by Harry Reid

When papers Mattered

October 29, 2009 | by Harry Reid

WHEN THE YOUNG Glasgow solicitor and Scottish Nationalist Winnie Ewing won a spectacular victory at the Hamilton by-election in 1967, the Scottish press – then enjoying its last golden age – was, despite its entrenched unionism, ecstatic. Here was a genuine political sensation.

The Daily Record and the Scottish Daily Express, Scotland’s leading tabloid and leading broadsheet respectively (the two papers commanded a remarkable combined circulation of well over a million) fought to hire the new and glamorous MP as a star columnist. Winnie shrewdly plumped for the Record as it was Labour while the Express was Tory. She reckoned that this way her party was more likely to gain Labour votes.

Through in the east, the Scotsman’s venerable editor Sir Alastair Dunnett ruminated on the implications of Winnie’s success. Dun-nett had been a brilliant editor of the Record and had been enticed to the Scotsman in 1955 by its new proprietor, a brash and fabulously wealthy Canadian who already owned over a hundred papers, Roy Thomson. Dun-nett’s ever-fertile mind pondered on Scot-land’s political future. He decided to embark on what became a crusade for devolution.

At that time devolution was a term used only by psephologists and geeks. The preferred term was home rule. And home rule had been a cause that various political parties had adopted – the Liberals most consistently – over generations but had never taken off as a feasible, deliverable policy.

Dunnett, who had built up a formidable leader writing team at the Scotsman, changed that, almost overnight. He instructed his leader writers to produce a series of articles outlining the case for a devolved Scottish Assembly. The interest these pieces provoked was remarkable, indeed unprecedented for a constitutional issue, and they were reprinted in pamphlet form.

In London, the Unionist establishment took notice. Ted Heath, leader of the Opposition and a more open-minded Tory than is often allowed, came north of the border and delivered his inspirational Declaration of Perth, an initiative that sensationally committed the Tories to the devolution cause. Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, scented trouble. He craftily set up a Royal Commission, under the redoubtable Lord Crowther. This was a useful expedient for kicking a potential political problem into the long grass. And indeed Lord Crowther died before his commission was ready to report.

The commission laboured on. Many of its witnesses were hostile to devolution, but the very fact that a succession of figures from the ranks of the great and the good were called to give evidence on the issue helped to make it current and indeed to lend it credibility. Crowther’s successor, Lord Kilbrandon, finally unveiled the report, which duly recommended a directly elected Assembly for Scotland, at the end of 1973.

By this time Heath was Prime Minister but he was fighting a losing battle with the miners and the radical Kilbrandon report was the least of his concerns. Harold Wilson reentered No. Ten Downing Street early in 1974. Devolution was once again Labour’s problem, and it was compounded by the fact that after the second general election of 1974 – the first was inconclusive – there were eleven SNP MPs at Westminster, and they held the balance of power.

By this time Eric Mackay had succeeded Dunnett as editor of the Scotsman. A laconic, even dour man, Mackay took up Dunnett’s commitment to devolution with an enthusiasm that startled those who regarded him as cautious.

There was self-interest in this. Mackay envisaged a powerful Assembly in Edin-burgh, and the Scotsman, having campaigned for it, would be in pole position to report its proceedings. The Labour Government appointed him chair of a committee to plan the dispositions for the proposed Assembly and from time to time he travelled to London to discuss the mechanics of constitutional change with Cabinet ministers.

The intellectual charge on the Scotsman was led not by a journalist but by a politician/academic, Professor John P Mackintosh. This man’s dazzling weekly column championed the devolution case with a cerebral zest no-one else in Scotland could match. Devolution became the story of the day, and not only in Scotland. In Westminster English journalists and MPs who had been wont to regard Scotland as a turgid backwater began asking all sort of questions

about what on earth was going on north of the Border. Mackay tempted the distinguished writer Neal Ascherson, a former Scotsman staffer in London, up to Edinburgh as the paper’s senior political writer.

Soon European journalists were visiting the paper’s North Bridge offices on an almost daily basis to be briefed by Ascherson or Arnold Kemp, the paper’s ebullient deputy editor, on the implications of the constitutional change that most commentators now thought was assuredly coming. Mackay and his journalists had seized the high intellectual ground, and there was not another Scottish paper to challenge it.

The Scottish Daily Express – right wing, aggressive, full of chutzpah – might have done so in it glory days, but it had been reduced to a husk by militants. The Glasgow Herald, the leading Unionist paper, and the traditional voice of Scotland’s mercantile class, was in the doldrums. As for the Record, Scotland’s leading tabloid, it supported the devolution cause, but mainly because of its impeccable Labour credentials. For Labour was by now running scared of the Nationalists, and many Labour MPs, formerly bitter opponents of devolution, cynically discovered the pressing need for devolutionary constitutional change – because it would prevent the even more dangerous outcome of independence.

I had joined the Scotsman in 1969, expecting that after a few years I would try my luck in London. But through the 1970s the Scots-man was a paper with a tremendous sense of momentum and purpose. It was an exciting, heady and happy place to work. Yet it was neglecting some of its constituencies: its older readers, those in the more far-flung parts of Scotland, and the business community – to name just three.

In truth, the paper had become obsessed: gloriously and effectively so – the circulation was rising steadily – but also recklessly. No newspaper should become too focussed on a single campaign. It all ended in tears, in the referendum of 1979. The Scottish people voted for devolution but not in sufficient numbers to pass the 40 per cent test that had been inserted in the Scotland Act as a result of some dogged Parliamentary work by a thrawn Labour backbencher, a Scot called George Cunningham.

Overnight the Scotsman, hitherto so purposeful, became dispirited. Mackay rather lost his way, and started bickering with his deputy, Arnold Kemp. Key staff began to drift away. The very first to go was the charismatic and eloquent Ascherson.

Many others followed over the next few years, particularly when the Herald Group launched a new pan-Scotland Sunday, the Sunday Standard, in March 1981. The exodus was embarrassing. Among those who left The Scotsman in the early 1980s were Angus Macleod, Jim Naughtie, Julie Davidson, Sally Magnusson, Tom James, and Lionel Barber (now the editor of the Financial Times). The biggest loss came when Arnold Kemp left to edit the Herald.

Kemp, very much an Edinburgh man, now found himself in what was then, and still is, Scotland’s media capital. He responded at once to Glasgow’s chancy, edgy, febrile status as one of the most competitive newspaper cities in the entire world. He somehow transformed the Herald, the tired geriatric of the Glasgow Press, into a virile, rebellious young man. Kemp enthusiastically converted the paper to the devolution cause (which, to be fair, the paper had already begun to flirt with, albeit half-heartedly.)

Yet devolution was now unfashionable in both the Labour and Tory parties. The Tories, under Mrs Thatcher, were in power and the lady was no devolutionist. Labour lurched to the left in an understandable but forlorn response to the right-wing vigour of Thatch-erism. Constitutional issues all but disappeared off the political map.

But Kemp kept the flame burning on the Herald, and he was abetted by Bernie Vickers, the eccentric but fitfully brilliant editor of the Record. Kemp’s only consistent political ally was the senior Labour politician, Donald Dewar. As for the Scottish Tories, and especially the businessmen of the West, they detested the way “their” paper, the Herald, was being radicalised and there were mutterings in golf clubs and cocktail bars about advertising boycotts or even hostile buy-outs.

Through the long dark years of Labour’s extended opposition, it was Dewar and Kemp who just about kept devolution current as an issue, both intellectually and politically. The paper that had developed the devolution case, the Scotsman, dithered and prevaricated. Eventually its new and abrasive editor-in-chief Andrew Neil, and the first editor he appointed, the equally abrasive Martin Clarke, an Englishman who had been trained on the Daily Mail, turned against the very idea of a new Scottish Parliament.

Thus the Scotsman’s recent heritage and tradition was turned upside down. But as Arnold Kemp, who left Scotland in the mid 1990s to work in London, ruefully remarked, he’d presided over a similar upheaval at the Herald, even if in a totally different direction, so what right had he to complain about what was going on at his first paper?

Thanks largely to the heroic persistency of Dewar, devolution proposals were a key part of New Labour’s programme when it was elected in the landslide of 1997. By this time I was editor of the Herald, and I was personally delighted that what the Scotsman had kicked off in 1967 was at long last approaching endgame.

The new Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook (whom I had earlier appointed as the Herald’s celebrity racing tipster) kindly found time to phone and assure me that devolution would be a reality within a couple of years. And although Tony Blair was not particularly interested in devolution personally, his Government certainly delivered it with swift and effective smeddum: within months of the election, Scotland had endorsed a tax-raising Parliament in a nationwide referendum.

The first elections for the new Parliament were held two years later in 1999. Just over a year later Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first First Minister, died at the age of 63.

I had for some time been enjoying regular chats with Donald about Scotland’s burgeoning political landscape. A fastidious and cerebral politician, he disliked the Scottish Press, though as a loyal Glaswegian he always made an exception of the Herald for which he nursed what he called “an exasperated affection”.

I had lunch with him in an Italian restaurant in Glasgow’s Great Western Road a week or so before he died. He told me, to my surprise, that he’d have loved to edit the Herald. He also said, and this too surprised me, that the Scottish Press had played a much more significant and honourable role in the progress to devolution than many of his colleagues were prepared to admit. He hoped that future historians would give what he called “the better” Scottish papers their due.

Yet the infant Parliament had not been kindly received by much of the Scottish Press. Partly this was because of the extended fiasco of the Holyrood building. Nor did the indigenous Scottish papers benefit from its arrival. “Tartan” editions of London-based papers, with their huge marketing budgets and their ability to sell cheaply, enjoyed increasing sales while the three great pan-Scotland indigenous papers – the Record, the Scots-man and the Herald – all suffered serious circulation losses in the first years of the new century.

The Record suffered most. It lost literally hundreds of thousand of sales. It came under sustained attack from Rupert Murdoch’s Scottish Sun, a paper that once and somewhat ludicrously flirted with nationalism. Traditionalists in the Scottish Press worry that Murdoch, having smashed the Record, may now be setting his sights on the Herald and the Scotsman.

Murdoch’s men in Scotland may even now be planning a supercharged Scottish edition of the London Times. Certainly the Times is to be printed in Scotland from next spring. If this paper, which will no doubt be very professionally put together, undercuts the Herald and the Scotsman for any length of time, then that could be most damaging for Scot-land’s two venerable old qualities. In other words, Murdoch and his News international team in Glasgow have already vanquished the Record. It could be that their next Scottish targets are at the other end of the market.

All this is of course emphatically not the outcome envisaged by Dunnett or Mackay, the journalistic begetters of devolution. It would be nonsensical to argue that these two editors invented the notion of a Scottish Parliament; yet without them, and the later efforts of the man they trained, Arnold Kemp, it is unlikely that devolution would ever have become the political issue that intermittently but powerfully convulsed Scotland for over 30 years.

(And it did convulse Scotland: think of the history. Two national referendums, and eventually, elections for a new parliament and the erection of a brand new, mega-controversial, hyper-expensive, showpiece building – the first great prestige public building aiming at world class status in Scotland for many years).

The current irony, then, is that the journalistic architects of devolution helped to create a new Scotland in which their own papers are now struggling desperately.

All this could be interpreted as a salutary tale in which the chattering classes impose a constitutional outcome on a country that deep down does not really want or need it, and then have the cheek to turn viciously on their own creation. I do not agree with that interpretation, but for whatever reason, the relations between the new Parliament – which probably would not have existed without the Scottish Press – and that Press have, to date, been at best suspicious and at worst bitterly hostile.

The 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s were in many ways a golden age for the Scottish Press – and in particular the great newspaper city of Glasgow – but it would be silly to ignore the downside. Newspapers were smaller and less well designed than they are today. The use of pictures was often unimaginative, and graphics were rarely used.

The printing was smudgy.

Papers often disappeared for days, sometimes weeks, on end because of union disputes. The news agenda was pretty macho, there were disgracefully few women employed, and the softer areas of journalism – now so prevalent – were virtually ignored.

The papers were probably better written, more thorough in their news coverage, and more concerned to find out and explain what was really going on. And they transmitted a sense of engergy and authority. In some cases, particularly that of the Scottish Daily Express, they conveyed bravado and even arrogance. In my early days on the Scots-man, I once covered an industrial dispute along with three journalists from the Express: reporter, photographer and “driver” – this last being the muscle. As we went though the gates, the driver loudly intoned the immortal words “This is the Scottish Daily Express, and we’re moving in,” and he did so without a trace of irony.

The era was dominated by the intensive battle between the Record and the Scottish Express, an ongoing struggle marked by dirty tricks, derring-do, and all sorts of zany exploits. The Express won, easily enough, because its proprietor, the rascally megalomaniac genius Lord Beaverbrook, was determined that his favourite paper, the Scottish Daily Express, and his favourite editor, Ian McColl (who in persona was as self-effacing as his boss was larger than life) would triumph.

Having seen off the Record, The Scottish Daily Express was then brought down by its own staff – a group of militant journalists – who orchestrated one dispute after another, often on spurious grounds, in the period 1973-4. 1800 people lost their jobs. The SDE remained in an eviscerated form, but it was a husk of what it had been.

In my book Deadline – a companion to the BBC Scotland television series of the same name – I have tried to describe the amazing admixture of insolence, finesse and sheer style that marked the Scottish Daily Express in its pomp. Unlike some current products, it was manifestly not a “tartan edition” of a London title. It was a wholly separate title, with a large staff – including an amazing 22 feature writers, and an even larger cadre sportswriters, including a specialist whose sole task was to report on Highland League football. And it was an extremely well written newspaper.

The SDE campaigned relentlessly on all sorts of issues, most famously after the Church of Scotland misguidedly proposed the introduction of bishops. The fury that McColl, egged on by Beavebrook in nightly phone calls, unleashed on the Kirk leaders behind the proposal is still spoken of with awe, fifty years on.

Relating the story of the Scottish daily Press (and I emphasise that I’m not discussing Sunday papers or weeklies, or biweeklies) over the past fifty years or so was a task that was for me at once delightful and depressing. It is an impertinent, breathless saga of mischief and mayhem and but also of skill and effort and, from time to time, brilliance. Yet a certain wistfulness, bordering on depression, kicks in because, no matter how hard you try to be optimistic, the current printed Press scene looks pretty bleak.

Young people are not reading newspapers; the few that do read them online. Fifty years ago newspapers ruled effortlessly; their only real competitors were each other. Now they are away down the media pecking order. The electronic media are far more powerful and influential, the Internet is a medium that print journalism has yet to come to terms with, and the rise of citizen journalism present a real threat to the former hegemony of career journalists. Digitalised technology progresses at a rapid pace, and print journalists look on, bemused.

Scots were voracious, enthusiastic, greedy consumers of daily newspapers. Many of them were also distinguished producers of newspapers. Scotland was routinely described as the most competitive newspaper market in the world. Glasgow may have been the second city of the Empire; for many it was the first city of journalism. As the generations that were part of this extended adventure slowly drift off to the great newsroom in the sky, it is important that there should be some permanent record of it all. It is for this reason that I think that the great city of Glasgow should create a Museum of Scottish Journalism.


DEADLINE: THE STORY OF THE SCOTTISH PRESS
by Harry Reid is published by St Andrew Press in conjunction with the BBC. £14.99
pp206 ISBN 0 71808365

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