Obituary: Endell Laird, newspaper editor

Born: in Forfar. Died: 8 July, 2015, in Glasgow, aged 81

Endell Laird, former editor of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail who got an early break on The Beano. Picture: Contributed
Endell Laird, former editor of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail who got an early break on The Beano. Picture: Contributed

Endell Laird, Scotland’s last great tabloid editor, ran more than just a newspaper. He ran a country.

During the glory days of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail, he was arguably a far more effective opposition to Mrs Thatcher than 50-odd Scottish Labour MPs, as demonstrated by numerous agenda-setting campaigns and investigations.

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He fought for Ravenscraig, spoke up for Rosyth, exposed the great Hoover free flights scandal and ran reader appeals which raised £600,000 for bone marrow units at Yorkill Hospital and an astonishing £4 million to build Scotland’s first children’s hospice.

Journalists were on strike in January 1971 when Endell, then an assistant editor on the Sunday Mail, was struggling to produce a paper along with a small group of executives when news filtered through of an incident at Ibrox Park during an Old Firm match.

A stairway crush had caused serious injuries but, as the news intensified, the death toll rose and kept on rising to 15, then 20, then 30 and finally 66.

Working with the news editor, John Burrowes, they managed to obtain eye-witness accounts. But as John bashed out the words they had a problem – there were no pictures.

Endell decided to send a secretary, Joyce Paton, to the Glasgow office of The Scotsman to casually ask a complacent duty reporter for the pictures his editor in Edinburgh had agreed to hand over.

Joyce returned a short time later with the photographs stuffed in a brown envelope. That night’s Sunday Mail carried the lot which, despite the strike, scooped the opposition Scottish Sunday Express and Sunday Post.

Endell later recalled that three staff sub editors who had been at the game broke union ranks and turned up for work. They appeared from the pub without shoes, which were lost when they were helplessly carried along with the crowd as they desperately fought to remain upright.

Later that night, he covered a police press conference held in a public toilet inside the stadium, the only premises available, where names of the dead were read out.

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Endell Johnston Laird was born in Forfar and educated at Forfar Academy. After training on the Forfar Advertiser, he joined the DC Thomson newspaper, magazine and comic empire in Dundee where he started writing storylines for Roger the Dodger, the loveable but troublesome schoolboy in The Beano.

He would lie awake at night staring at the ceiling, wondering what Roger would be getting up to this week.

Soon, he graduated to the Dundee Courier and as the late night sub editor, he instinctively stripped the editor’s prized paper to carry news and pictures of a multiple fatal rail crash. When he went to work the following day, none of his fellow subs spoke to him until it was confirmed that the editor had been delighted by his enterprise.

After national service in the RAF, he returned to work in Glasgow on the Evening Times and Scottish Daily Express until he got a call from then editor of the Sunday Mail, Sandy Webster, who offered a few more pounds a week.

His success on the Mail led to his appointment as deputy editor of the Daily Record, where his editorial production skills helped oversee the introduction of Europe’s first national newspaper colour presses in a new headquarters at Andertson Quay.

He became editor of the Sunday Mail in 1981, succeeding Clive Sandground, and immediately ushered in a new discipline and editorial style. He invented ideas such as “20 Things You Need To Know” and themed news nuggets. There was a new excitement about the paper and circulation began to rise dramatically.

When Robert Maxwell bought the papers two years later and started interfering by writing crazed editorial leaders, Endell needed all his canny ability to keep him at bay. He developed techniques which offered solutions instead of problems.

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“That’s a wonderful idea, Bob,” he would tell Maxwell before adding: “But think how much better it could be if we do it this way.”

Maxwell, usually exasperated, would finally hang up shouting: “On your head be it!”

Unlike other Mirror Group editors, Endell survived despite the demands of Maxwell as sales of the Sunday Mail hit one million with a serialised glossy magazine The Story of Scotland.

He was appointed editor-in-chief of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail in 1988, replacing Bernard Vickers, much to the disappointment of many staff.

Promoted to the London board, Endell always made a point of sitting on the same side of the table as Maxwell, two chairs down. Others who sat in Maxwell’s firing line to deliberately ingratiate themselves usually did not last long.

Perhaps his biggest victory was during another strike in 1986 when Maxwell ordered barbed wire to be erected around Anderston Quay to protect the plant from any militancy or sabotage. Maxwell was determined to end the journalists’ four-day week but he also proposed changing the name of the Record to the Daily Mirror in an attempt to boost the Mirror by another near 800,000 copies a day to overtake the sale of the Sun.

Endell stuck his neck out and, along with the unions, successfully made the case that such a move would end in disaster. He argued that Daily Mirror was not a title which Scots would accept and, instead of rising, sales would plummet.

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Maxwell, of course, told the unions that it was Endell’s idea. “I’m here to help you… unlike your editor in Glasgow.”

As a result, Endell was criticised, disliked and often mimicked by those journalists he had inherited but adored by those he had recruited or worked well with.

He had a instinct, a shrewdness and a single-minded editorial judgment which was more right than wrong. He was a patriotic Scot who loved his country and loved his newspapers. He felt it was his duty to protect them and to help them prosper – goals he undoubtedly achieved. Malcolm Speed, who spent seven years as news editor of the Daily Record under his editorship, said: “Endell Laird had his finger on the pulse and knew exactly what readers wanted. He made serious news popular and popular news serious and I was delighted to be a part of it.

“The average daily sale of the Record under his editorship was more than 770,000, a sale which will never be repeated.”

When Maxwell was found drowned in November 1991 after disappearing from his yacht, and later exposed as a crook who stole the Mirror Group pension fund, there was no-one more disappointed and shocked than Endell Laird.

Former Record columnist Tom Brown said: “Many were surprised that Endell did not receive recognition in any honours list for his papers’ campaigns for charity and Scottish interests. It was believed that the Robert Maxwell connection counted against him.”

Under a new regime, Endell retired from the Daily Record in 1994 aged 60, to pursue his love of travel, painting, reading, hill-walking, gardening and family.

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He died aged 81 in Lillyburn Care home surrounded by his wife June, daughters Susan and Jackie and son David after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.

His funeral service will take place tomorrow at 11am at Glasgow Crematorium, Maryhill.