Profile: Angus MacLeod – From prefabs in Plasterfield to editing ‘The Times’

‘The Times’ Scottish editor Angus MacLeod died on Tuesday following a short illness. Here we share Brian Wilson’s Profile of Mr MacLeod from May 2013.

 

The new editor of ‘The Times’ in Scotland describes himself modestly as “the poor man’s Magnus Linklater”, in deference to the previous incumbent’s breeding in the school of gentlemen journalists.

Angus MacLeod, in marked contrast, comes from Plasterfield and has reached his present position via the Nicolson Institute, a long march through the foothills of Scottish newspapers, broadsheet and tabloid, as well as a predestined showdown with his own demons.

His parents were from Shawbost, his father a warper in MacKenzie’s mill. In the great post-war housing crisis, they were among the homeless who became squatters in the Nissan huts at Stornoway aerodrome, vacated by departing troops. Already with two children, they were allocated a tenancy in the Plasterfield prefabs on the outskirts of the town.

Angus was a late arrival and spent his formative years there: “It tended to be looked down on by the Stornoway people but to me Plasterfield is still the best example of what community is about. Everyone knew each other and helped each other. I went to Sandwickhill Primary, then the Nicolson and have nothing but good memories.”

His older brothers had eclectic interests for Lewis of that era – ranging from the songs of Woodie Guthrie to cricket – and that helped to influence his own horizons. The parents were very much education-oriented, along with the other common Hebridean assumption that in order to get on, their children should get out. The eldest brother, Norman, became a lecturer in English Language and Literature at Edinburgh University while Alan had a successful career with Marks and Spencer. Both are now retired. Unlike Angus, they are fluent Gaelic speakers because they were “closer to the Shawbost background”. His own status is “lapach” – the product of both “unbelievable” Stornoway hostility at that time and the assumption that English was the language of education and progress.

He identifies Alan Whiteford, the former depute rector of the Nicolson Institute, as the man who steered him towards journalism. In fifth year at the Nicolson, Alan involved both Neil Munro and himself in a school newspaper called ‘Pupil’. For both of these lifelong friends, the seeds of future careers were sown.

At Edinburgh University, Angus did some work on the student newspaper – “reporting the Second XI against Civil Service Strollers in the back of beyond”. But it was only as he approached graduation that the career option became attractive. He saw an advert for the Thomson Regional Newspaper training scheme and, having been accepted, followed a well-trodden journalistic route to Newcastle for a grounding that has stood him in good stead.
He then joined the ‘Scotsman’, which was part of Lord Thomson’s empire, but was soon dispatched to London “at a time when the ‘Scotsman’ still had a real presence there” to become its general news reporter. This threw him into covering huge stories like the Jeremy Thorpe trial and the Libyan Embassy siege – heady stuff for a Stornoway lad, still in his twenties.

In retrospect, Angus thinks that he travelled too far, too quickly and was not ready for it. And maybe that led to a more sociable lifestyle than was advisable. “I freely admit that I developed a taste for the booze at that time. I suppose that the combination of being a man from the islands in a profession like journalism had all the necessary ingredients. That created a lot of health problems over the years which, thankfully, have disappeared.”

His next career stop was at the short-lived ‘Sunday Standard’, set up as an off-shoot of the ‘Glasgow Herald’ in 1981 under the editorship of Charlie Wilson, who went on to become editor of ‘The Times’. The ‘Sunday Standard’ was top-heavy with highly-paid veterans of the Scottish newspaper scene and was launched during an advertising recession. It lasted for two years and Angus went freelance.

This proved to be quite a rich seam, mainly in the service of London-based newspapers which were thinly staffed in Scotland. But in 1986, he opted for the security of the post as political editor at the ‘Sunday Mail’ where he stayed for more than a decade. During this tenure, the biggest decision he took was a personal one – his last drop of alcohol was consumed in 1991.

His next move was to the ‘Scottish Daily Express’, just after the 1997 General Election. “It was still a real newspaper then” – but when, in 2001, ownership passed to the pornographer, Richard Desmond, he knew it was time to get out. On the day he left the ‘Express’ he was offered a job by ‘The Times’ and has been there ever since, writing mainly about Scottish politics in which no man is better versed.

Having put his lifestyle problems firmly behind him, he married Jan in 1999. “She is from South Yorkshire, near Doncaster, and worked in the NHS all her career – all the qualifications necessary to keep me firmly grounded.”

‘The Times’ does a “Scottish edition” better than any of the other UK heavies and currently sells 20,000 printed copies each day in Scotland. But that is far from being the whole story. One thing Rupert Murdoch definitely did get right was the decision to put the journalism of ‘The Times’ and ‘Sunday Times’ behind a pay-wall so that everyone who reads it also pays for it. Angus says that much of their current effort is going into developing app subscriptions which represent an increasingly popular way of reading newspapers.
The combination of world and UK news from ‘The Times’, with a decent level of Scottish news, features and sports, has proved effective. One way and another, it is reasonable to assume that the Scottish edition of ‘The Times’ is pretty much as widely read as either ‘The Herald’ or ‘Scotsman’, both of which have suffered calamitous falls in circulation over the past decade.
‘The Herald’, he says, “has given up all pretence of being anything other than a very local paper” while Angus is convinced that it has been a folly on the part of Scottish newspapers – particularly his old employer, the ‘Scotsman’ – to keep giving away on-line content for free. “If journalism is worth anything”, he says, “it must be given a value and allowing access to content without charging is a highly specialised form of suicide.”

Being a News International journalist has not, he admits, been comfortable over the past couple of years as the phone-hacking revelations unfolded. “But it’s important to emphasise that none of that happened at ‘The Times’. It was a bit like the banking crisis – people who believed they were Masters of the Universe overstepped the mark and were laid low as a result.”
He has met Murdoch “a couple of times” and confirms his close interest in both Scottish heritage and current political developments. There has, however, been no evidence of interference in editorial policy.
“ ‘The Times’ always has been, and will continue to be, a unionist newspaper. But that does not mean we will not give fair coverage to both sides in the referendum debate.
“Our style is not to shout abuse at the SNP but to insist that questions are answered. What they are proposing is revolutionary and they must expect close scrutiny. For example, if someone asks if their pension would be secure after independence, they are entitled to an answer. There is no point in berating them for talking Scotland down. That is not going to impress them.”

A regular and astute broadcaster, Angus has probably the most recognisably Stornowegian voice on the airwaves. His links with his native island have, however, become more tenuous as his immediate family has either died or moved away over the past few decades – “though I still have plenty of second cousins”.

Last August, he returned for a Nicolson Institute reunion with some trepidation about how many people he would know or would recognise him. His concerns were not borne out by events. “Not just at the reunion but walking along Cromwell Street, I was very pleasantly surprised by how many people had a friendly word with me.
“Maybe that was due more to the summers I spent as a barman in the old Neptune and the Caley public than to anything I have done since then.”