A mix-up over a Scottish menu…and a king’s birthplace…a big shock in the assets business and more ins and outs in the media…. TERRY MURDEN takes a wry look back over 2018 and what might be in store for 2019
By common agreement, the last couple of weeks have given the country a well-earned break from the most talked about topic of the year. But gird your loins, take a sharp intake of breath and prepare for Brexit to return from its Christmas holiday.
Confusion and uncertainty among businesses is now said to have spread to the migrating bird population who are wondering whether they will be allowed back into Britain in the spring. At any rate, one of the chief Brexiteers, Liam Fox, is also backtracking. He reckons the failure of MPs to support Theresa May’s agreement in mid-January will cast serious doubt on the UK leaving the EU as scheduled on 29 March. Pressure for a second referendum will increase, but it would require a massive u-turn by the PM, or her resignation.
Other big decisions are on the agenda in Edinburgh where the city council will decide whether to proceed with the tram extension to Leith, clearly more important than fixing the pot-holed roads and making the pavements fit to walk on. As it has already spent heavily on resurfacing most of Leith Walk then it must be a nailed-on certainty that it will be dug up again to lay tram lines.
The council – so desperate to spend money it doesn’t have that it has adorned even the shortest of cul-de-sacs with pointless 20mph signs – will also give a verdict on what is known to council officials as the transient visitor levy, and to the rest of the human race as the tourist tax.
Also look out for a decision on the future of the former Royal High School on Calton Hill. The public wants the music school proposal, but the marketing lobby wants the five star hotel. Money will talk, but the architects will need to come up with a plan that looks less like a collection of beehives adorned on Thomas Hamilton’s masterpiece.
The Highlands is also pressing ahead with this idea, though nothing has been heard about any such plan for Scotland’s new visitor hotspot – Dundee – whose renaissance rests on the V&A, the year’s biggest re-housing of old relics aside from the relocation of Sunday Post staff out of the city to Glasgow. Dubbed the V&Tay, the new offshoot of the Kensington showstopper is joining the roster for corporate events, including the 2019 Converge Challenge annual dinner and awards. Then we’ll find out whether the much-vaunted building (effectively Scotland’s largest and highest-ceilinged tearoom with a few added exhibits) is also an acoustic and culinary experience that will match the general admiration of its architecture.
In media land, Johnston Press, owner of The Scotsman and 200 other titles, axed its CEO Ashley Highfield after a long struggle with its debt and was finally put out of its misery when it collapsed into administration. It was immediately resurrected as JPI Media with the same management and a sharp reduction in its hitherto mentioned debt. Questions were asked about what the ‘I’ stood for, though it was assumed to refer to the ‘i’ newspaper, the success of which helped keep the group from what may have been total collapse.
Questions were also raised in the Commons after JPI adopted the legal, but dubious, practice of offloading its deficit-laden pension scheme into the state-backed Pension Protection Fund. This left hundreds of former employees facing a cut in their payouts while former executives left counting their rewards for failure. At least the titles look settled until its new owners decide they need to break up the group after all.
The same security could not be offered to the Sunday Herald which was put to bed for the final time. In a move that surprised those who believe print’s future can be compared to that of steam trains, its Newsquest owner decided to launch two Sunday replacements, though less surprisingly, without doubling the number of staff to produce them. It means Glasgow is now the base for a growing family of Sunday papers, showing that on at least one day of the week there is still a demand for news on paper.
A harsher lesson came for the would-be Scottish News, a new newspaper to be run out of offices in Paisley by the hugely optimistic (aka delusional) business development executive John Wyllie whose dream of media moguldom died before a word was printed. The mysterious Mr Wyllie regretted that “promised investment never materialised” which meant job offers had to be withdrawn.
The NUJ’s Dominic Bascombe claimed with great understatement that Mr Wyllie’s advert for 800 journalists “raised suspicions”. This was a euphemism for “howls of laughter” among those who couldn’t believe anyone seriously expected this idea to get off the ground. As a worrying warning of perhaps more to come, other media casualties during 2018 included the quarterly BQ Magazine, and Scottish Business News Network, which proved that even digital media was finding it tough. Kiltr, the erstwhile social media platform that once fancied itself as the tartan Facebook, also hit the buffers.
Following its acquisition of the Express titles, Trinity Mirror plc became Reach plc because, according to CEO Simon Fox, it more accurately reflects how it reaches millions of people every day and extends across multiple platforms. A more suitable alternative might have been DREAM (an acronym of Daily Record, Express And Mirror) as the tie-up of left and right leaning papers seems a little unreal. To reflect the group’s digital ambitions the online business could be called DREAM ON, which might accurately describe Mr Fox’s battle with declining sales and circulation.
The advertising and PR news was dominated by Dentsu Aegis acquiring Whitespace to create one of the largest branding and media planning businesses in Scotland, while the Scottish PR sector was untypically subdued, aside from a minor move by Indigo PR which prompted some gossip when it announced a merger with a lesser known agency.
Telecommunications company BT axed its communications team, with the focus turning to its now arms-length OpenReach broadband business. Scottish political journalist Hamish Macdonell caused a chorus of fishy jokes after announcing he was leaving The Times to join the Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation (SSPO) in a new comms role, while The Times itself quietly quit Edinburgh and moved its operations to Glasgow.
On the broadcasting front there were two cheers in the west when Channel 4 named Glasgow as one of its new creative hubs but opted to relocate its headquarters in Leeds. At least there may be jobs for some of those displaced at STV which killed off the short-lived STV2 and its much-hyped STV News Tonight, a global-news-from-Scotland programme whose biggest story was its own demise in June. It came after an honest admission by chief executive Simon Pitts who told MSPs that STV2 had run up £3 million in losses and ‘no one was watching it’. STV should emerge stronger, shorn of the drain on capital that STV2 had become.
BBC Scotland will have another go at proving to those cynics in the south that world news can be told from Glasgow when it launches its own national and international news programme anchored by Rebecca Curran and Martin Geissler. The hour-long bulletin will launch in February with a unique mix of items from war-torn regions of the world and bulletins from the Milngavie Fruit & Veg Show. It will be backed by a budget from London that bosses at Pacific Quay claim is derisory and other cash-starved media would regard as a lottery win.
In the tech world, the last of FanDuel‘s founders left the company, now in the hands of Paddy Power Betfair, a deal that followed months opposing claims by the US authorities that fantasy sports were a form of gambling. News is awaited of the founders’ claims for compensation after the takeover left them empty-handed.
Meanwhile, Scotch “whisky” goes from strength to strength, with more distilleries than at any time since…well, since Robert the Bruce was watching a spider, and there will be new ones in the capital (distilleries not spiders) as well as a mega-visitor centre for Johnnie Walker, probably in the former House of Fraser store in Princes Street. With retailers collapsing almost by the week there will be no shortage of units for the new centre if the HoF plan falls through. By the way, the spider scene must have been cut from Outlaw King…
The tourism sector was drawn into the mini-row over the ‘Disneyfication’ of Edinburgh and a bit of a spat over what Gordon Robertson, chairman of Marketing Edinburgh, had to say about city residents’ views of tourists. This was partly fuelled by tensions over Airbnb increasing its grip on the short-term lettings market. A new strategy is under way to ensure locals and visitors can live in harmony. Next up, Marketing Edinburgh forms a council of peace to make referees feel welcome at Tynecastle.
In the meantime, a new generation of writers are leaving their mark across the city, providing their own welcome to visitors. Names such as Youtz, Mate, Mike, Winston and new kid on the block Area 51, are now familiar on utility boxes, substations, neglected phone booths and newly-erected limestone walls in every corner of the capital.