John Robertson Crawford

Born: November 19, 1931;

Died: December 10, 2023

John R Crawford, who has died aged 92, was appointed managing director of the Glasgow Herald and Evening Times at the close of a turbulent 1960s decade, one which marked the end of the 130-year-old publisher, George Outram and Co, as an independent company.

Following Lord Fraser of Allander’s success in winning the battle for ownership against his rival Lord Thomson, Outram became a subsidiary of Scottish and Universal Investments Ltd (SUITS), the investment holding arm of the House of Fraser.

Crawford had been part of the Outram’s management team looking on as two millionaires fought for ownership and control of one of Scotland’s biggest and influential media groups. Protecting the business of Outram’s, the main newspaper titles and its other publishing interests would define Crawford’s career.

Within another decade, SUITS itself became a subsidiary when it was acquired by the multinational conglomerate Lonrho, developments which impacted on Crawford’s stewardship of Outram’s as he also sat on the SUITS board and later had an office in Cheapside, Lonrho’s London headquarters.

John Robertson Crawford was born in Tollcross in 1931, the only child of Peter Crawford, an insurance broker and his wife Jean. He attended the High School of Glasgow before national service took him to post-war Germany where, among other duties, as an amateur boxer he represented the British Army team in competitions, mainly against American opposition.

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He joined Outram’s as a junior working in various offices before finding a permanent role in advertising sales. An early success as advertising manager was the development of the tele ads department and his management potential was recognised when he was appointed general manager of the Paisley Daily Express.

As Outram’s managing director, Crawford oversaw a successful publishing company with 1300 employees, one delivering consistent profit targets; the Glasgow Herald was the leading quality broadsheet, and the Times dominated the evening newspaper market. On the debit side the Mackintosh-designed building in Mitchell Street was outdated as a modern newspaper plant.

Crawford’s initial strategy was to improve the business by bringing in new experienced newspaper executives from publisher rivals in Scotland and England in all three key areas, production, commercial and editorial.

Following the closure of the Express newspapers in Albion Street in 1974, Crawford proceeded with editorial changes. He brought in Iain Lindsay Smith then Alan Jenkins from English titles as Herald editor before Arnold Kemp was appointed and became one of the Herald’s longest-serving editors. Charles Wilson, a native Glaswegian, left London to edit the Evening Times.

One of the biggest challenges for Outram’s in the 1970s – in common with other publishers – was early attempts to negotiate with trade unions the introduction of new technology, and the phasing out of long-established work practices. Crawford’s biggest project was to complete the transfer of the entire Outram publishing operation from Mitchell Street to the new premises in the former Express building in Albion Street, Glasgow. This was successfully achieved on target in July 1980.

Crawford secured approval from SUITS and the parent company Lonrho for a £13million investment in new state of the art printing presses and comprehensive computer control systems in typesetting, plate making and despatch. However, there was no agreement for the direct input of copy by journalists. In 1980 Outram’s recognised for negotiating purposes 32 chapels representing nine trade unions.

Away from the stresses of industrial relations, Crawford was summoned to appear with the editor, Alan Jenkins, when the Herald faced contempt charges at the High Court in Edinburgh, accused of printing material prejudicial to a drugs case. Crawford concerned about the outcome took with him to court an overnight bag just in case, as he said later, “I was banged up”. The Herald was found guilty and punished with a heavy fine.

In 1981 to head off the possible launch of a new Sunday newspaper in Edinburgh and armed with research that there was a gap in the market, Outram’s launched the Sunday Standard. Charles Wilson was appointed editor, recruiting a team of highly regarded journalists. Although considered an editorial success the heavy editorial and production costs proved unsustainable. The Sunday Standard did not achieve the targeted circulation and within two years Crawford and Outram’s managing director Terry Cassidy, in consultation with SUITS, took the decision to close the paper.

Crawford and Wilson had developed a close friendship often spending family weekends together at Largiemore near Otter Ferry on Loch Fyne where both had holiday chalets. On one memorable occasion they were fishing for mackerel on the Loch when the outboard motor broke down. They sent up a flare hoping to attract rescue from the shore. As they waited a submarine emerged out of the loch, a naval officer calling “Can we help?” A small boat was heading towards them from the shore and the submarine departed. At the time diesel electric patrol submarines were regular visitors to Loch Fyne where there is an underwater noise range.

In 1981 Outram’s was the vehicle Lonrho used to display its publishing credentials with the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in its successful bid to acquire the Observer newspaper. Crawford was appointed to the Observer board and Kenneth Harris, Clement Attlee’s biographer, successful television interviewer, and Observer director, chaired the Outram Board. Harris became a close ally and friend, often preferring to stay with Crawford and family in Giffnock while in Glasgow.

Throughout the 1980s Crawford worked at SUITS head office in Glasgow and increasingly would spend part of each week with Lonrho in London. He also had a small office in Albion Street, one he used as temporary managing director when managing directors Angus Clark, Terry Cassidy and Ian Irvine left Outram.

Crawford retired in 1991 appointing Liam Kane as managing director. He was, he said, “yesterday’s man”, maintaining his own private counsel as Kane relaunched the “Glasgow Herald” as “The Herald” and again in 1992 when Kane led a management buy-out of Outram from Lonrho creating a new company, Caledonian Newspapers. Crawford declined an invitation from Kane to join the new board.

In his retirement Crawford continued to enjoy lunches at the Rogano with former colleagues and friends. He travelled with his wife, Nan, he swam each day and loved regular walks around Cumbrae. He and Nan, who married in 1965, had two daughters, Alison who became editor of the Perthshire Advertiser, Stirling Observer and Rutherglen Reformer, and Lynsay who worked in newspaper marketing. As Crawford’s health deteriorated, Lynsay took a career break to care for both him and her mother Nan.

Iain Forbes, who as industrial relations director, worked with him during lengthy negotiations with trade unions, said Crawford was “a very private man”.

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“He was a real advocate for a successful Outram’s not just surviving but going from strength to strength, and always going about his business quietly”.

Crawford died at home in Thorntonhall with his family by his side. Following his wishes the family will hold a private cremation before scattering his ashes on the beach at Fairlie in Ayrshire where he loved holidays as a boy.