Oldsters have a terrible tendency to say that things were so much better in their day. Nowhere is the good old days phenomenon more apparent than in newspapers, where some jobs such as typesetting have vanished into technological pre-history. So have copytakers, a grievous loss. Trust me, all old journalists have copytaker stories. They were superb fellow professionals but the bean-counters saw otherwise.
But the job of news gathering has suffered, arguably, a worse fate. Instead of being taken to the vet for a quick injection, it has had the life slowly sucked out of it through constant staffing cuts, forcing ever fewer editorial staff to become overworked 'multi-platform content providers' in the 24-hour news cycle of newspaper websites. Meanwhile, many leave journalism to become press officers and special advisers. On current trends within a generation, there might be a single Press Association journalist at Holyrood serving all newspapers and dancing to the frenzied tune of 100 spin doctors.
In the recent film, 'The Post,' Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham, proprietor of the Washington Post, which is locked in battle with the Nixon White House. Tom Hanks is fantastic at playing... Tom Hanks, as he always is. But for editor Ben Bradlee, I preferred the growlier Jason Robards in 'All the President's Men.' British journalists adore US movies like these two and the recent film, 'Spotlight', because they are so high-minded. They make us feel noble, even righteous, rather than seedy and somewhat disreputable.
For me — and to my wife's chagrin that day in the cinema, only me — there was a laugh-out-loud moment in 'The Post.' The backdrop to the 1971 battle between, on the one side the New York Times and Washington Post, and on the other the US government over the leaked Pentagon papers, was that it coincided with Graham floating the Post as a publicly-quoted company. She was lectured by the hard-headed bankers not to squander money on expensive journalism, but instead cut all that nonsense and be more like the Gannett Corporation – in pursuit of profits.
My guffaw escaped because for the last decade of my journalistic career I had seen the results of Gannett's ownership of the Herald and it wasn't pretty: wave after wave of job cuts and squeezed editorial budgets.
When I began doing politics pre-devolution, I would attend the UK party conferences, one of four or five Herald staffers staying in one of the better hotels. Under Gannett, this became a B&B on the edge of town, and then the Scottish political staff were forbidden to go to Bournemouth or Brighton at all. At Holyrood, the Herald and the Evening Times used to fill one of the bigger offices in the media tower, but our three staffers became two, and then last year due to a recruitment delay, for a long spell just one. I came in one Thursday to discuss FMQs with Brian Taylor, and found that Tom Gordon had been ordered to use up his holiday allowance or lose it, so the Herald had no-one in the building that week. I found that extraordinary.
The only other newspaper I have worked for, the Scotsman, was evicted from its large office here at Holyrood because its dwindling staff no longer justified it. The Scotsman recently celebrated a 2% annual rise in circulation. Good. But it's still under 20,000 – a percentage of these being give-aways. When I was there in the 1970s during the first devolution referendum, it was poised to break the 100,000 barrier for the first time in its history.
The Herald shed another 10% of its readers in the last year and is now under 26,000. The great editor Arnold Kemp took the newspaper to a circulation peak of 127,000. Kemp resigned during tensions amid the 1994 management buy-out of the Herald from Lonrho, and was proven utterly right. It then passed into the ownership of Scottish Television, who never really understood newspapers, and then into the dark era of Gannett-owned Newsquest.
I found my own career had gone full circle. The battle of my first editor, the superlative Eric Mackay, was to keep the Scotsman a distinctive national newspaper at a time when it was brought within the ownership of Thomson Regional Newspapers, a collection of avowedly localist titles mainly based in English cities. Why did the Scotsman need a Westminster operation when the Newcastle Journal didn't have its own? Or a diplomatic editor, or labour correspondent in London?
Mackay fought ferociously behind the scenes with TRN bean counters, reminding them that Roy Thomson's title was Lord Thomson of Fleet and
North Bridge, a statement about the importance of the Edinburgh titles to the organisation's history. Now within the Newsquest chain, the Herald faces exactly the same pressures of comparisons with English regional titles.
How I came to be on the Scotsman, straight out of school at Trinity Academy in Edinburgh, is a story of luck and happenstance. As a sickly child with all the ailments that come with having asthma and eczema, I originally wanted to be a doctor. Then I went on a school trip to Tanfield at Canonmills in Edinburgh, where the Scottish Daily Mail was printed. We saw round the various stages of production and in the case-room a Linotype operator keyed in our names and we got a slug of hot metal to take home to use with a John Bull inkpad. I was hooked on the industry. So I entered secondary school determined to become a reporter and picked my subjects
I was accepted for Edinburgh University but by that time, 1973, Tanfield had ceased to be a newspaper building five years previously, and I could see the industry was already contracting. I applied to what was then the Edinburgh College of Commerce, now Napier University, to study journalism, and I also applied to the SUN group of weekly papers, part of the Glasgow Herald operation, for a sponsored place on the course.
During interviews at the Herald's old Rennie Mackintosh headquarters in Mitchell Street, one of my fellow applicants asked if I had gone for the Edinburgh Evening News traineeship. I knew nothing of it, so when I got off the train at Waverley I went up to North Bridge, banged on the front counter, and asked. Someone from personnel, as it was called before the invention of human resources, came down and said that the vacancy had been filled, but the Scotsman was about to advertise a similar apprenticeship. I filled in the application form on the spot. It asked for a supplementary 500 words on why I wanted to be a journalist. The Glasgow application had asked the same thing, and in my inside pocket I had a carbon copy, a 'black', as I would later learn to call it.
Within days I was called in for what I thought was an interview, but was taken through to see the editor, who kindly broke off from watching the horse racing on television to speak to me. Only during this chat did I realise I was being welcomed on board. I was to go off and learn to touch-type and report to work as an indentured apprentice on 3 January 1974 for induction, before being sent to the group's training scheme in Newcastle for five months.
By June I was getting my name in the Scotsman. My first byline was on
a story about Nicky Fairbairn donating 40 trees to Edinburgh to mark his birthday in order to hide the kinetic sculpture at the foot of Leith Street, because, he said, 'like a harlot, it should only come out at night.' More than 20 years later, my first splash as a political correspondent was a valedictory interview with Sir Nicky, who blasted his chosen successor as parliamentary candidate as 'an unelectable party clone.'
By August, a month shy of my 20th birthday, I was poised to get my first front-page splash, a story about the Edinburgh Opera House saga. Unfortunately for me, Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate scandal that night and my story was bumped to the bottom of the page. Such is newspaper journalism.
On the stormy night of Friday 13 December that year, I was on duty when my father was lost at sea in the Firth of Forth and I ended up down on Middle Pier, Granton, briefing journalist colleagues on what had happened. At 23 I was involved in the East Lothian by-election following the death of John P Mackintosh, and a year later I was involved in covering the 1979 devolution referendum. I had not long turned 25 when the Scotsman sent me on my first overseas assignment, flying me to Stavanger to cover the capsize of a North Sea accommodation rig with the loss of 123 lives.
In 1981 I was sent to Northern Ireland to cover the death of IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, the first of the many times I covered the Troubles for both the newspapers I worked for. Although I became a feature writer at this time, I continued as the newspaper's 'fireman', being sent for example to cover rioting in cities in the North of England.
The following year I was dispatched to Whitehall to cover the Falklands war as an accredited defence correspondent, with the words of my editor Eric Mackay ringing in my ears: 'Remember, at times like these the Ministry of Defence becomes the ministry of propaganda.' He was to take a similarly robust stance during the miners' strike, calling me in and saying that, as the news coverage would tend to be dominated by the National Coal Board's version of events, he wanted me to go out and write about it from the perspective of the mining communities. This, as much as the referendum and parliamentary elections, was political journalism, and it showed the real Mackay – ferociously fair.
I mention these memories because they show what a well-resourced and outward-looking newspaper the Scotsman was during this period. But when Eric Mackay retired in 1985, TRN seized the opportunity to cut pay, conditions and staffing by staging a lock-out. The writing was on the wall. Chris Baur had the unhappy task of editing the paper during this difficult time and then Magnus Linklater arrived, declaring that the Scotsman had, and I quote, 'drifted too far to the left of its readership.' He and I were not going to see eye-to-eye.
I contacted Arnold Kemp, my former deputy editor, now editing the Glasgow Herald, and with the agreement of Edinburgh office editor Bob Ross, secured a post as a news reporter. It was 1987 and I had several happy years there, continuing to be dispatched to Northern Ireland for the Troubles and then the peace process. There were more than a dozen journalists in that Edinburgh office. Now there is no office and just a single reporter working from home.
In 1994 Arnold appointed me Scottish political correspondent of the Herald. He then promptly resigned. What a time to be a political journalist in Scotland! Tony Blair was marching New Labour towards power, a two-question referendum was finally agreed on, Donald Dewar was to declare: 'There shall be a Scottish parliament.' We had the excitement of the new project in its temporary home on The Mound, the sojourns to Glasgow and Aberdeen and — mired in controversy — the final arrival of the budget-busting Holyrood building.
The devolution era has seen tragedy, with the death of our first first minister; farce, with in my view the over-baked nonsense which brought down his successor, Henry McLeish; comedy (think of the beam swinging loose over the chamber); and triumph, with one party defying the voting system to achieve an outright majority. That propelled us to an independence referendum and, if Brexit proves to be disastrous, may yet take us to another.
Many excellent journalists continue to work at Holyrood, and the Murdoch titles in particular seem to be investing. But generally, demands increase as circulations and resources decline.
Central to the plot of 'The Post' is Ben Bradlee noticing that New York Times reporter Neil Sheehan hasn't had anything in the paper for months, concluding that he must be working on a special project. I didn't laugh at that point. I could have wept. This would be unimaginable in the shrinking Scottish press. Cuts beget cuts. It's a death spiral, certainly for print editions. Journalists are there to do their best to hold political power to account. The Washington Post's motto is 'Democracy Dies in Darkness.'
What does the decline of the Herald, the Scotsman and indeed the Daily Record mean for democracy in Scotland? That worries me, and I believe it should worry you too.