Imagine a publication with such relentless and detailed crime reportage that even the most scandalous tabloid journalists turn their backs in disgust. Imagine this magazine’s editor retreating underground and working from a secret office to evade the death threats he receives from the infuriated criminals and gangsters that fill its pages. Welcome to Digger land, please check your sense of all that is good and true in at reception.
I met with James Cruickshank, the Digger himself, to discuss why his publication both thrilled and appalled me. I also spoke to David Graham Scott, creator of the documentary: “The Dirty Digger”, who worked as a Digger photographer and filmed his experiences at the paper.
Cruickshank has had quite a turbulent career; In 2003 he was ejected from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) for an allegedly libellous article in a union newsletter about Paul Holleran, National Organiser for the NUJ, “It was absolutely ridiculous,” he told me, “It just reinforced allegations that the NUJ is a communist organisation. It’s out to protect its own members and wants to bring the industry to its knees.”
The Digger started in August 2004, selling for 30 pence with a first print run of 500. Now it is 85 pence and its print run is round about 11,000. The history of the magazine has often made its own headlines. Cruickshank has faced a series of lawsuits as a result of his no-holes-barred brand of often libellous or unfounded investigative journalism.
“We’re banned from the city council, Glasgow city council, we can’t phone up their press office, because again it’s an agency which is an enemy of free speech.
“The state at one point withdrew our court privileges on unfounded allegations, and I eventually had to pay £6000 to right a wrong.”
This is Cruickshank’s version of a time when his journalistic privileges were withdrawn after The Digger named and pictured the eight-year-old daughter of a Glasgow crime boss wearing a bulletproof vest in her garden.
Scott’s documentary is quite critical of the Digger and its ruthless naming and shaming of local petty crooks, so I was quite surprised by his insistent defence of a man he did not seem to have much affinity with.
“I did notice there was quite a lot of hearsay printed.” He eventually admitted, “The problem is you’ve got some wee guy talking about some junkie and Cruickshank’s printing something which might be a heap of lies. The issue is going to be that that person is probably not going to be in a position where they can take out a legal action against the Digger.”
This is the kind of dilemma that the magazine regularly throws up; the practice printing the addresses of suspected paedophiles or naming police informers can get those involved badly hurt. Cruickshank does not seem to consider the implications of sharing such sensitive information as his problem.
“If you own a shop that sells kitchen knives and someone buys and knife and stabs someone is the shop that is at fault?” he argues, “I don’t think so.” It occurs to me that it’s more like selling a knife to a lunatic who offers to pay in severed fingers.
Scott describes the reputation the Digger has picked up amongst the criminal fraternity: “The prospect of being in the Digger frightens folk because it does get people incensed. With those small time characters the Digger can probably get away with quite a lot of naming and shaming. But not when fighting the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) though, they’re a very powerful organisation.”
Nevertheless Cruickshank does take on the GHA as well as the police, the council, the masons, and any other stories the mainstream press won’t touch.
“That’s when stories can start to not be fully substantiated,” Cruickshank says, “The police are a secretive organisation and it’s very difficult to prove allegations of corruption within the police because, who’s going to corroborate it? Violent crime only survives if its being aided and abetted by so called law-abiding citizens.
“The police must be made properly accountable, the government could investigate the police but they don’t — the only way that is going to happen is if the mainstream media start investigating the police but they won’t do it either.”
He admits that it’s almost impossible to substantiate some stories to the standard of the mainstream press, but Cruickshank is agitated by my suggestion of a vigilante like edge to his editorial policy. “It’s not vigilantism, it’s genuine investigative journalism that the Scottish press have stopped doing.”
Whether you agree or not, if none of the mainstream papers want, or are legally able, to pursue such scandals within the authorities, is there no justification to continue under the radar?
With Cruickshank’s casual gossip of communists, corruption and conspiracy, I feel like I’m beginning to understand his worldview: his Digger-ish outlook. As my sense of the good and the true seems to have gained the upper hand Scott throws a curveball, showing the situation in a different light.
“The Digger works from a grassroots level which the newspapers don’t speak from. It taps into a popular myth or misconception that there is this huge conspiracy going on. The readership wonder how these big time crime lords are getting away with it and Cruickshank says because they’re in cahoots with the police. They wonder how the GHA are running ruffshod over the tennants and he will explain it’s because it’s run by gangsters. They wonder: “Why are we so fucking poor? Why do we not get public services? Because there’s this big conspiracy keeping us in poverty,” and that can placate them to a certain extent.
“I thought at first the Digger was going to be very right wing but it isn’t. It covers stories of racial abuse sexual abuse, minority issues, issues to do with the corruption that he sees in the council, the police and the HHA especially. It’s a big deal, the GHA, because a lot of the readership are in that environment.”
I wonder how my attitude to the Digger has been affected as a distanced, broadsheet reading, wannabe journalist who just wants to see codes of practice upheld and standards met in the media; whether it prevents me from seeing the real value the Digger has to its target readership.
“The Digger is a thorn in the side of the establishment,” Cruickshank sums up cheerily. By all accounts, this allegation is well founded.