Charlotte Lauder compares two malign media influences with their roots in Tayside.
In Succession, the transatlantic TV show that depicts the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of New York City media mogul Logan Roy and his power-hungry family, the city of Dundee holds a special significance. As the place of Roy’s birth, it is central to the character’s humble origin story and the place that inspired his life as an anti-hero media baron. In an episode filmed on location in 2018, Dundee is a moniker for the ‘lad o’ pairts’ trope. In the classic Scottish literary narrative, the ‘boy from round here’ leaves for the bigger place and becomes successful. The episode also speaks to the transatlantic-emigrant experience of thousands of Scots who created successful settlements and capitalistic ventures overseas. This narrative is reinforced in a later episode, when Roy is described by his brother as ‘an ex-Scot, ex-Canadian, ex-human being’.
There are obvious parallels between Roy, his fictionalised media conglomerate ‘Waystar-Royco’, and the real-life press dynasties that have dominated Western media since the 1950s. The most obvious are the legacy companies of Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell. Like Roy, Murdoch and Maxwell emigrated to their chosen countries, developed global reputations as powerful pressmen with enormously influential media empires, and sustained notoriously complicated relationships with their children. Although Succession’s choice to make Dundee the birthplace of its central character is bolstered by the casting of Dundee actor Brian Cox, the city’s notoriety for media and journalism makes the links obvious between Logan Roy and Dundee’s D. C. Thomson.
Family-owned and family-operated, D. C. Thomson has its own complicated history. Named after its founding director, David Couper Thomson, the company’s roots are in the W. & D. C. Thomson Company, a shipping and woollen manufacturing business established in Dundee in the 1880s by Thomson’s father. When the Thomsons became primary shareholders of the Dundee Newspaper Company, they inherited ownership of the Dundee Courier, Northern Warder, and Weekly News, thus beginning the family’s publishing business. Since then, D. C. Thomson has been hell bent on press domination. In 1905 they hoovered up the John Leng Company, the original press empire of Dundee that supported Irish and Scottish Home Rule, the enfranchisement of women, and universal suffrage. (The John Leng parallel in Succession is Roy’s anti-capitalist, anti-corporation, pro-environment brother Ewan Roy). In 2006 it bought Aberdeen Journals Limited, operators of the Aberdeen Press and Journal and Evening Express, for £132 million, and in 2018 was eyeing-up the soon-to-be defunct Johnston Press Limited (now JPI Media, owners of the largest number of newspaper titles in the UK).
D. C. Thomson has always courted controversy. As an organisation historically affiliated with the Scottish Conservative & Unionist Party in a notoriously radical, left-leaning city that has consistently returned Liberal and Labour candidates since 1832, D. C. Thomson was politically out of place. Winston Churchill, who was the Liberal MP for Dundee from 1908 to 1922, considered Thomson a secretive, overly paternalistic employer who exercised immense persuasive power over Dundee. Thomson’s hiring and firing policies are also well-known. In 1952, it dismissed 74 printers for union membership, leading to a boycott of their newspapers by the Trades Union Congress in 1953. The company also demanded that its journalists sign an anti-union pledge, which led Lord Thomson of Monifieth, then sub-editor of Thomson’s comic the Dandy, to quit Dundee for Glasgow where he became assistant editor of the socialist newspaper Forward. Other allegations of unjust workplace practices – no Irish, no Catholics, and no married women – are colloquially remembered in Dundee.
Culturally, D. C. Thomson has also been antagonistic. In the Red Paper on Scotland (1975), the late intellectual Tom Nairn identified Thomson’s papers as part of the ‘vast tartan monster’, a soft nationalist Scottish media that coddled and codified modern Scottish cultural identity as mediocre, kitsch, and sentimental. D. C. Thomson’s de-politicisation of the Scottish press – its ‘coutherisation’ to use Bill Herbert’s phrase – has taken many textual forms, not least in The Broons and Oor Wullie. Both comics were launched on the same day in March 1936 in the Sunday Post, Thomson’s weekly newspaper that was established as a patriotic First World War paper consisting of positive war stories, football scores, and wartime fiction in October 1914. Nairn considered the Sunday Post a major obstacle to Scottish cultural liberty: ‘Scotland will be reborn when the last minister is strangled by the last copy of the Sunday Post’, he said. Ironically, this prophetic clerical murder is actually a death by suicide, as Scottish ministers have dominated the news items, editorials, and articles of the Sunday Post since its inception, thereby living vicariously through its pages to preach another day. Lastly, there are Thomson’s women’s magazines of which there are too many to list here. The longest running is the People’s Friend, established in 1869, followed by My Weekly, founded in 1910, both of which continue to portray women as hard-working housewives and homemakers via the magazine’s economised romantic fiction, knitting patterns, and cleaning tips. I am no mathematician, but Thomson’s formula for a ‘tartan monster’ might be as follows: aspirational working-class identity + women’s literature ÷ Scots language x family orientation = a Scottish populist press. For Kenneth White the variables are ‘common sense and sentimentality’, ‘social realism and airy-fairy’, ‘Gaelic piety and Lowland pawkiness’, and ‘porridge and the People’s Friend’. Most insipid of all is Thomson’s ability to distil this formula, integrate it across multiple titles, and dispatch it to Scottish readers and their sympathetic Scottish descendants around the world for nearly a century. If you didn’t shout ‘Logan Roy is D. C. Thomson!’ whilst watching Succession, then why not?
Just as Succession’s Logan Roy ruthlessly took the upper hand in last season’s cliff-hanger, D.C. Thomson brutally laid off 300 employees to counter a £10m shortfall despite a £2m increase in its dividends to shareholders. While the mighty force of the ‘tartan monster’ continues to wreak havoc on the media landscape of Scotland, this latest episode in Thomson’s employee relations has been regarded by journalists, cultural commentators, and the public as signalling a turning point in Scotland’s press. Will the last Sunday Post prophesied by Nairn come sooner rather than later?
Charlotte Lauder is a PhD student researching modern Scottish magazines and national identity.