Scotsman Obituaries: Freddy Johnston, proprietor of Johnston Press

Freddy Johnston, newspaper proprietor. Born: September 15 1935 in Edinburgh. Died: May 1 2022, aged 86

Freddy Johnston, a newspaper proprietor whose family firm once owned The Scotsman, has died, aged 86.

The fourth-generation of his family to be involved with newspapers, Freddy often said he had newspapers in his blood.

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He has been described as a “leading light in the newspaper industry and a much-loved character” by his peers.

At one point Freddy Johnston oversaw 200 daily and weekly newspapers (Picture: Bill Henry)

Through his leadership the firm of F Johnston & Company grew from a handful of Scottish titles to one which commanded 200 daily and weekly newspapers the length and breadth of the country.

But Freddy Johnston was no hard-nosed hack or media mogul. He was a gentle, dignified man who regularly made time to speak with the journalists, printers and other staff involved in the production of his newspapers.

He was always interested in the issues affecting the communities these papers served and would join in discussions about what was going to be on the front page to attract readers when the next edition hit the newsstand.

Born in Edinburgh on September 15, 1935, Frederick Patrick Mair was the eldest child of Fred Johnston and his wife Muriel Kathleen, known as Kay. The family lived in Woodville House in Ladysmill, Falkirk, and when it was requisitioned by the Canadian Army during the Second World War, Fred moved his family to Dunblane and then to Crieff, where Freddy went to Morrisons Academy.

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As with so many others of his generation, Freddy was required to do National Service, initially joining the Perthshire regiment, the Black Watch, before being sent for officer training with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. From there he was seconded to the 4th Battallion of the King’s African Rifles.

He loved his time in the Army and due to the Suez Crisis spent longer than the obligatory two years.

Much of his time was spent in Uganda, where his regimental sergeant major was a certain Idi Amin, who would go on to become the president and de facto military dictator of that country. Freddy became fluent in Swahili, not something many of his contemporaries did but he thought it was important to be able to converse with the local people.

On his return to civilian life, he had a brief stint at the Falkirk Herald before going to read history at New College Oxford.

After graduating he took a journalist role with the Liverpool Post and Echo, then joined Times Newspapers in London as assistant company secretary.

It was while there that he was to meet the woman who would be his partner for over 60 years.

Ann Jones, originally from mid-Wales, was working in London as a home economist, and the pair were introduced at a leaving party for one of Freddy’s colleagues.

They married in 1961 and the following year their first son Michael was born.

The family were living in a maisonette in Wimbledon when Fred Johnston approached his son about coming back to work for the family firm as works manager.

Although the salary was less than he was currently earning, there was a house in Hodge Street, Falkirk, which went with the job.

And so the family headed north and in 1964 the couple’s second son, Robert, was born.

Sadly, Fred senior was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 1973 with the chairman’s role at F Johnston & Co. passing to his eldest son.

Under his charge, and ably assisted by his managing director Tom McGowran, the company made its first foray south of the Border to buy the Derbyshire Times, the second-largest selling weekly newspaper in England at that time. Further acquisitions followed in Yorkshire, Sussex and the Midlands.

In fact, the pair were always looking for newspapers to add to the stable and one day, while trying to strike a deal for advertising with a cinema, they bought the local newspaper.

The original part of the company became Johnston (Falkirk) Ltd in 1983.

Five years later the parent firm became Johnston Press plc and was floated on the London Stock Exchange.

It continued to make acquisitions north and south of the Border and in Ireland.

Freddy announced his retirement in 2001 but remained on the board. In 2006 the company bought The Scotsman .

Son Michael said his father had always loved newspapers, adding that he was immensely proud of The Scotsman’s sister publication, the Falkirk Herald – F Johnston & Co’s first publication – and the family business.

He said: “He had been born into journalism: it was in his blood. At that time Scotland was made up of family run newspapers and everyone knew each other.”

Freddy and Ann had moved from Hodge Street to Main Street, Brightons, Falkirk, which was to be their home for many years before they moved to Edinburgh in 1980. Later they moved to Ludlow in Shropshire and, more recently, Wimbledon.

After a period of ill health, Freddy died peacefully in hospital on May 1.

He is survived by wife Ann, sons Michael and Robert, their partners Claire and Nick, and grandchildren Kathleen, Patrick, Angus and Grace.

Freddy was predeceased by his brother Jim and sister Patricia. His brother Harry, who was also involved in the family business, now lives in Gibraltar.

His funeral service will be at North East Surrey Crematorium in Wimbledon at 11.20am on Friday 10 June.

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