In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: An Old Hack raises a Ne’erday glass to the ‘old days’

SADLY, no reporter on any newspaper in Scotland will be reaching into his desk drawer this Ne’erday to pull out a bottle of Scotch and pour a celebratory dram for his newsroom colleagues.

Apart from the fact that journalists do not have much to celebrate as we hurtle towards 2011 – falling circulations, compulsory redundancies, newsprint price hikes – the culture of our newspaper offices has changed, changed utterly.

It is almost as if the late, great Jimmy Reid’s ‘there will be no bevvying’ speech at the inception of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders has been taken to heart by the scribes who reported it. And by the snappers who captured the moment on two and a quarter square, black and white negatives with their Rolliflex cameras.

That is not the case at all, of course. There has been no New Year’s resolution, no conversion on the road to Dumbarton. It was technology wot done it. And left us all high – and dry.

It will be 50 years come next July since I first walked through the doors of Beaverbrook’s black palace in Albion Street to take up my post as a back-shift copy boy in the third floor editorial department of the old Scottish Daily Express. I have worked in and around newspapers ever since.

This warren of partitioned offices, filing cabinets and stretch after stretch of dark green desks was situated one floor above the caseroom and one floor below the advertising department, where all those good looking young women worked.

The Accounts Department, where you collected your (substantial) expenses was on the first floor. Circulation was on the fifth and the Press Room and Despatch on the ground with various out-offices for Malcolm Handyside’s street sales and Eddie McKenna’s car hire in tenements on the opposite side of the street.

Although it was a 2pm start for me – the ‘two till when’ shift – I observed immediately on my way into the building a steady stream of people shouldering their way between the Express front door and the Press Bar, just a few feet along the pavement in the direction of George Street.

There really were, in those days, reporters and photographers in crumpled suits and dirty raincoats and compositors in ink-stained aprons throwing down drams of Scotch whisky and half pints of beer in quick succession in ‘Tom’s’ public house.

Before long – mostly – they were heading back upstairs to get on with their work of producing a newspaper to strict deadlines which sold in excess of 700,000 copies a day.

There was one ‘elderly’ features writer who linked his thumb behind his tie to steady his trembling hand sufficiently to skilfully guide a brandy and port from the bar counter up to his mouth. We cubs watched in awe as he completed this feat which he swore was a sure-fire cure for his raging hangover.

That kind of romance has been taken out of newspapers now, and it’s probably just as well for the journalists – if not for the readers who have quit in their droves.

It was first encountered in films like The Front Page, in which Hildy Johnson, a court reporter, lands a major scoop when he stumbles into and interviews exclusively a man who has escaped from custody after being convicted of murder.

But that doesn’t happen now. Former Fleet Street editors, Derek Jameson and Rosie Boycott. told an end-of-the-year Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this week that they remembered the adrenalin-inducing buzz of the old newsrooms; the smell of ink and copy paper and paste, of cigarette smoke and beer and whisky. They fondly recalled how reporters spent much of their time in pubs and remembered when journalists actually went out of the office and met their readers.

All that’s gone. Like copy down the chute, it’s ‘so last century’. The newsrooms of today are clinically clean and silent. Rows of computers are lined up in gently-purring rows in smoke-free zones. Health and safety laws prevent anyone with their breath smelling of Advocaat, never mind fine Islay malt, from sitting down to do their work. And not many people get out on a job.

So, this weekend as the New Year and a new decade dawns we raise a glass to those so-called Good Old Days and to the men and women who have gone before:

Here’s tae us

Wha’s like us

No’ many

An’ they’re a’ deid

Many of them are indeed “a’ deid”. The old hacks in their waistcoats and eyeshades have gone to the ‘Great Newsroom in the Sky’ where there are still typewriters, proper copy paper and carbon sheets, metal spikes, shouts of “Copy down”, the nightly thunder of rolling presses and the heady odour of printer’s ink.

We wish today’s newspapers well for the New Year, of course. But for those who can’t hack it any more I am reliably informed by sources who claim to be close to the deity that there are permanent, pensionable posts on the Divine Times. And that there is a heavenly bar on Cloud 9 where St Thomas, St Leo and St Desmond are in charge, and where they still cash cheques and there is not one computer in evidence.

Believe – and have a Happy New Year.

Bill Heaney is a former award-winning editor of the Lennox Herald and special adviser to First Minister, Henry McLeish. He was also for four years media adviser to the chair of the Treasury Select Committee. Heaney is an Emeritus Editor of the Society of Editors (Scotland) and a Life Member of the National Union of Journalists. He is now a media consultant.