In My Opinion: John McLellan: Reflections from the ‘other side of the fence’

IT wasn’t exactly a baptism of fire, but it was a baptism of sorts and it was certainly hot. My first day in political PR after a lifetime in newspapers was marked by former colleague, Hamish Macdonnell, losing control of a cup of tea all down my trouser leg.

My first appointment on my first day as the Scottish Conservatives’ new director of communications was at the launch of Better Together at Craiglockhart, in Edinburgh, and – as a major media event – it meant I would be surrounded by people with whom I’d worked and quite a few I’d employed.

Inevitably, it would be a strange experience to be so obviously on the ‘other side of the fence’, but while the relationship between spin doctors and reporters has often been one of mutual distrust, Hamish chucking his tea all over me was taking it a bit too far.

OK, so maybe his grasp of politics is better than his grasp of a cardboard cup and it was an accident, but it wasn’t quite the start to my new life I had in mind. At least I had real reason to sound like Malcolm Tucker. But, like the gentleman he is, Hamish was very apologetic.

I’m now three months into the job and each day brings something new. But one thing I’ve been struck by is the extent of the goodwill I’ve received not only from so many journalists but also from political figures from all sides. With typical dry wit, Alistair Darling greeted me at Craiglockhart with a cheery and genuine, “I wish you limited success”.

It’s no secret the newspaper industry is facing a difficult future, with solutions to growing problems as far away as they were 15 years ago. All the giveaway web content, cut-price mobile access and ‘alternative revenue streams’ are not going to replace the revenue once generated by solid reading habits, the old classified sections or the big branding campaigns which no longer appear in Scottish dailies.

Maybe that’s why more than one serving editor has said they are far better off out of it.

It’s very common to hear ex-editors talk of how liberating it has been for them to lose the stress of trying to produce a paper the readers value while resources are slashed, hours get longer and an end to the crisis is as far off as ever. I can’t say I disagree. You would need to have the relentless cheeriness of a born-again evangelist not to be ground down in an environment where every meaningful statistic is going remorselessly in the wrong direction.

It was hard to disagree with my old boss, Andrew Neil’s recent gloomy assessment.

Of course, editing a newspaper, even in difficult circumstances, is a great privilege; but, like all good things, it has to end. When it comes, all any of us can hope for is that the departure is handled with dignity. I’ll leave others to judge if I achieved that, but it was certainly my aim.

What I can say is that plenty of people made it much easier for me with their messages of support, encouragement and, of course, good humour.

“From The Scotsman to the Scottish Tories? You certainly like a challenge,” was said, more or less, by more people than I care to count.

And twice in a day – when spotted going to and from lunch with [Scottish Labour spin doctor] Paul Sinclair – no-one was going to miss the obvious, “Aye, Better Together is it?”

Of course, after 15 years as an editor, it does take some getting used to when I answer a press office call and a young reporter whose dad I probably know asks if I can get him a quote on some issue or other.

And how strange it was indeed when I had to tell a group of editors, whose organisation I chaired until April, that their briefing with a senior government figure could not be attributed. When one of my new governmental colleagues explained that a previous event with the Prime Minister had been misreported, The Sun’s Andy Harries was very quick to say: “Ah, that was John McLellan from The Scotsman.”

Not butting in with a few questions of my own when my old friends’ line of inquiry was drying up took a fair bit of restraint, to say the least.

My new colleagues have had some sport too. When duty called for me to tackle a demonstrator who burst into a private reception with the Prime Minister, MSP Jackson Carlaw laughed: “It was all just a test to see if you were really a Tory.”

When The Scottish Sun covered the story and referred to me as a ‘burly spin doctor’ the next day, the research staff left a specially-made name card with my new description on my desk.

How I laughed when BBC Newsnight Scotland’s Isabel Fraser invited an apology from Labour MP, Ian Davidson after he accused the programme of political bias in favour of the SNP. I should have had sympathy with Mr Davidson (funny how often the show fails to get a Tory viewpoint) but then again I too had demanded an apology from him at the Scottish Affairs Select Committee when he mocked The Scotsman for “just publishing press releases”. Of course, now I’d be quite happy for my old paper to publish our releases but seeing as I won my argument with Mr Davidson I know it won’t.

By co-incidence I bumped into him in Westminster back in July and, having crossed swords in his committee and now joined the enemy, I expected a cool reception. Far from it. “I hear you’ve got a new job…ya bandit,” he smiled.

Bandit or not, it is remarkable what a difference coming to work with a sense of purpose can make and, even though Scottish Conservatives do face massive challenges, there is a positivity here which stems from knowing that what we represent still has a key part to play in Scotland’s political development.

And if I may be positive about my old trade, it still matters very much on this ‘side of the fence’ and without a strong indigenous Press, Scottish politics runs the danger of becoming more distant from the people it is supposed to serve.

It might make editors unpopular with their masters, but it is part of their job to ensure it is understood that turning a profit is impossible without vibrant journalism.

John McLellan is director of communications for the Scottish Conservatives, having previously been editor of The Scotsman newspaper. He is a former member of the Press Complaints Commission and an honorary professor in Stirling University’s media studies department.

Pic: Jane Barlow.