Various covers of The Digger (Background photo via)
Nobody in Glasgow is safe from The Digger. Sold in newsstands across the city, the weekly, pamphlet-sized magazine’s mission is to “report on unemployed and low-income workers who come into contact with the justice system," aiming to “highlight individuals whose cases normally go unreported in the mainstream press."
That local look at nefarious goings-on could include anyone from the truancy troupe selling shitty dirt weed from their BMX bikes, all the way up to crooked police, dodgy council members, and the top brass of Glasgow’s criminal underworld. That latter group, understandably, aren’t too keen on editor James Cruickshank, the secretive journalist who founded the magazine in 2004.
“There was a bounty on my head in the form of a large amount of heroin,” he told me over the phone. “Some woman who was pissed off about a story we did on her scumbag family contacted loads of heavy guys, describing what I looked like and where to find me. She said that if they done me in they'd get the reward, but one of the guys actually told me [about the bounty] and then the police got involved. People who hate The Digger are generally scum. We expose the pond-life of Glasgow for what they are, and of course they don't like that."
It’s this attitude—blanket bashing even the most minor of criminals as “scum”—that’s also earned Cruickshank a reputation among his peers. I spoke to the filmmaker David Graham Scott—who worked as a photographer for The Digger in 2007 while making a documentary about the magazine for BBC Scotland—to get his take on his former boss.
"In a way I'm indebted to him because he helped me make the documentary," he said. "But he is probably the most cold-hearted guy I’ve ever met. He portrays himself as righteous because of the ‘scum’ he reports on, but a lot of these people come from real poverty, with addiction, and abuse issues—but he doesn't seem to care at all.
"Three or four years ago he phoned me saying he wanted my film taken off the internet because he was recognizable in it and there was somebody after him. I said there was no point because it'd been out for ages, so I got this nasty text a week later. It didn't bother me because, at the end of the day, I’d rather be me than him. He’s probably looking over his shoulder all the time, paranoid out his mind."
James Cruickshank. Photo courtesy of David Graham Scott
David makes a good point. Cruickshank’s magazine runs the kind of stories that could culminate in pretty serious consequences if anyone thinks they have cause for a lawsuit: front page headlines about heroin dealers with paedophile pasts, accusations that police and cabinet secretaries had covered up knife crime statistics, a story about a local youth leader having an affair with his son’s grandmother.
All these hyper-local stories are clearly popular—until recently the magazine claimed to have a circulation of over 10,000—which isn’t much of a surprise; people love hearing about all the nasty shit their neighbors are (allegedly) up to. However, while it’s still turning a profit, the magazine is falling victim to declining sales. Cruickshank blames the supermarkets: “Say a grocery opens up somewhere—that’s going to damage the surrounding corner shops. No supermarkets will stock The Digger; they will sell the same magazines in Glasgow as they do in London. That stifles creativity and has a knock-on effect on businesses like mine.”
If Morrisons-induced misery wasn’t enough, wealthy subjects of one of The Digger’s stories nearly bankrupted Cruickshank a few years ago because of a story that accused them of being drug dealers. "They weren't happy with the story and took me to court," he said. "They totally blew me out of the water with their expensive lawyers—I just couldn't compete."
Court cases are a common theme in online stories about The Digger, which I suppose is to be expected when you’re regularly publishing allegations of activity that people would rather keep hushed up. That said, a jury has never found the magazine guilty of defamation—though there have been repercussions, like a front page apology and the costs of a legal battle waged against them by the chief executive of a local housing association for publishing what The Digger called "serious, yet unfounded" allegations about him.
Tam McPhee—a 26-year-old from North Ayrshire—is another subject who wasn’t happy with The Digger’s reporting. “I got charged, along with two other boys, for armed robbery on a taxi," he told me. "Their names weren't mentioned in [the story in The Digger], though—only mine, along with my details. I was found not guilty on all the charges, but the bastards failed to mention that. I was obviously raging, but didn't know where to start complaining about it so just left it.”
While Tam didn’t take his grievances anywhere, The Press Complaints Commission has dealt with The Digger before. In 2010 the magazine had to publish a correction after not only falsely stating that a woman who recently died was married to a convicted paedophile, but for also speculating that she'd committed suicide. In the same year, a former Labour MP complained about two articles that linked her to the Lyons, a Glasgow crime family.
Of course, there are plenty of stories that don’t lead to lawsuits, and it's these—coverage of the kind of stuff that would otherwise be left to fester in a court documents folder—where the magazine finds its niche. Regardless of his motives, Cruickshank is publishing the news that others wouldn’t dare, and you have to respect him for that. Whether all of that news provides a public service is debatable, but at the £1.25 (~$2) its readers pay, it’s clearly stuff that people want to hear about.
Without overly romanticizing the craft of printing words on processed trees, it’s encouraging that The Digger’s readers find the time to balance endless seven-second video updates and listicles with something you have to buy and spend proper time sifting through. It also speaks to Cruickshank’s ability to hone in on what it is his readers want.
I was keen to find out how The Digger’s editor had ended up where he is today, but he was cagey when I asked about his background, and information about him is hard to come by online. In 2003 he was chucked out of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) after publishing allegedly libellous accusations against them, and in 2005 he was banned from police and council press offices in Glasgow after publishing a photo of an eight-year-old girl wearing a bulletproof vest in her garden (at the time, he said: “I'm standing up to the establishment and they don't like it—they are trying to destroy me.”). But personal details were pretty much impossible to come by.
David Graham Scott
David told me that Cruickshank had lived in America prior to setting up The Digger, and half remembered that he’d been doing “something journalistic," but couldn’t recall much else. I noticed that the editor’s accent has a distinct northeastern Scottish twang and tracked down his cousin Willie, a 61-year-old from the small northeast town of Forfar. “There’s not much I could tell you about him, to be honest,” he said. “Both his parents are dead and I’ve only seen him once or twice in the past ten years. I know he stayed abroad for a bit, but apart from that I don’t know much.”
I gave James a call again to see if he fancied answering some more questions—both about his past and accusations I’d heard while talking to the people quoted about The Digger—but it would be the last time we spoke. He seemed convinced I was planning some sort of set-up, refused to answer any questions and instead asked me what I planned to write. It’s no wonder Cruickshank is paranoid, of course—he trades in stories that are just as likely to find him dealing with pesky lawyers and pissed off criminals as they are to expose people who deserve to have their names in print.
Despite all that I’d heard, I’d contend that, ethically, The Digger is no worse than any best-selling national newspaper. While some of the stories might be legally contentious, at least they’re seeking to uncover those who’ve committed genuine crimes, not hacking the phones of murdered teenage girls. As for Cruickshank, I’ve no doubt he’s not necessarily the most pleasant of guys, but there’s not a lot of time for pleasantries when you’re running the most successful weekly local crime magazine in the UK.