The Purcell affair


Kenneth Roy

Shortly before he died, I pulled together a collection of essays in honour of Alastair Hetherington. He was one of the great newspaper editors of the 20th century, transforming the Guardian during his 20-year editorship from a provincial newspaper with a wider reputation to a national broadsheet of the left.
     One of the contributors to that anthology (‘A Man of his Word’), the biographer John Grigg, recalled the most important episode in Hetherington’s career.

 Kenneth Roy

The insiders

Shortly before he died, I pulled together a collection of essays in honour of Alastair Hetherington. He was one of the great newspaper editors of the 20th century, transforming the Guardian during his 20-year editorship from a provincial newspaper with a wider reputation to a national broadsheet of the left.
     One of the contributors to that anthology (‘A Man of his Word’), the biographer John Grigg, recalled the most important episode in Hetherington’s career. It occurred when he was still finding his feet in the job at the age of 36. A more searching test of his qualities could scarcely be imagined: the Suez crisis was reaching its climax.
     Grigg wrote:
     While other papers that might have been expected to condemn the government’s action without delay, such as the Daily Mirror, the Daily Herald and the News Chronicle, hesitated for 48 hours, and even the Labour leadership in Parliament did so for 24, Alastair wrote a leader for the following day’s paper in which he described the [Anglo-French] ultimatum as ‘an act of folly, without justification in any terms but brief expediency’.
     Nobody could accuse Alastair of acting from motives of brief expediency. His courage cost the paper many thousands of readers; two big companies cancelled their advertising. Only when Suez was exposed as a colossal misadventure did the Guardian recover. In the end, its courageous anti-Suez stance won it many new admirers and its position was strengthened immeasurably.
     Many years later, I tried to secure Alastair Hetherington a knighthood for his services to journalism and, more importantly, to freedom of expression. My private campaign went so far and no further. After many months, a senior civil servant took me to lunch and explained gently that only one knighthood each decade could be awarded to a Scottish journalist and they had decided it should go to another Alastair (Dunnett). Although I said nothing, I did not accept this explanation; nor do I believe it now. A more plausible theory is that Alastair Hetherington had dared to cross the British establishment at a moment of national crisis and had never been forgiven. His entry in the little black book was permanent.
     I now realise, of course, that by allowing him to die without an honour, the establishment paid Alastair the greatest compliment.

I am reminded of Alastair and his stand against the establishment by the extraordinary goings-on at the Herald group of newspapers in Scotland.
     Last weekend, the Sunday Herald published a remarkable – if not actually bizarre – ‘editorial comment’ headed: ‘PR, politics and the press: A conflict of interest but no barrier to the truth’. It was unusual for one or two technical reasons, possibly of interest only to journalists. The editor-in-chief of the group’s three newspapers was quoted in this ‘editorial comment’, a departure from convention which suggested that the editor-in-chief was somehow detachable from his own editorial comment. The group’s managing director was also quoted expressing ‘extreme concern’ about a conflict of interest between the group and its legal advisers, Levy & McRae. We do not often hear from managing directors of newspapers in editorial comments. Indeed, I cannot remember it ever happening before. His name is Mr Blott.
     I am not sure if the editorial comment had any over-arching purpose. It seemed to be trying to do several things at once, none of them with much success. A lot of it amounted to little more than a washing of dirty linen in public. To say that the Herald group is having problems with Media House, the crisis management consultancy acting for the fallen leader of Glasgow City Council, and Peter Watson, the head honcho at Levy & McRae, would be the under-statement of the year. The disputes wracking the Herald group may end up in the civil courts. I am sure it would be mildly entertaining if they did. How interested in these contortions are the readers of the newspapers? Not very much, perhaps.
Of more general interest – for sure – is the Sunday Herald’s admission that, since Mr Purcell’s departure, ‘speculation has grown ever more fevered, encompassing suggestions of a network of powerful figures working behind the scenes to influence the workings of the city. The suggestion that this so-called network includes leading figures from the media is now threatening to undermine public confidence in the integrity of the Scottish press. There have been hints that some Scottish newspapers have pulled their punches on the controversy because editors have been too close to Mr Purcell…’
     I confess that I myself have suggested, more than once in the last few weeks, that one Scottish newspaper in particular has been pulling its punches. Its name is the Herald. At the height of the Purcell affair, the best that paper could do was a single column on an inside page speculating lamely on who Mr Purcell’s successor might be, as if anybody cared.
     After this exciting start to the Sunday Herald editorial, I read on expecting a confident rebuttal of such unworthy speculation, a re-affirmation of the integrity of the Scottish press. But somehow the rebuttal never quite materialised; or, if it did, it was hedged with disappointing qualifications.
     The network ‘working behind the scenes to influence the workings of the city’ turned out to be – unless there is more than one such network – an informal outfit known as Team Glasgow, among whose members were the editor-in-chief of the Herald group, Donald Martin, the leader of Glasgow City Council, Steven Purcell, and un-named ‘prominent figures in the Glasgow business community’.
     Oh, really? Well, that is what the Sunday Herald tells us.
     I look forward to the paper’s investigation of who the un-named prominent figures are, where they met and how often, and what on earth it was they found to discuss. Such an investigation would do much to allay any suspicion that the Herald is continuing to pull its punches.
     It is worth reproducing part of the quote attributed (I repeat: in his own editorial comment) to Mr Martin:
     I was glad to play a role in Team Glasgow along with other individuals who believed in co-operating for the good of the city. Our aim was to encourage actions which would help the city. As a newspaper editor it is an important part of my job to make contacts in the political, business and other spheres and I also believe it is part of my job to work for the good of Glasgow and indeed Scotland. There is no conflict between that aim and my commitment to publishing the facts of stories which are important to the lives of our readers.
It would be difficult to produce a statement with which I disagreed more profoundly. A newspaper editor is not a philanthropist. He is not a third-sector idealist. He is not a social networker. He is not some faux policy-maker. It is not his business to ‘encourage actions which would help the city’. It is not his business to co-operate with anybody. It is not his ‘role’ to be a member of any ‘team’.
     It is the business of the editor – any editor – to scrutinise and question the activities and utterances of those set in power over us, including and especially the likes of Steven Purcell, and to exercise an always sceptical judgement. He does so best from a position of complete detachment. It is his business to challenge the establishment and, when necessary, to cross it, as Alastair Hetherington did in 1956. He should be prepared to take an unpopular stand and lose advertising and sales as a result. So his proprietor doesn’t like it? Then he should be prepared to quit, or be fired, as Hetherington was if the Scott Trust had turned against him.
     An editor is not an insider. An editor is an outsider.


Read Kenneth Roy over at the Scottish Review –


  1. I have just found this piece by Kenneth Roy and I am surprised no one else has already commented. It is excellent.

    The role of the Herald in many of our lives has altered dramatically in recent years. It was once relied upon to do what all good papers should and simply report the news without seeking to twist and distort it in a particular political direction. Alas those days are gone.

    The Purcell affair in particular has seen the closing of ranks within the Scottish media, up to and including BBC Scotland. The Herald Group has gone with that plan. The appointment recently of a former Daily Record assistant Editor as the Herald’s new Editor in Chief brings us to the lowest point yet. To borrow a line from a much loved Labour Party tune, with a slight alteration…things can only get worse at the Herald.

    The words politics, Glasgow and corruption have for some considerable time nestled comfortably together in the same sentence, sadly for the rest of us. We can now add the Scottish Media to the concoction. What a powerful coalition indeed. The Herald recently had an online section called Parcel of Rogues where some journalists blogged. It seems to have gone lately. Perhaps even they are embarrassed by the irony of the blog title.

    Long live Ian Bell and Iain Macwhirter….maybe there is still hope but I doubt it.


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