In My Opinion: John McGurk: Why editors must avoid the ‘Bill Heaney lunch’

I WAS surprised to read – here on – that Bill Heaney seldom got out for lunch.

He also appears to be under the impression that other newspaper editors were trapped at their desks presumably with a curled-up sandwich and a cup of weak coffee.

Poor chap. Lunch is an essential part of any editor’s day, or at least it used to be.

Great thoughts, serialisations, campaigns, promotions, hirings and firings have all been carried out over lunch with the editor. Sometimes lunch was known to creep towards dinner by which time the greatest ideas had been chewed over in a haze of red wine then completely forgotten. It was best to keep notes.

As a young reporter on the Sunday Mail in Glasgow back in the 1970’s, I recall watching the editor, Clive Sandground, and his senior team heading off to the Ubiquitous Chip every Tuesday. Clive would even invite his relatives. It was sometimes 4 o’clock before they returned, shirt tails often visible, but all kinds of madnesses had been cooked up.

Indeed, lunch for senior executives at the now demolished Anderston Quay headquarters of the Daily Record and Sunday Mail was positively encouraged, thanks to the seventh floor management ‘supercan’. It was the best restaurant in Glasgow, with the best view, where a glass of Friday afternoon port was nearly the size of a half-pint.

Later, as deputy editor of the Daily Record, getting out for lunch was necessary because we would often work until well after 10pm. If lunch was missed, we knew there would be no dinner, so the hotline would ring and Endell Laird would ask breezily, “Where are we off to today?”

Charles McGhee and I would climb into the rear of the chauffeur-driven black Volvo (SDR 11) and, like members of the Mafia, we’d speed through the streets of Glasgow until we came upon one of the editor’s favourite haunts. Sometimes we’d go upmarket; other times, we’d end up in some ‘dead-dog joint’.

I recall Endell announcing, “We’re off to the Ritz!”, only to discover that he’d booked a table in the Ritz bar near Charing Cross. But he was right, the steak pie was delicious. Alas, when the bill arrived, he couldn’t find his credit card.

Endell was having lunch when the call came through in November 1991 that [the papers’ owner] Robert Maxwell had disappeared from his yacht. Alarmingly, he was in a bar called Maxwell’s.

Lunch was as mandatory as union meetings for everyone in editorial at Anderston Quay. Sometimes, even food was enjoyed. The local pubs, particularly the Copy Cat, and further along the quayside, Off The Record, were crammed after 12.30pm and often long before.

There were rules. First, if a colleague became incapable, he (or she) was packed off in a taxi and not allowed to return to the office. Second, if, in the event of someone collapsing and expiring, they were to be immediately carried to the building to take advantage of the company’s death insurance. It was five times more generous if the individual passed away at their desk.

Naturally, I carried on the tradition of lunch when I first became a newspaper editor, on the Sunday Sun in Newcastle. The chief accountant used to remark pointedly, “ I see you’ve been out to lunch (pause) again.”

I was offered the editorship of the Edinburgh Evening News over a fish ‘n’ chip lunch at Harry Ramsden’s in Heathrow Airport and [then publisher] Andrew Neil asked me to edit Scotland on Sunday during lunch at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh.

In the years to follow, I had lunch or breakfast on several occasions at the real Ritz in Piccadilly after the Barclays bought The Scotsman.

The first time was a few weeks after the deal when David and Frederick Barclay invited the then editors to lunch in a private alcove off the very grand hotel restaurant. Six months later, I was the only editor who had survived.

While at the Daily Telegraph, the biggest lunch bill I’d ever seen was for around £3,000. It was run up by one of Fleet Street’s biggest names, then the paper’s restaurant reviewer. I don’t recall the location of the lunch but it was either somewhere in Europe or America so the bill had included flights and accommodation for her and her partner. It seemed wise to query this.

To her credit, she immediately took the high ground. “I can’t possibly do my job properly if I am to be questioned like this!”

I’m sure that Fleet Street editors still enjoy the the privilege of lunch, perhaps not to the extent as days gone by, but it would be interesting to find out. Scottish editors I’m not so sure about, given the relentless cost-cutting, miserly managements and very few staff.

My old friend, Iain Martin, author of a recent, brilliant book about The Royal Bank of Scotland and Fred Goodwin, was the editor who became the king of the lunch at Scotsman Publications. I know this to be true because I had to sign his expenses. Iain would protest vehemently that he was a “lunching editor”, but all that stopped dramatically when the papers were bought over by Johnston Press – kings of the ‘non-lunch’.

The three editors – myself, Iain, then editor of Scotland on Sunday and John McLellan, then editor of the Evening News – were summoned to the Yorkshire Post office in Leeds early in 2006. It was probably the most miserable meeting I’ve ever attended. Other Johnston editors looked like they’d already been beaten into submission.

But then, lunch. Someone said: “ If you’d all like to make you way next door… please help yourselves.”

And there it was: the Bill Heaney lunch. Sandwiches turned up at the corners with maybe some grated cheese straight from an economy supermarket. To wash it down, there were plastic cups and cartons of the cheapest orange juice.

When we escaped, we headed to the nearest pub.

Bill: you’ve gotta get out more. So here’s a thought. We should have lunch!

John McGurk is a former editor of The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and the Edinburgh Evening News. He is also a former managing editor of The Daily Telegraph. A version of this article first appeared on, Scotland’s business website.