Book review: Voices Of Scottish Journalists

TWO years ago, the National Theatre of Scotland staged Enquirer, a play about journalism based on interviews with journalists, with the rationale that the phone hacking scandal and Leveson had made newspapers a story in their own right.
The Evening News newsroom in 1973. Picture: TSPLThe Evening News newsroom in 1973. Picture: TSPL
The Evening News newsroom in 1973. Picture: TSPL

Voices Of Scottish Journalists

Ian MacDougall

John Donald, £25

The script for the play was pulled together from 43 mainly anonymous interviews with journalists: here, in a 633-page book, there are interviews with just 22 veteran Scottish journalists. Sadly, most of them are now no longer with us.

If Enquirer was about the present, this book is so much about the past (most of the interviewees’ careers ended in the 1990s) that it is a fascinating piece of social history in its own right, reminding us how recently journalists could be made redundant for the offence of being married (the 1950s) or over 50 (the 1990s). In the play, the moral compass of the hacks shown was all over the place; in the book, it is relatively steady. But whereas, in the play, newspapers are a dying industry, in the book, they still pulse with an inky romance.

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As Neal Ascherson points out in the foreword, while journalists are good at telling other people’s stories, they are less inclined to talk about their own. Ian MacDougall, who over the past four decades with the Scottish Working People’s Trust, has told the life stories of miners, dockers, women farm workers, “Onion Johnnies”, Spanish Civil war veterans, and many more, has certainly put that right.

The composite portrait of Scottish journalism he unveils here is a fascinating one. As the late George Hume pointed out, “You meet mass murderers, High Court judges, comic singers, fading actresses, and the wonderful, rich pattern of loonies that keeps the country going”. And before the people who came into it became standardised through degrees and postgraduate training, when copy boys could and did rise to become editors, perhaps it was even more fascinatingly unpredictable. “All of this,” one of the interviewees notes, “was before the age of cynicism”. What? Non-cynical hacks? Surely some mistake?