Part 1 – The slow death of a treasured national institution
Philip Hope-Wallace, one of the Guardian’s most distinguished critics, always remembered the advice his father gave him: ‘Never work for a liberal newspaper, dear boy. They always give you the sack on Christmas Eve’. The saying went into more popular usage as ‘Liberals fire you at Christmas’, but I claim until corrected that Hope-Wallace – or, rather, his father – was its inspiration. To which I add that the Church of Scotland also gives you the sack on Christmas Eve, as the late Leonard Bell discovered.
Hope-Wallace was not sacked; he preferred to die, not long after El Vino’s (the journalist’s pub in Fleet Street) put up a plaque in his honour in the back room. The critic thought prophetically that it looked like a coffin-plate and noted the mis-spelling of his first name as Phillip. His friends inquired how such an error had occurred, and the management of El Vino’s replied that they had asked the Guardian to spell his name. No further explanation was necessary.
When the Guardian reported the dismissal – or his sending home on indefinite leave – of the Scotsman’s editor John McLellan last Thursday, it maintained its over-rated tradition of eccentricity by spelling his surname McLellan in the first paragraph before taking out an insurance policy in the third paragraph, where he was suddenly converted to a McClellan. Mr McLellan was not fired at Christmas, but in the next best thing – perhaps better – he was fired in the crucifixion season. My friend the playwright assured me that if you could get through Easter you would be all right – for how long she didn’t say.
Mr McLellan didn’t get through Easter week. The timing demonstrates that the Scotsman is not a liberal newspaper. Unlike, for example, the Independent on Sunday, which fired Neal Ascherson at Christmas, ostensibly because that fine thinker had reached the age of 65, when columnists are presumed to go gaga. Mr Ascherson was writing as well as ever, but there was a young woman in the wings, ready to take over the space. After Christmas, of course; but before Easter. Now she’s gone too.
If, because it fires people at Easter rather than Christmas, the Scotsman is not a liberal newspaper, what in heaven’s name is it? It does seem to have removed itself from the centre of Scottish political thinking. It is hard to say what it thinks it is up to. Mr McLellan has been rightly commended as a good chap, an exceptionally fine journalist, but he was part of the journey from the centre, everything these days being ‘a journey’ of one sort or another. It hasn’t been a happy one.
Since the mid 1990s, when the Barclay Brothers bought the Scotsman group for £85 million, the paper has had the following editors. See how many of these names you recognise:
- 1995 James Seaton
- 1997 Martin Clarke
- 1998 Alan Ruddock
- 2000 Tim Luckhurst
- 2000 Rebecca Hardy
- 2001 Iain Martin
- 2004 John McGurk
- 2006 Mike Gilson
- 2009 John McLellan
- 2012 Who knows?
Here’s something: Alastair Dunnett, the last great editor of the Scotsman, was in charge of the paper from 1956 to 1972: a 16-year reign, just one year less than the aggregated years of the last nine editors.
Nine editors in 17 years– 10 in 18 years if you include the brief reign of Andrew Jaspan just before the Barclays took over – isn’t bad going. Indeed for a while the Scotsman editorship was more or less an annual appointment: half-yearly at the start of the new millennium as Rebecca succeeded Tim. Mr McLellan did well to last three years; as he was escorted from the premises on his last day – editors not being trusted to leave with dignity in their own time – he should have sensed that a fourth year was beyond anyone’s reach. Might as well get your P45 sorted before you start. To say nothing of your compensation package.
Among his predecessors, Iain Martin has gone on to make a name for himself as a political analyst, deservedly so. But what of the others? I confess that, although I was quietly tending this magazine for the duration of his editorship, the name Mike Gilson failed to cross my radar. But it is easy to mock; Scotsman editors aren’t given the time or the freedom to establish themselves.
What is true of football managers is also true of editors. The reason Chelsea is such a joke is that it fires its manager at the end of every season; actually before the end of this one, in a slight departure from the norm. Alex Ferguson, however, after an inauspicious start at Manchester United, was trusted to come good. Look at the boy now. Here’s something: Alastair Dunnett, the last great editor of the Scotsman, was in charge of the paper from 1956 to 1972: a 16-year reign, just one year less than the aggregated years of the last nine editors. He was in the Ferguson class of longevity, and it showed.
In 2005, an over-stretched local newspaper outfit, the Johnston Press, had a rush of blood to its silly head and bought the Scotsman group from the Barclays for £160 million. It has already seen off three editors and, if the paper survives, will doubtless see off several more. It is a crazy way to run a business, yet not at all surprising. The company had no expertise in running a national newspaper, far less in securing the future of a treasured national institution which the Scotsman was and potentially remains. What we are witnessing in the slow death of this newspaper is a national tragedy, but it may not be unavoidable yet.
Stop Press: Part 2 – The silent destruction of Scotland’s independent press
In my youth, there were two Old Men in Falkirk. There were many old men, but only two Old Men. One was Old Man Mackie and the other was Old Man Johnston. Old Man Mackie owned the Mail, Old Man Johnston owned the Herald. There was no love lost. Old Man Johnston won the battle – the sweet little Falkirk Mail folded. How I remember the final edition tottering off the ancient press, complete with the last instalment of my weekly ‘Drama Notes’.
Alec Mackie set the valedictory editorial personally. It was the first of the Johnston Press’s many bloody victories. But in those days they were pretty harmless. Their grip extended scarcely further than my native burgh.
After Old Man Johnston, there was Young Fred, the son. No holy ghost yet – only the banks hovering over the Johnston family’s debt-ridden empire. First Hubris, then Nemesis. It’s the usual story, story being the operative word. Johnston have printed millions of stories, though not many about their own financial position. They are otherwise known as news. The news continues. Only the money seems to be an issue.
But first, an apology. I reported yesterday [part 1] that the tenth editor of the Scotsman in 18 years, John McLellan, had been escorted off the premises. I took as my source that unimpeachable organ, the Guardian, which phrased it more delicately than another media outlet which had the outgoing editor ‘marched’ off the premises. Mr McLellan writes to me: ‘Last Thursday, after I had been told I was being dismissed, I went round the building to speak to some of my colleagues, then the morning editorial conference and finally I addressed the editorial staff. I then walked off the newsroom floor, said another quick cheerio, got in the lift to the car park and drove out. All unaccompanied. On my own. Not escorted off the premises’.
Well, I suppose there’s something to be said for the Johnston Press after all. Mr McLellan left with his dignity unimpaired. He was just fired.
Still, it is the last good thing to be said in favour of this company, at least by me. I propose to take you on a tour of Scotland, with the aim of instructing you in what the Johnston Press have done to media ownership in this country. Of course they own the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News, and a right mess they have made of all of them. But you knew that already.
Much more important is what they have done, and continue to do, to the local press, which ought to be heterogeneous, independent, lively and vigilant; a source of enlightenment and hope in our communities. Instead too much of it is controlled by this lot – from centralised printing plants turning out sheets of parochial jottings, TV listings and puzzles. The biggest puzzle is how they were ever allowed to get away with it. In the interests of competition, there ought to have been two Monopolies Commissions, the second one set up with the sole purpose of preventing the growth of the Johnston Press and the silent death of Scotland’s independent press.
Once upon a time the titles mentioned in this column were not products. They were newspapers, and many of them were quirky and brave, fiercely independent, an asset to the life of Scotland. What are they now? What are they likely to become?
We’ll start in the Borders, where JP (I’m resorting to initials) control the Berwickshire News, Southern Reporter, Selkirk Weekly Advertiser and Hawick News. So much for the Borders. Across country in Galloway, the Broon family disposed of the Galloway Gazette and its sister paper in Girvan, the Carrick Gazette, to JP. Moving east to the Lothians, we find the Musselburgh News, East Lothian News and Linlithgowshire Journal and Gazette in the hands of JP or their bankers; in what used to be called Central Region, the Falkirk Herald (the flagship has recently been reduced in size to a tabloid wee boatie), Grangemouth Advertiser, Cumbernauld News and Kilsyth Chronicle; in Lanarkshire, the Carluke Gazette, Lanark Gazette, Motherwell Times (Robin Stirling’s old paper – and Alan Fisher’s) and Bellshill Speaker, for my money the best name for a newspaper in all Scotland.
Yes. The Bellshill Speaker. How did the Johnstons ever get their hands on such a splendid title? They are beyond shame. (I’ve just had a look at its masthead on the website – would do credit to the label on a chocolate bar.)
Oh, I nearly forgot Dunbartonshire with an n. Here they have the Kirkintilloch Herald – Tom Johnston land – and the Milngavie and Bearsden Herald – O H Mavor land. These great Scotsmen will be burling in their significant graves.
Now I take you north, o’er the Forth Road Bridge, if it’s open, to the Kingdom of Fife, where Johnston have laid their greedy paws on Kirkcaldy’s Fife Free Press (there’s nothing free about it), Leven’s East Fife Mail, Cupar’s Fife Herald, as well as the self-explanatory Glenrothes Gazette and the St Andrews Citizen once edited by the playwright and theatrical entrepreneur A B Paterson. A very democratic-sounding paper for St Andrews, I must say.
We shall hop it to Angus, where the Forfar Dispatch, Kirriemuir Herald (do they have a column from Thrums?), Brechin Advertiser, Montrose Review – like the sound of that one – Kincardineshire Observer and Arbroath Herald all sold out to JP. Is Aberdeenshire a Johnston-free zone? Not a bit of it. Both the Pipers – Deeside and Donside – now blaw an Auld Johnston tune, as do the Inverurie Herald, Mearns Leader (what would that well-known local reporter Leslie Mitchell, aka Lewis Grassic Gibbon, have made of this stranglehold of Scotland’s weekly press?), Fraserburgh’s Buchan Observer, the Ellon Times and East Gordon Advertiser.
Since it’s a nice spring day we shall go over the sea, first to Rothesay where the dear old Buteman succumbed to the Johnston shilling, and then on to the Western Isles where the paper of the Outer Hebrides, the Stornoway
Gazette, edited by James Shaw Grant for 32 years, is just another Johnston title these days. Thank God for its rival, the West Highland Free Press, which is owned by its workers and is incomparably the best local paper in Scotland (there could be a connection there); if Brian Wilson had done nothing else with his life, starting this paper would have justified it.
Good journalists are employed by Johnston’s local newspapers; I don’t doubt it for a minute. It is not their fault that they have to sit in front of computer terminals acting as glorified compositors, keying in the half-literate copy of local correspondents. It is not their fault that, slaves to new technology and their employers’ cost-cutting, they get out of the office less than they did before; or that their newspaper ends up looking much like the one next door; or that their chief executive, Ashley Highfield, who sounds like a minor character left over from a Jane Austen novel, insults them this week with desperate talk of ‘products’, ‘relaunches’ and ‘major redesign exercises’ as his bankers fret.
Once upon a time the titles mentioned in this column were not products. They were newspapers, and many of them were quirky and brave, fiercely independent, an asset to the life of Scotland. What are they now? What are they likely to become? Here are the latest thoughts of Mr Highfield:
While providing our existing audiences with an even better product, both in print and online, we will extend our audience by increasing our online content and making it easier to access in the most relevant ways as technologies continue to evolve.
It’s all so much guff, but the message is fairly clear: the Bellshill Speaker had better look out. I think I was once sent to cover Old Man Johnston’s funeral; or is this just a bad recurring dream? Little could I have dreamt, even in the depths of the nightmare, that his departure would not mean the end of the Johnstons; that they would go on to create a monster. We are talking here about a vital and precious thing: freedom of the press. How is it served by this grisly monopoly?
And then there’s the poor Scotsman. I’ll come to it tomorrow.
Part 3 – My plan for saving a great Scottish newspaper
In modern times, which for these purposes I assume to have started in the mid-1960s, there were two golden periods in the history of Scotland’s national newspaper, the Scotsman. The first occurred during the editorship of Alastair Dunnett, one of the few editors who was also a major public figure. His wife Dorothy was as clever as he was, and a better writer. What a couple.
Under Dunnett, an investigative unit was established at the Scotsman. They say that all journalism is investigative, but it isn’t true. Most journalism is press release slightly adapted; or, increasingly, just printed as sent. Close Up – the name of this unit – was headed by Magnus Magnusson who had Gus MacDonald and David Kemp (Arnold’s brother) as his assistants. A more impressive team of journalists has rarely been assembled in one small room.
I was supposed to be joining them as the junior member; Magnusson had even lined up the subject of my first exposé. Then he left unexpectedly to embark on his glittering career in broadcasting. By the time the offer was renewed, after he’d gone, I had another job. I cursed my luck. One of the remaining pleasures of my life is to make an annual award in Magnusson’s name and memory.
I digress. I’m here today to save his old paper. I’d better get on with it. It won’t take long.
There is no point in deluding ourselves that the Scotsman can be saved by resurrecting the Close Up unit. There may be the inquiring talent – I wouldn’t know – but there isn’t the money. Magnus and his friends must have cost the paper a fortune. The investigation they were running when I got involved was into dodgy goings-on at the Highlands Board. It was fabulous stuff, but ruinously expensive. What they did publish in the end was devastating, but it took a lot of time and patience. It couldn’t or wouldn’t be afforded now. It’s cheaper just to use the press release.
That was the first golden period in modern times. The second is of more interest because it’s just about do-able as a repeat performance. It occurred a decade or so after the events I have just described, when the Scotsman under the editorship of Eric Mackay became the voice of frustrated Scottish aspiration, the intelligent and critical voice of political self-determination, an open house, a glorious talking shop. Talk is good, said my favourite philosopher. Talk was good then, and you didn’t have to look further than the Scotsman to be part of it.
The debate was led by a marvellous man straight out of the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, the one whose name I mentioned two days ago, Neal Ascherson, who was persuaded to live and work in Scotland, writing for the Scotsman, conferring his intellectual brilliance on the discussion. I’m not sure that I can imagine someone of his precious ability working in the Scottish media now, yet look how far we’ve come without intellectual brilliance of any sort.
The Scotsman needs to win back all the broadsheet people – the ones who take those decisions, the others who influence them – and move out from there to the Scottish idealists and teachers and artists, the many thousands of us who are alienated by the state of our mainstream media.
What happened to the Scotsman? A simple, perhaps simplistic, answer is that the Barclay brothers happened to it, and then the beyond dismal Johnston Press, which might as well be turning out the proverbial baked beans and whose chief executive badly needs someone to write his public statements. Scary thought: perhaps someone is being paid to write this man’s public statements.
It wouldn’t take a Close Up-type fortune to re-position the paper politically and make it again the intelligent and critical voice of Scottish self-determination. Actually, forget the politics. It just makes commercial sense. Of course you would need the writers. There are some out there; a few good ones work for the paper already. And I suggest that the paper must have a youngish writer-editor who is recognised as the most important person in the building, not as some disposable functionary.
In case John McLellan requests a second correction in 48 hours, I’m not suggesting that he couldn’t write. He wrote rather well. Nor was he a disposable functionary, but like all other Scotsman editors in recent times he was regarded as one. That’s a big part of the problem.
The Scotsman, if it is to be successfully re-born, needs to invest – by which I mean long-term invest – in an editor who is a writer and a thinker first and foremost. The words must be paramount. The ideas must be paramount. Is this saviour out there? Again I wouldn’t know. He or she possibly lurks outside Scotland and dreams of returning. Go find.
Whoever it is will make a campaigning splash with some ‘shock issues’ of the type done with such panache by Hugh Cudlipp in the old Mirror. I suggest also that he or she will re-launch the Scotsman in a modern broadsheet format. I do not suggest that it is impossible to publish a serious daily newspaper as a tabloid. The continental Europeans do it all the time, elegantly, but the British are hopeless at this game.
There is another reason for going back to broadsheet: Edinburgh, where the decisions are made, is a broadsheet city. The Scotsman needs to win back all the broadsheet people – the ones who take those decisions, the others who influence them – and move out from there to the idealists and teachers and artists, the many thousands of us who are alienated by the state of our mainstream media. We are there for the taking. We wait for something better. We long for it every day.
Can this be done by the Johnston Press? Clearly not. They talk not of newspapers, but of products. They have failed journalism and they have failed journalists. Their grave is fit only to be danced on. I suggest the Eightsome Reel. I issue this challenge to the wealthy patriots of Scotland, of whom there are many. Get out there, form your consortium, convince us of your honourable motives, and make a reasonable offer to this lot’s bankers to take a great newspaper out of their hands. Better still, let’s have a trust along the lines of the Guardian’s, safeguarding the paper’s interests and supported by all who care about Scotland.
By the way (as they say in Glasgow), will any of this happen? Nae chance. It’s a dream, my friends – only a dream.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review