Bill Owens: Far-travelled journalist with a colourful career
While working in Scotland in the late 1950s, Bill Owens travelled to a remote cottage in the Highlands with a young Magnus Magnusson to investigate a story that there was a “female messiah” living there.
When the two reporters reached the house, the door suddenly sprung open and a woman with bright red hair burst forth and declared she had a premonition that they were coming.
The woman was Sheena Govan, whose story as leader of The Nameless Ones made international headlines as one of the founders of the Findhorn Community, a spiritual order which hovered between Evangelicalism and early New Age thought.
Bill Owens, who has died aged 85 in Sydney, Australia, was born in Haugh Road, Glasgow, where his parents, Mary and Charles owned a fruit and vegetable business.
He was educated at Overnewton Public School and Victoria Drive secondary school in Scotstoun and started his career in journalism as a junior reporter on the now closed Clydebank Press.
His contacts in the industrial relations-troubled shipyards were legendary amongst the press corps on Clydeside who covered the closure of John Brown’s and workers’ co-operative of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders.
He was conscripted to do National Service in the Royal Air Force and was stationed at RAF Rufforth in York and also Bomber Command in Inverness.
After demobilisation, he progressed to The Scotsman and the Daily Record where he wrote the Pat Roller column, a nightly diary of Glasgow’s dark side made up of news items collected in police stations, hospital casualty departments and mortuaries.
Owens was involved in all the major stories of that era, including the including the notorious Bible John murders. He is reputed to have interviewed the infamous Lanarkshire serial killer, Peter Manuel, in Barlinnie Prison before he was hanged. Owens wrote for The Washington Post, The Toronto Star, and the National Enquirer.
While writing for the Daily Record he was offered a job in Fleet Street, but chose instead to set up a freelance news agency in Dumbarton with his Sunday Mail colleague, Gerry Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald Owens became one of Scotland’s biggest, busiest and most respected news agencies in Scotland.
Dunbartonshire was a fertile area for freelance journalists since stories from the embryonic Clyde Submarine Base at Faslane on the Gareloch; the tourist areas of Loch Lomond; the largest Scotch whisky distillery in the country; the Clyde shipyards; the Singer factory in Clydebank; Burroughs Machines; Polaroid and Westclox were forever producing news items.
Dumbarton Sheriff Court was one of the busiest in Scotland and Owens was one of the best court reporters, who could boast a shorthand note in excess of 160 words a minute
He was so fast at Pitman’s that when the official note takers failed to turn up, the Sheriff Clerk would ask Owens if he would fill in for them.
Then the Fitzgerald Owens Agency was given the contract by Helensburgh Advertiser owner Craig M Jeffery to supply the whole editorial content and photographs for a new Dunbartonshire weekly.
The County Reporter started out in life with an exclusive front-page splash about the closure of Denny’s shipyard in Dumbarton with the loss of 2,000 jobs while the newspaper prospered in a highly competitive market.
Fitzgerald Owens also landed a contract with BBC Scotland to supply news items in Glasgow and opened a bureau in Sauchiehall Street for that specific purpose, but it too was to expand and supply news to London and international media outlets which did not have a presence in Scotland’s second city.
The company then branched out into public relations and opened Impress, which handled media relations for a number of prestigious companies and individuals including Sir Jackie Stewart, who was making his mark as a Formula 1 champion.
Liverpool-based Littlewoods Pools hired Fitzgerald Owens to arrange for winners’ cheques to be presented by Scottish celebrities, including the late Jimmy Logan.
One of the unusual requests Owens received through his public relations company was from the Lorimer family who owned Kellie Castle in Fife. They wanted him to design a flag for the castle, which they hoped to open to the public.
Bill suggested they open an art gallery and recruited art teacher John Lyons who ran art competitions for school children, to set up a competition in which the winners would have their artwork displayed in Kellie Castle.
After having the flag designed, Owens then contacted the late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn to carry out the official opening.
Owens, tall, dark and handsome was always immaculately dressed in the image of a reporter out of an American B movie. He smoked cigars, drank modedstly and wore a bow tie, a fedora and a trench coat.
At the beginning of the 1980s, he decided to seek sunnier climes and moved to the Middle East and Bahrain, where he worked for the Al Hilal Group as Editor in Chief of The Gulf Daily News.
During his tenure, there he was once taken to a secret location in a Mercedes limousine with curtained windows and armed guards to interview Yasser Arafat.
He told colleagues he had been approached by the FBI and informed that his telephone had been tapped as they believed he was on a terrorist hit list.
While in Bahrain, he was invited aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia to meet HM the Queen and HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Five years on, Owens quit the Middle East and travelled to Sydney, Australia, where he purchased a business newsletter.
It provided news of business contracts in the Middle East, and he became involved in setting up the Australian branch of the Al Hilal Group.
He remained in Sydney until his retirement, but travelled to Scotland often to see his ex-wife Chris, with whom he remained friends, and his children, Paul and Nicola.
Bill Owens is survived by them and by his partner Louise, and their son, Uilleam. Bill was also father to Louise’s children Robin and Briony and is survived by them and their three children.