Edinburgh University law graduate, who opted for a career in newspapers rather than at the Bar, Denise told the assembled company: 'The role Scottish journalists play has never been more important than it has been during the past 18 months. Despite all the set-backs the newspaper industry has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, the quality of output has never been higher.
'Modern news publishing is a multi-platform business which moves at breakneck speed around the clock and [tonight's] awards prove once again that our newsrooms have been able to adapt and innovate, under the most testing of circumstances, to keep the public fully informed throughout the most stringent lockdown any of us have ever known.'
And she concluded in a most welcome upbeat fashion, assuring folks: 'One thing is for sure: from a judging perspective, the quality of journalism has never been higher'.
The editorial departments of some Scottish daily newspapers had for many years a reputation, whether fair or not a matter for debate, of being the bastion of domineering, hard-bitten, hard-drinking, egotistical and maybe somewhat misogynistic, male hacks. Well, a very positive trend to emerge from this year's awards, at a time when the matter of gender is a very contentious issue in Britain's public life, is that here in Scotland, at least, there are signs that the times they are a-changin'.
Curiously, in quoting here the title of that definitive Bob Dylan song, written away back in October 1963, I recalled him revealing just how heavily he was influenced by Scottish ballads in composing it. And, rather apt in this context, even more curious is the composition of the second verse which runs:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesise with your pens
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
Chillingly, Dylan had so accurately prophesised in song the shocking scenes which transfixed a global television audience on 6 January this year, when a mob of frenzied supporters of the then US President Donald Trump violently stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC.
But I digress. Back at the awards ceremony, it was very striking and significant that three of the editors of this year's six award-winning newspapers are women: Gill Smith (The Scottish Sun
), Linzi Watson (Lennox Herald
) and Leah Seator (The Orcadian
). And equally striking was that the team of 37 judges, drawn from across the Scottish media, communications and public affairs industries, was made up of 22 women and 15 men.
In analysing the awards list, an equally significant success story emerges for women. Realistically, women journalists were only in contention in 18 of the 33 categories at stake. And the outcome? Well, women won eight awards and were runners-up in five categories. Not bad going.
I have returned this week to this year's awards because of their importance in celebrating the very best of print and digital journalism from across Scotland. And while much admiring The Scottish Sun's
outstanding performance in lifting four of the seven major 'team' awards, I am focusing on what turned out to be a very big night for a wee Scottish weekly newspaper, The Orcadian.
I believe it has never won a major award as a newspaper per se in its 137-year history up until three years ago, although there will undoubtedly have been significant individual award-winners in the past. And next week, I will examine how the Lennox Herald
earned the title of Weekly Newspaper of the Year and how The Scotsman's
stable swept the boards in the Podcast of the Year category with both its entries, 'Weekend Bigots' and 'Scran'.
Winning the inaugural Chairman's Award meant unexpected joy for the small editorial team of The Orcadian,
who were touchingly treated to a standing ovation – a distinctly heart-warming display of journalistic solidarity. And, happily, that small team were in the room to hear the cheers. Because they had gone to press only the previous evening, four of them had flown down to Glasgow on the day while the editor, Leah Seator, because of a long-standing aversion to flying, stoically made the 322-mile return trip by ferry, car and train.
This new award goes to the publication judged to have made the biggest contribution to Scottish news publishing and independent journalism in the course of the previous year. The Orcadian
, a very newsy, oft-campaigning tabloid with a circulation approaching 6,000 copies, also unexpectedly took the runner-up spot in the fiercely contested Journalism Team of the Year category. And, additionally, it had been shortlisted in the Local/Weekly Newspaper of the Year and Local/Weekly Campaign of the Year categories, while chief reporter, Sarah Sutherland, was shortlisted for the Local/Weekly Reporter of the Year award.
The team from the north islands at the awards ceremony comprised Leah, Sarah, acting sub-editor Mark Harcus, Kerry Martin, the newspaper's designer, and trainee reporter Ethan Flett. Former trainee reporter, Adam Johnston, who has left the paper to hopefully pursue a career in the arts world, and now living in Central Scotland, joined his former colleagues for the big occasion. The weekly will shortly be recruiting two more journalists to bring its editorial staff up to full strength.
The Chairman's Award went to The Orcadian
, which began life as a monthly publication, for its splendid service to the local community and resolutely 'standing up for its readers' during the COVID-19 pandemic. Denise West told us: 'This one small title went out of its way to do its bit with tangible help for its community by giving up vital revenue by reducing advertising rates so that small local companies could market their services cheaply and rebuild'.
The series of stories which earned the runner-up spot was a local cause célèbre centred on NHS Orkney's chief executive designate, Iain Stewart, whom The Orcadian
outed for him regularly leaving the islands to travel to his home on the Black Isle – thus defying the strictures of the lockdown. Leah recalls: 'Our stories spotlighting his brazen disrespect for the law led to Stewart no longer being able to take up what should have been his new job, and also brought about long-needed changes to the senior management structure of our health services in Orkney after a catalogue of endemic failings'.
The tabloid, which is locally and independently owned by the Orkney Media Group Ltd, had embarked on a recent roll of significant awards successes beginning with being voted Newspaper of the Year in the Highlands and Islands Media Awards in 2018 – an accolade which has led directly to another praiseworthy community campaign. It had also been shortlisted in the prestigious British Press Awards.
Leah explains: 'In 2019, we attracted a special recognition honour in these selfsame awards for raising more than £23,000 for a local cancer charity — CLAN Orkney. We used the cash we had won from the Newspaper of the Year award to launch this fundraising campaign, which to our delight, is now significantly contributing to the expansion of CLAN Orkney's services'.
She added: 'That Newspaper of the Year award in 2018 had come after many years of being consistently shortlisted in that category – but never bringing home the coveted trophy. So we have done rather well in the last few years and this latest award is just phenomenal'.
Leah, 39, as well as her prominent media role, is also immersed in Orkney life as the lead singer in a local band called Bad Apple. Interestingly, she actually belongs to Larne, in Northern Ireland, and moved with her farming parents to the tiny island of Egilsay when she was 14. She studied journalism in Edinburgh before joining The Orcadian
as a trainee reporter in 2003 and subsequently worked her way up through the ranks to the editor's chair four years ago.
Reflecting generally on the current backdrop to the Scottish newspaper business, Leah told me: 'All of us in the newspaper industry have currently faced incredible challenges — from struggling to figure out how to put newspapers together without a team in the newsroom to relentless campaigning for openness and transparency during the COVID-19 crisis.
'We have all risen to the challenge of having to be the best we could be for our readers — working under major pressures. We have put our readers first at every step of the current crisis; campaigned on their behalf; and challenged our local leaders when information wasn't forthcoming. To help our local businesses, we slashed our advertising rates and focused on aiding them to rebuild by offering inexpensive marketing opportunities plus a free editorial campaign on their behalf.
'The Chairperson's Award, in recognising our efforts, shows a huge appreciation of the role of local newspapers and their vital function within their communities.
'This award means the world to me and my close-knit editorial team, whom, through sheer commitment to the job and determination to keep going, have emerged stronger, and have forged a much more formidable bond with our readers. I am very, very proud that we have a really young, creative team who are totally committed to carrying out their vital role of keeping our community informed.'
An annual bursary is being launched to commemorate South Uist-born Donald John MacDonald, former editor of STV North, who died suddenly following a heart attack on Christmas Eve last year, aged only 60. Robert Gordon University (RGU) is also awarding him a posthumous honorary degree – reflecting his commitment to support and inspire the next generation of journalists.
As editor of STV North, Donald John developed a strong partnership between the television company and the School of Creative and Cultural Business at RGU. The bursary will be awarded to the student judged to have delivered the best example of broadcast journalism coursework during the third year of studying for a BA (Hons) journalism degree at the university.
Bobby Hain, managing director, broadcast, STV, said: 'All of us at STV continue to share a deep and profound loss at the untimely passing of Donald John. I hope the creation of this bursary will enable us to celebrate his passion for journalism and exceptional commitment to supporting new and emerging talent. It is fitting that Donald John's legacy will serve to continue to strengthen the ties he created between STV and RGU'.
Rhoda Morrison has joined the Edinburgh Evening News
as news editor – moving north from Iliffe Media where she has most recently been digital news editor of Suffolk News
Scottish-born Rhoda, who had worked for Iliffe Media's Bury Free Press
before joining Suffolk News
, won the Trainee of the Year Award in the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) awards for excellence in 2019.
Really splendid news for the profession in that two journalists have won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for their struggles in countries where media outlets have been attacked and reporters murdered.
This is the first time a Nobel Peace Prize has gone to a journalist since the German Carl von Ossietzky won it in 1935 for revealing his country's secret post-war rearmament programme. The Norwegian judging panel said the work of Maria Ressa, of the Philippines, and Dmitry Muratov, of Russia, was vital in promoting peace.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee's chairwoman, Berit Reiss-Andersen, said: 'Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda. Without freedom of expression and freedom of the Press, it will be difficult to successfully promote fraternity between nations, disarmament and a better world order to succeed in our time'.
Muratov, 59, helped found the independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazette
, which the committee said had a 'fundamentally critical attitude towards power'. Since 2000, six of the newspaper's journalists and contributors have been killed in connection with their work, including investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 23 media workers have been killed in Russia and 17 in the Philippines over the past decade.
Ressa, 56, and her website, Rappier
, were praised for her work in exposing the murderous, anti-drug campaign of Rodrigo Duterte's regime in the Philippines. The award comes with a gold medal and £836,000 – money left by Swedish inventor, Alfred Nobel, on his death in 1895.
Photograph kindly supplied by Jeff Holmes