Obituary: John Milne, journalist

John Milne: Respected journalist who presented Good Morning Scotland and Newsnight Scotland. Picture: BBC
John Milne: Respected journalist who presented Good Morning Scotland and Newsnight Scotland. Picture: BBC
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Born: 13 May, 1942, in Dundee. Died: 15 July, 2014, in Dundee, aged 72

For 40 years John Milne was an integral part of journalism in Scotland, upholding its best traditions with a cool and dispassionate understanding of how to treat a news story. He became known and respected throughout Scotland when he served as the first presenter of Good Morning Scotland (GMS) on BBC Radio Scotland and that reputation was much enhanced when he moved to the chair of Reporting Scotland for ten years during the 1980s and 1990s. He then brought his wide knowledge of current affairs and social and political life to Newsnight Scotland. On air Milne gave the appearance of a relaxed and genial host. In fact he was a total professional and a fine interviewer. He was never rude or badgering but quietly, and always courteously, ensured his questions were answered.

Milne worked for BBC Scotland for 36 years and covered major national and international stories.

One tragedy that demonstrated Milne’s ability to remain calm was the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988. He gave news updates to BBC Scotland all night and captured the event with a steely commitment. Similarly, at the Pan Am jumbo jet explosion of the same year in Lockerbie he was rushed to the town to provide on-the-spot updates. He reported to camera near the crash site, from the high street and from the stricken homes of residents.

His stories were flashed round the world. Milne interviewed one resident who woefully mumbled: “It was virtually raining fire – it was just liquid fire.” The two were visibly moved. Later Milne covered the many memorial services at Locherbie with unerring sensitivity and understanding.

Ken MacQuarrie, director of BBC Scotland, said yesterday: “John was renowned for the excellence of his journalism over the many years he worked at BBC Scotland. Throughout his long career here, he maintained the highest journalistic standards, becoming a familiar face and voice to our audiences as presenter of programmes such as Reporting Scotland, Good Morning Scotland and Newsnight Scotland.”

John Milne attended Harris Academy in his native Dundee and his first job was with DC Thomson before he moved to The Scotsman to become a general reporter and sub-editor. To his great delight he covered in 1967 the historic match between Berwick Rangers and the mighty Glasgow Rangers. Milne particularly enjoyed recording Berwick Rangers’ 1-0 victory.

Milne was keen to get into the broadcast media and in the late 1960s took up a post with the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, which was setting up an English language news service in Berne.

In 1971 he joined BBC Scotland – initially working in Aberdeen as a reporter. He replaced the fondly remembered Donnie MacLeod, who had moved to Birmingham to co-host the lunchtime magazine programme, Pebble Mill at One.

In 1973 Milne moved to the BBC offices in Glasgow and on Hogmanay 1973 was the launch presenter with David Findlay of GMS. The programme was largely modelled on Radio 4’s Today programme and consisted of regular news bulletins and sporting, travel and business updates. Milne ensured the topicality was maintained and, while it focused on Scotland and Scottish affairs, he insisted that it never became inward-looking or insular.

Milne had around him a group of expert newsmen and women who set the agenda throughout Scotland and started many fiery discussions at the nation’s breakfast tables.

Such characters as Bill Jack, Magnus Magnusson, Joanna Hickson, Haig Gordon, Neville Garden and Mary Marquis gained a reputation for integrity and balanced reporting. But it also had moments of dry humour that provided a balance to heavier news items. Milne was a vital factor in the success of the programmes and one colleague recalls that “John was from the older school of journalists and a stickler for accuracy”.

For a decade in the 1980s and 90s Milne was seen on Reporting Scotland. He formed a close partnership with Mary Marquis and the two worked well together. The programme’s importance was recognised when it became the on-screen identity for all BBC Scotland’s television news bulletins.

Milne was then a member of the original launch team of the BBC flagship programme, Newsnight Scotland, and was subsequently involved in the indepth reporting and presenting of the programme. It initiated enquiries into the mounting cost of the construction of the Holyrood parliament and held informed discussions into the early stages of the forthcoming independence referendum.

Milne was also the voice that brought to the nation the reopening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Milne was a man of vision, concern and understanding. He was generous with his time and assistance to new members of the reporting staff at BBC Scotland and was always available with advice regarding an interview or how to treat a breaking news story.

Atholl Duncan, the former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, told The Scotsman yesterday: “John was the consummate professional, authoritative broadcast journalist. As a TV and radio presenter he was the model of cool and calm. As a political interviewer he could stand toe to toe with the best.

“His voice brought the modern history of Scotland to generations of viewers and listeners to BBC Scotland and his passing is a sad loss to all those who believe in the impartial, accurate journalism of which John was a master.”

John Milne had lived with his family both in Edinburgh and Glasgow but after he retired aged 65 he returned to Dundee. He claimed he was a Celtic supporter although his family think, in fact, he was a closet Dundee United fan.

Milne worked quietly and with a dedicated passion on behalf of the Aberlour Child Care Trust and served on the panel for children in Glasgow. He was a keen golfer and an accomplished musician who played the violin and clarinet.

He is survived by his wife Jennifer, their two sons, Grigor and Jonathan, and six grandchildren.