Martin Hannan: A bad news day for our vital craft

JOURNALISM is not a profession. It has no regulatory body, you do not need a degree in the subject to practise it and, unlike professions, there's no set route into journalism, though a qualification does help these days. I have always thought of journalism as a craft. We take words and mould them into readable and intelligible articles which inform people about the world, small and large, around them, hopefully in an interesting or even entertaining manner.

The principal job of a journalist is to sell newspapers, that's true, but on many occasions, indeed too numerous to detail, print journalism has done so much more than report the news – it has changed things. Think Watergate and MPs' expenses for starters.

Yes, some of this trade's practitioners often let the side down, and of course we all know the internet is the future, but newspaper journalism remains hugely important for society and especially for democracy. I would go as far as to say that without a free and inquisitive press, no country could call itself a democracy.

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Yet the very basis of journalism in Scotland, the newspapers which employ them, are under threat from this SNP government – as always when I mention politics, I remind you that I'm an SNP member.

Last week, newspaper executives and union chiefs alike went to the Holyrood parliament to rail against the planned withdrawal of public notices from the Scottish press – a cut of 6m for an already reeling industry, and the equivalent of 250 jobs or more. That's an awful lot of journalists who will not be trained properly or given the vital experience necessary for building a career.

But politicians and public alike will sneer at our special pleading. Before they do, they should consider this: will Google or Yahoo or a zillion websites train people or give them the grounding to be good journalists? Hardly.

I personally have known many fine journalists. Most of whom started in local papers or as apprentices on nationals. In my original Lennox Herald newsroom in Dumbarton more than 30 years ago were David Cameron, now publisher and owner of Connect Communications; Anne Dalrymple, current editor of the Paisley Daily Express; then editor Bill Heaney, who became adviser to First Minister Henry McLeish; Roy Templeton, now media relations chief for BBC Scotland; and news editor Eric Wishart who became probably the most influential Scottish journalist of the present era as the first non-Frenchman to be editor-in-chief of Agence France Press, the world's second largest news agency. (I know what you're thinking – how come I'm such a failure. Well, I'm now on my seventh book and third play, and that's what I always wanted to do. So there.)

I was lucky to work for and with some great journalists. My old boss Andrew Fyall, former director of PR and tourism at Edinburgh District Council, had a stellar career at the Daily Express as a foreign correspondent, covering events as varied as the civil rights marches in the US and the Biafran War.

In his final job at STV he mentored those excellent broadcasters Martin Geissler of ITN and James Matthews of Sky, though he probably spent more time refereeing the "debates" between Jambo Martin and Hibbie Jim.

A mentor of mine, Dougie Middleton, former news editor of this newspaper, taught a whole generation the proper values and skills of a newsgatherer, especially in his later role as lecturer in journalism at Napier University. An earlier lecturer at Napier, Bill Allsopp, was a big influence on me, replete with tales of life in the days when Scotland was capital of the tabloid circulation wars in the 1960s.

In no order, I can recall admiring the work over the decades of many still extant journalistic colleagues such as Magnus Linklater, Ian Bell, Neil Ascherson, Harry Reid, Robbie Dinwoodie, Alan Cochrane, Ruth Wishart, Allan Massie, Rab McNeil, and Willie Paul. I'd add myself, of course, and bet that XI against any team of journalists anywhere, and if I've left anybody out it's just because of space considerations.

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From a different era there was Max McAuslane, the former editor of this newspaper, who died last week. It's an insult to his memory that this plan is even under consideration, and he would have fought it all the way.

I haven't mentioned any sporting hacks because I have to work with them at weekends, or present-day employees at this company to spare their blushes, though I will say they broke the mould after John Gibson was made.

Don't forget the many fine current Scottish broadcasters who started out "in the print"; for example Andrew Marr, Andrew Neil, James Naughtie, Gavin Esler. The late Magnus Magnusson was famously a combative reporter in Glasgow.

In my book the greatest all-round Scottish journalist and broadcaster of them all was James Cameron, and though he was actually born in London to Scottish parents, he began his career here in Scotland on the Weekly News. His memoir Point of Departure is a magnificent inspirational work that shows why journalism is important.

And it is important. Journalists do have a special role to play and the vast majority in our craft do it well. But if the bedrock that engendered this kind of journalist is eroded even partly by a blinkered government, a vital link in the democratic chain will break.

We may not be a profession, but most of us are professionals, and that is why the Scottish Government's plan for public notices is a serious threat not just to our journalism but to Scottish society as a whole. It must not stand.