John McLellan: Weighing up Alex Salmond's bid to become JP chair

As the director of the Scottish newspaper industry's trade association, it is not usually my role to comment on the comings and goings in the boardrooms of the companies I am paid to represent, but in writing this weekly column about Scottish media matters it would be very hard to ignore the move to install ex-SNP leader Alex Salmond as chairman of Johnston Press.

Johnston Press Chief Executive Ashley Highfield. Picture: TSPL

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Alex Salmond joins bid to take control of Johnston Press group

My conflicts of interest in this story are almost too many to mention, but I’ll give it a go. I’ve been shouted at by Mr Salmond, had a laugh with him, and negotiated with him, I’ve been editor of all the Edinburgh papers, I’m a columnist in two of them and I’m an Edinburgh Conservative councillor. On the other hand, in 2012 I was dismissed by the current Johnston Press management, although the very fact this column appears shows we’ve buried the hatchet.

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Mr Salmond is being lined up as chair of JP should activist investor Christen Ager-Hanssen succeed in taking control of the company, which, given he and his supporters control under a third of the shareholding, is not a certainty. For Mr Salmond, it’s a deal which promises him a handsome position in a high-profile company, a six-figure salary for working a few days a month, and apparent control of the one newspaper title from which the Nationalist community has long expected support.

Not for nothing did Mr Salmond this week claim friendship with the great ­editor of the 1960s, Sir Alastair Dunnett, although any contact would presumably have been in Sir Alastair’s subsequent time in the oil industry, given he left The Scotsman when Mr Salmond was only 18.

If Mr Ager-Hanssen has recruited Mr Salmond as a profile-raiser for his bid he has certainly succeeded, but whether Mr Salmond has the right credentials for the chairmanship of a company like Johnston Press is another thing.

In his favour, as First Minister, Mr ­Salmond seemed to value the role of the press even if he didn’t like what it printed, regularly speaking at press events and stepping back from draconian press ­controls recommended by the McCluskey Commission he established in the wake of the Leveson inquiry. But that was before he lost the referendum and his seat, and in recent months the mask has slipped. “The press are largely despised, not just because of what they write, but also because of what they don’t write and the ignorance, the prejudice that that displays,” he told his Fringe audience in the summer. Nor was his Big Issue interview in August that of a believer in true freedom of expression. “Apart from about six decent political journalists in Scotland, the rest are a waste of space,” he said. “There are some things you just shouldn’t do and running down your country is one of them. I don’t know how they live with themselves.”

Maybe he fancies following ex-Chancellor George Osborne, now editor of the ­London Evening Standard, with direct editorial intervention while doing lots of other jobs. The hours might be similar but editing is light years away from being the main scrutineer of business decisions ­taken by the executive directors.

Of his ability to bluster his way through board meetings I have little doubt, but if it did come off the real power would be ­experienced Norwegian News executive Kjell Aamot, who is already on the board, and Steve Auckland, the veteran news boss Ager-Hanssen has lined up to join him.

Pundits on share comment websites are already sceptical about Mr Salmond’s involvement, not helped by him speaking almost entirely about The Scotsman when JP’s interests are far wider, and the challenges it and all news organisations face are far deeper than the print run of one title.

Saying the Yorkshire Post should put Yorkshire first only stated the blindingly obvious, as is the fact that being more pro-Scotland isn’t the same as being more pro-independence or SNP. Neither is much of a basis for a business plan.

Further, to describe The Scotsman as “irrelevant” doesn’t square with his interest or the attention his involvement has created, never mind the thousands of online readers its stories attract and its recent increase in hard copy sales. He would instantly become a lightning rod for everything that goes wrong and in a ­murderously complex and fast-changing ­digital business environment that’s plenty. Problems would therefore be magnified.

Political opponents would pounce on every misplaced comma and typo in every paper as evidence of his incompetence, while ­every pro-SNP story would be condemned as ­puppetry and every critical story interpreted as an embarrassment or a political challenge. Never mind what Mr Salmond does or doesn’t bring to JP, it will do few favours for the party to which Mr Salmond has dedicated his political life.

John McLellan is director of the Scottish ­Newspaper Society