John MacKay and a generation of change in Scotland

‘Where does John MacKay sit?’

The seating arrangements of the STV newsroom are a source of curiosity for some, and often the first question posed when it is discovered that you work for the broadcaster. There is an assumption that the presenter is enthroned in an opulent office on the top floor, deigning only to receive emissaries bearing fresh coffee — “it had better be piping hot!” — and the latest run of meaningful-stare head shots for autographing.

In fact, MacKay works from a desk in the newsroom with the rest of the STV staff.

The workday of a TV presenter is a flurry of news conferences, production meetings, location lives, and studying the newswires and research briefs but if you want to find MacKay, your surest bet is to ask where that week’s work experience placement is. The STV News at Six anchor is without presumption, generous with his time, and goes out of his way to encourage young and aspiring journalists.

There are telly people and people who work in telly and while MacKay is the very model of professionalism he definitely falls into the latter category. You’ll struggle to find anyone with a bad word to say about him, a near-miracle in this blue-aired steamie of an industry. “Trust”. “Hard work”. “Professional”. These words are common to the descriptions offered by colleagues past and present.

But if I’m honest, I’m not sure where he sits. I’ve worked with him for five years now and though he is amiable and invites familiarity — my shtick is teasing him about his age, fondness for blue ties and his politics (or what I’m convinced his politics are) — the man six desks down can seem very far away.

Diaries

I hoped to get a better understanding when I sat down with him to talk about his new book. Notes of a Newsman: Witness to a Changing Scotland is the product of 30 years of diary-keeping, 20 of them spent reporting and latterly presenting on STV. It is not the gossipy insider’s account that some will be hoping for; these are MacKay’s observations of how the news covered political and social transformations across three decades, peppered with judicious behind-the-scenes anecdotes. It is a reporter’s notebook thrown open — tidied up a bit — but exudes the warm authority for which the author is known.

MacKay felt the need to lay down a marker on a generation of change and upheaval in Scottish life.

“The day of the referendum result was my 20th anniversary at STV. It struck me that when I joined STV, no one would have ever foreseen an independence referendum and they certainly wouldn’t have foreseen it being as close as it was.

“You might have seen a Scottish Parliament, because that was being spoken about, but that’s probably as far as it would have gone. The idea behind a Scottish Parliament, according to Labour at the time, was that it would ‘kill nationalism stone dead’.

“So I was struck by how things had changed. I’ve always kept a diary. I’ve always been a bit of an archivist — keeping significant scripts, significant stories. It struck me that I was in a fairly privileged position, having been a reporter and a presenter, to have experienced an awful lot over that 20 years. So I thought, maybe there’s a book here.”

How did a working-class Glasgow lad end up the face of news, rubbing shoulders with prime ministers and pop stars? Our story begins as all good ones do in the Seventies, that creative breakdown of a decade. MacKay is getting his first taste of news.

“I was a newspaper boy; I delivered the Evening Times for a long time. I always remember getting a slight thrill out of doing that, delivering newspapers, and I remember as a teenager delivering the papers — the ones that stick in my mind are the assassination of Lord Mountbatten and the same year the death of Marc Bolan. That was on the front page of the Evening Times that I was delivering. Particularly the Marc Bolan one because I was a big T-Rex fan so that struck home.”

As is often the case, a teacher was formative in MacKay’s decision to pursue a career in journalism.

“I was inspired by an English teacher in secondary school who did what all good teachers do: She raised my horizons. She noted my enjoyment of English, particularly writing, and said — though she doesn’t remember it herself — had I thought of journalism as a career. I hadn’t. Had I thought of writing a novel? I hadn’t.”

Me: “So the person who inspired you to go into journalism now denies all knowledge of it?”

He laughs. “She doesn’t deny it but she doesn’t remember it.”

Me: “Okay, we won’t read anything into that.”

Beginnings

From his student days, it was clear that MacKay’s news values were geared towards the mass audience.

“I was the editor of the Glasgow University Guardian. I took it more downmarket; I took it more tabloid. My experience at the time was that previous editors had a tendency to fill the front page with columns and columns of their writing. I was of the view that pictures were better so I tried to get more pictures and more stories into it. I wrote for the paper and ultimately edited, writing everything from news to reviews. I thoroughly enjoyed that but it was with a deliberate purpose of becoming a journalist.

“So my first job in journalism was at the Sunday Post newspaper—“

Me: “This was in 1960…”

Scowl. “No, it wasn’t the 1960s, it was 1986.”

Should I tell him this was the year I was born?

No. Enough already.

MacKay did not enjoy academics and the Sunday Post gave him an opportunity to write hard news and features. It was during this time that he trialled for Radio Clyde only to be told he “didn’t have a voice for broadcast”. MacKay shrugged off the knock-back; he wanted to be a print reporter anyway. But after a year at the Post he was applying for another radio gig, this time at BBC Scotland.

His seven years at the Corporation saw him rise from sub-editor to presenter, via duty editor, programme producer, reporter and sports correspondent. When he began to do more TV, Cowcaddens came calling and with the help of a BBC manager who displayed little enthusiasm for him staying MacKay was the newest recruit to STV.

These have been his most fertile years, roughly coinciding with the advent of devolution. First a reporter and then co-presenter, since 2006 he has been the sole anchor of Scotland Today, later rebranded the STV News at Six. In October 2011, he began hosting Scotland Tonight, STV’s four-nightly current affairs programme and a platform suited to someone who admits he’s “interested in politics but not obsessed by politics”. The show dominates the ratings and has won plaudits from politicians and rival broadcasters but MacKay is keen to stress that it’s “a team effort”.

Social media has given him another audience still and on Twitter the 50-year-old (sorry John) adopts the persona of Ron Burgundy, the hapless-suave newscaster of the Anchorman movies. MacKay hams it up but the character complements his sense of humour off-camera, a bounce step of self-deprecation and semi-ironic dad jokes.

“I think if you’re entirely false on TV, your audience see it and won’t like you for it. However, I couldn’t just be me on screen. For me, there has to be an authority there. So I suppose it’s something of an alter ego; it’s based on me. But it is an alter ego. A more authoritative alter ego.

“I tend to enjoy having a laugh at work but you can’t do that on screen. Where that comes out is on social media but there’s a distinct difference between what I am on social media and what I am on air. I think if the social media personality crossed over into the news, that would be bad.”

Wandering Gael

The divided self, that Scottish inheritance handed down from Stevenson, Hogg, and Spark, is present in a deeper sense. There is an inscrutability to MacKay, a distance I have struggled to close with this otherwise open and friendly man. His childhood was “a city background with very heavy Hebridean influences”. When I ask what Gaelic phrase comes most readily to his lips, he replies: “Eilean Leòdhais, eilean mo ghràidh” — Isle of Lewis, isle of my heart. His mother’s roots lie there but he was born and raised in Glasgow, Baile Mòr nan Gàidheal. The Welsh have a word, hiraeth, a heavy-hearted longing for an unrecoverable homeland; what the poet called “the link with the long-forgotten past, the language of the soul, the call from the inner self”. The Gael is an eternal stranger in his own land.

MacKay’s rearing was working class and it is to this that he attributes his journalistic compass.

“I always think that I have a fairly strong and sound news sense. A lot of that is rooted in what I absorbed growing up and I still have a lot of contact with people from that background. So I’m still aware of what concerns them and what their discussions are. I’ve always thought my news sense was pretty sound.”

News is often unpredictable but there’s a comforting reliability to MacKay: He is always the person in the production meeting who challenges the eager nodding of media groupthink. When the STV News at Six works, when its story selection matches your interests, when it provides the right mix of surprise and reassurance, when it accords with your values, it’s often because MacKay won that day.

He would point to the rest of the team — and he would be right — but his influence should not be underestimated. Nothing so vulgar as a populist, he is a martinet for standards and virtue but one with a near-reverence for the concerns of the viewers. Senga from Shettleston thinks differently to Henry from Hyndland.

Bernard Ponsonby is STV’s veteran political editor and has worked alongside MacKay on some of the defining stories of recent years. He tells me that MacKay’s relationship to the audience is forged in trust and respect.

“A lot of what news broadcasts is essentially issue driven or indeed driven by the interests of people who live in bubbles whether they be political or sporting or whatever. John has a keen sense of what the viewers expect from a story and his starting point tends to be, Who is interested in knowing this?

“John is trusted by viewers and that is terribly important. If they don’t trust the presenter who says ‘Good evening’ then they won’t trust much else of what follows.”

MacKay admits he “frequently” reviews his interviews and wishes he’d performed better. His philosophy is: “What did I learn from this, what did the audience learn from this, and were people challenged enough?”

“You’re always looking to do things better. I have fairly high personal standards, I think, so I will push it as far as I can to get these standards on and I think that’s what any good journalist should do. I think as soon as you’re coasting, you need to look at yourself.”

‘This has not happened’

The hardest stories are “anything involving children” and one will always be with him.

“The shot of the wee Syrian kid on the beach is just so sad. That was encapsulated and brought into clear focus by Dunblane. I will never do a story — I hope never to do a story — like Dunblane again. Even driving up to the story, thinking: This is a mistake; this has not happened.

“On the day itself and the days round about it, it was terrible. Seeing the grief in parents, seeing the desperation in parents, running with parents up to the school not knowing whether their children were alive or dead. That was awful.

“Then some months later the inquiry and the first day of evidence there were two police photographers who spoke and they were the first people to speak and that took about 20 minutes. Then the teacher who was in the gymnasium, Eileen Harrild, spoke and that was the most compelling experience I’ve ever had as a reporter.

“It was the first time we knew exactly what happened. It was the first time we’d heard anybody describe it. She spoke about the children lining up outside all very excited about going in for gym and then ten minutes later, she said, there was silence. The screaming and the shooting had stopped.

“That ten minutes… It’s not… You don’t want to think about it.”

The broadcaster and newspaper columnist Shereen Nanjiani, the face of STV News in the 1990s, worked with MacKay for 12 years and for eight of them they shared a desk on the flagship Scotland Today programme. Nanjiani and MacKay were the consummate double act, bringing a chemistry fermented by their shared ethics of hard work and respect for the viewers’ intelligence.

“Probity drives him,” she says of her former co-presenter. “The need to get it right and be fair and never let his own personal views get in the way of the story. He has the ability to connect with the audience and to put himself in their shoes and ask the questions they want asked.

“The fact is that some broadcasters can seem aloof but John has a connection with the viewers. Even when he’s being serious, there’s a twinkle in his eye and people feel they could go have a pint with him.”

Nanjiani adds, and it’s a point raised by everyone I speak to, that he is unmatched on live events and major stories. His coverage of the opening of the Scottish Parliament and the funeral of Donald Dewar are cited as amongst his best work.

Howard Simpson, STV News editor, remembers travelling with MacKay to Auschwitz for the 60th anniversary of the liberation. He recalls: “His observations, on screen presence and scripting delivered an utterly compelling series of reports which brilliantly captured the horror, but also a keen sense of the eerily quiet peace of the camp. The balance in tone was testament to John’s mastery of broadcast news.”

What stands out for me are the live programmes he presented from the scene of the Clutha helicopter disaster in 2013. Sober, understated, sensitive — they are a masterclass in breaking news.

Big Ben

For the man himself, his finest moment came at 10.00pm on September 18, 2014.

“I think STV’s coverage of the referendum was very strong. I think Scotland Tonight’s role in the referendum was key in communicating the various arguments. And I think the pinnacle of my career was when we did a special STV News at Ten from Edinburgh at the moment the polls closed — I mention this in the book — the line, timed to coincide with Big Ben: ‘Big Ben chimes. The polls are now closed. Two capitals await.’ The hairs were standing on the back of my neck. So I would say that’s what I’m proudest of.”

He adds: “This was the biggest story my generation will ever do. This is our country deciding whether we will be independent or not — breaking up arguably a very successful union, certainly an historic union. It doesn’t get any bigger than that for a Scot. I think the whole story was a high point.”

The enthusiasm of the referendum brought with it punishing scrutiny for journalists and media institutions. Some of it was a welcome corrective to aloofness and shared assumptions but many were the demagogues who got in on the action. The BBC — unhelpfully metropolitan, frustratingly popular — was assailed depending on the number of Yes badges in the accuser’s Twitter picture as unconsciously biased, openly anti-Scottish, or a propaganda tool for the British state.

MacKay recognises the institutional problems of the BBC but dismisses the idea that the Corporation takes sides in Scottish politics.

“It was always going to be difficult for them. There is a paternalistic attitude particularly from London so that damaged them a wee bit. But I think the BBC — certainly the people on the ground — were as professional as they could be, tried as well as they could, and were unfairly damned by some of the criticism.

“I’m not here to defend the BBC. There were issues with the network coverage, certainly, but that was a broader issue of bringing people — the star correspondents — into stories that they don’t really get. Not just in Scotland but you see that around the world. So I think that’s where their problems lay.

“In terms of Scotland, you could pick out individual bulletins, individual stories, and maybe say, That was an error here or they had the wrong lead there or that was presented the wrong way. But I think broadly the people at BBC Scotland were professional, impartial and did as honest a job as they could.

“I get a bit weary of hearing about their ‘bias’. There’s another point here: I think it’s disrespectful of other Scots to think they’re swayed by a biased media. I don’t buy that. Over the years, I’ve found the Scottish electorate to be pretty smart and they don’t make the decision based on what they read in papers or what they hear on broadcasts.”

Changes and challenges

The anti-journalism mood has been building over time, seeping up from the dark recesses of Scottish nationalism and the rancid paranoia of the Old Firm. People once resigned to green ink or consigned to the comment threads of the Scotsman website now have their own samizdat network of blogs, videos and podcasts. Their imaginings are as manifold as they are certain but comprise a broad demonology of the mainstream media: The MSM hates Scotland. The MSM hates the left. The MSM hates Celtic/Rangers [delete as appropriate].

“I think people become very partisan and lose sight of what journalism’s meant to be. Journalism is meant to be impartial and because we don’t present a story in the way that somebody partisan thinks we should does not make us biased.

“It’s always been the case with the Old Firm. I think you live with it. It’s unfortunate that it came into the referendum but there’s deeply held views on both sides. I don’t think necessarily both sides were particularly open to other ideas… When they were presented, that was damned as being ‘biased’. That’s part of where we are.”

Discontent with traditional information channels has given rise to the citizen journalist, a phenomenon of mixed blessings. (I’m reminded of a quip from the columnist Euan McColm: “Self-styled citizen journalists should be obliged to have any medical procedures performed by citizen surgeons.”) MacKay voices scepticism about the place of ethics and editorial decision-making in this new media landscape and gives the example of how Twitter responded to the Shoreham air crash.

“I’m slightly concerned by the idea of citizen journalism that, just because you have a phone and a laptop, you can be a journalist. Here’s one example of where citizen journalism and the rise of social media fails. There was a guy going to play a game of football who was killed. His mother, father, grandparents and girlfriend were going to watch the game. Crash happens. They get a text from the football club saying he hasn’t arrived. They then get a text saying, We’re concerned he isn’t here. Then his girlfriend sees his car posted on social media and knows and it’s devastating.

“Professional journalists would have had engagement with the emergency authorities and held fire until the families knew. If you’re going to put it out there all the time, you’re going to cause an awful lot of distress and citizen journalists don’t get that, I don’t think.”

It is this commitment to standards and sound news judgement that runs through MacKay’s career and his diaries. His professional life has spanned the decline of a union and the rebirth of a nation. Scotland has changed and he has changed with it. The fresh face has given way to a weathered jaw and he has gone from the viewers’ son to Scotland’s dad. But he has retained the trust of his audience and his loyalty to them goes undiminished.

That is where he sits: He doesn’t just read the news; he’s a newsman.

Notes of a Newsman: Witness to a Changing Scotland
John MacKay
Paperback, pp. 272 (Luath)

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Daniel by Creative Commons 2.0.

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