Ian Bell: Remembering an outstanding Scottish voice, silenced too soon

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By Maurice Smith

The death of Ian Bell has been accompanied by an outpouring of tributes from across the media in Scotland.

It is easy to dismiss newspaper headlines, which are by their nature exaggerations made simply for effect. But in this case, none of the qualities ascribed to Bell has been overblown: he was indeed one of the finest journalists of his generation, and probably its greatest columnist.

imagesBell was an outstanding if bolshie student at Portobello High School, and after graduation and further study in the US, he began a career in newspapers, firstly as a sub-editor at The Scotsman, which was his first and lasting love until he felt driven out by management during a bitter industrial dispute in the late 1980s.

Some lost their jobs through redundancy. Bell walked out of his on principle. He couldn’t bear to witness unfairness, and his black rage about the behaviour of the Scotsman’s then owners did not subside for a long time. His career was rescued, turned round and renewed by Arnold Kemp and Harry Reid, two other ex-Scotsman men who were now editor and deputy editor of the Glasgow Herald. With a couple of brief and unexpected detours to the Daily Record and the short-lived Business AM, the Herald was to be Bell’s journalistic home for much of the ensuing 25 years.

As a writer, he was a cultural polymath. As a commentator, peerless in his devotion to fairness and with a sharp eye for hypocrisy. He could be withering without being spiteful. His grammar and punctuation would have made his English teacher proud.

His espousal of the independence case was clear and unapologetic. He skewered the Better Together campaign, but without the sourness and rancour that has tarnished much of the whole post-referendum discussion. As a relatively late convert to independence, his politics had been always of the left, but his support for independence evolved from the Blair-Brown years, and of course the Iraq War.

But Ian was no party man, ready to spot weakness and double dealing anywhere. He was never a man to trim his opinions out of concern for what people might think, or whether his writing might prevent him from being invited to this dinner party or that jamboree. He despised those with entitlement, rather than becoming one of them. The people and organisations Ian wrote about were held to certain standards, and woe betide them if they fell below.

He kept furiously busy. Writing several times a week for The Herald and Sunday Herald, he also served as a leader writer for the daily. He may have been among the first people I knew to have possessed an email address (Compuserve), but he was not entirely comfortable with the digital age. His writing style always seems more suited to the firm solidity of newsprint.

There have been many tributes paid both in print and social media. None of us have matched Ian’s natural ability to write great prose. Apart from his newspaper work, he completed a critically praised two-volume assessment of Bob Dylan. It followed an excellent biography of R.L. Stevenson.

It is strange that Ian should pass away just days after the death of his great friend, the novelist Willie McIlvanney. If Willie was the archetypical “writer’s writer”, Ian Bell was the “journalist’s journalist”. His work earned numerous awards, including the Orwell Prize.

Apart from the Herald, I worked with Ian when he edited a Scottish tabloid section for The Observer. Every Friday evening was spent in a production meeting, usually in Rab Ha’s bar in Glasgow. The chat was splattered with ideas, opinions and suggestions. It was at times wonderfully creative, and always entertaining.

Years later a chance encounter came in Edinburgh, the day after the last edition of the short-lived Business AM. Ian had written a farewell column excoriating Scotland’s business community for failing to support the newspaper in sufficient numbers. It was a memorable piece, and one that was wearily dismissive of a core audience. He was never one for toeing the line.

More recently Ian moved home to the Scottish Borders. Since the referendum his columns covered the broadest range of politics, from Syria to the Smith Commission, two outstanding examples recently being an analysis of that Hilary Benn speech and a challenge to Glasgow City Council’s nervousness about commemorating the centenary of the Easter Rising. Ian was inordinately proud of his family connection to the Scots-born Irish radical James Connolly, executed for his role in the Rising.

We last met at the Scottish Press Awards, when the Daily Record was awarded for its referendum front page presentation of The Vow, a decision met by a typically Bell snort of disdain.

Journalists and journalism are taking a pasting these days. Often they are dismissed as establishment pawns of the so-called “mainstream media”. It is time we had a grown-up talk about the media in Scotland, its strengths as well as its weaknesses. The fact is that there remain many honourable, professional journalists in Scottish journalism. We need an active, resourced and rigorous press that will hold the powerful to account, without fear or favour.

We owe it to the memory of Ian Bell to recognise that and to support and encourage the survival of quality journalism in Scotland. That would ensure a lasting memory of a magnificent talent taken from us far too soon.

Ian Bell died suddenly on December 10 2015, aged 59. He leaves a wife, Mandy, and son Sean. RIP

Among the tributes to its star writer, The Herald has today published a series of Ian Bell articles here.

Maurice Smith is a former Herald and BBC journalist who produces TV documentaries and continues to write for various publications