Between the two newspaper-owning families in my native town, the Johnstons and the Mackies, there was a state of muted hostility – mostly on the part of the Mackies, owners of the underdog Falkirk Mail, for whom I worked as their cub reporter in the early 1960s. It is only now, at a distance of more than a half a century, that I have come to realise that one of my memories of the period is false.
The memory is of being asked by the editor/proprietor to attend at the gates of the local cemetery to observe the arrival of the cortege bearing the remains of the rival magnate, Old Man Johnston of the mighty Falkirk Herald. I don't recall whether I was asked to provide a record of this auspicious occasion; maybe my presence was merely ambassadorial. A somewhat macabre assignment, perhaps, but I thought nothing of it at the time; life for this 16-year-old straight out of school was full of such curiosities.
Last week, when I was digging around for this column, I stumbled on an astonishing piece of information. Old Man Johnston did not die in 1962, the year I stood at the cemetery gates, but 11 years later. I have an impeccable authority for this: his son, Young Fred, who returned to Falkirk in 1962, giving up a promising career in newspaper management in London to help with the long-established family business.
'I was ambitious,' Young Fred explains in a book. 'Then I teamed up with Tom [McGowran, the company's general manager] and between us
persuaded my father to do many things that he would not have done in the past, such as bidding for other newspapers.' Help! I must belatedly be open to the fact that when Old Man Johnston set his son on the takeover trail, he was alive at the time. So whose coffin was it in 1962 if it was not Old Man Johnston's? I undertake, so to speak, to return to that troubling question.
By 1973, the actual year of the patriarch's departure, Young Fred had
established, by a process of acquisition, an impressive chain of local papers in central Scotland. Five years later, emboldened by early success, he made a move into England with the purchase of the Derbyshire Times for £1.5m. And then, with the flotation of his company on the stock exchange in 1988, he embarked on a spectacular spending spree, snapping up newspapers anywhere in Britain and Ireland that he could lay his hands on them.
The shareholders seemed not to care that it was all being done with bank loans. At a time when local papers were a fairly safe bet, producing a handsome return on investment, it must have felt like a sound business strategy. Only in retrospect did such unrestrained growth start to look reckless.
The concentration of so much power in one man's hands – even a man so
evidently benign as Young Fred – didn’t seem to be an issue either. On the few occasions it emerged as a talking point, the Johnston Press gave a breezy assurance that all the newspapers in the group (around 200 at the latest count) enjoyed complete editorial independence and that standards were being protected.
Yet standards fell, not just in the Johnston group but throughout the local press. The journalism became steadily coarser. Council meetings – once the staple diet and for very good reasons – were not reported with the same vigilance or attention to detail and, as a result, local democracy suffered. There was a tendency to sensationalise and demonise, a spicing up of minor stories, an emphasis on the salacious. When the internet came along, it did more than expose the financial vulnerability of the local press; it laid bare a basic loss of journalistic credibility.
And there was a deeper problem still. The great migration of advertising online, and the calamitous fall in classified revenue, might have been mitigated had the local paper still been regarded as the genuinely local institution it once was. But in many towns in Britain, it had ceased to be part of the community; a paper owned hundreds of miles away, printed at a remote plant, whose proprietor was invisible and seen as unaccountable, was no longer ‘local’ in any meaningful sense. The community felt no real investment in its future.
Young Fred appeared not to recognise any of this. If only he had stayed in Falkirk, confining his expansionist dreams to the creation of the Cumbernauld News and the nurturing of the Grangemouth Advertiser. Instead, his Johnston Press went on borrowing, borrowing, borrowing, until, five years after he stepped down from the chair, the company made the fatal miscalculation of splashing out £160m – money it didn’t have – in a vainglorious plunge into the national newspaper market. It bought the Scotsman group from the Barclay Brothers.
The rest is bad, depressing history. The company is no longer based in Falkirk, the main centre of its operation being Cavendish Square, London, and it is managed by a man who sounds like a minor character from a Jane Austen novel. In 2014, his first year as chief executive, Ashley Highfield (a former BBC executive) received £1.65m in pay and bonuses, rather more than Young Fred paid for the whole of the Derbyshire Times. Fees to 'advisers' the same year totalled £21m – £7m more than the company's current stock market valuation.
Despite the generously rewarded efforts of Mr Highfield and his advisers, various attempts at 'restructuring', and wholesale redundancies, mainly of the editorial functionaries who fill the spaces between the few remaining ads, the Johnston Press remains a chronic embarrassment to the City of London. Its share price is derisory; its cash in bank is sometimes alarmingly low; and it is shouldering a bond debt of £220m that it has no very obvious way of refinancing.
Surprise, surprise, the shareholders are more than a little restless. A predatory Norwegian is circling, poised to make a decisive move, while the company's largest investor, Crystal Amber, says it has no confidence in the present management's ability to turn the ailing ship around. Even Alex Salmond – well, especially Alex Salmond – thinks he could do a better job of owning the Scotsman. Sadly, however, his consortium – like any other – would be crippled from the start by being landed with a share of the Johnston Press's colossal liability.
Young Fred's first acquisition, back in 1962-63, was the Kirkintilloch Herald and Milngavie and Bearsden Herald. He picked up this brace of titles for £20,000: petty cash by today's standards; not a great deal even then. He should have stopped there. Old Man Johnston, if only he hadn't died in 1962, would surely have prevailed on his son to venture no further than Bearsden Cross.
But now I know that the old man didn't die in 1962; that he lived to be a party to the expansionism that has ended in humiliation for the family. Which leaves me pondering who or what was being buried that day in Falkirk long ago. Was it some other member of the Johnston clan whose arrival at the cemetery – short of opening the coffin lid – the Mackies wished to have confirmed to their complete satisfaction? Or – unsettling, this possibility – did I somehow imagine an incident that subsequently lodged in my memory? That same year, 1962, the Falkirk Mail folded, the Cuban missile crisis threatened the nuclear annihilation of the human race, and young Fred came marching over the border to claim his inheritance. One way and another, it was the stuff of nightmare.