FROM Blair to Brexit, to bringing big names down and talking the big issues up – with the small matter of an independence referendum in between – Paul Hutcheon looks back on the Sunday Herald’s political dimension

IF a week is a long time in politics, 19-and-a-half years is an eternity. The first edition of the Sunday Herald was published in February 1999 and captured a Scotland that is now unrecognisable.

Tony Blair, approaching his second anniversary as a Labour prime minister, had embarked on a radical agenda of social, economic and constitutional change. Devolution had been endorsed through a referendum and voters were three months away from voting in the first Holyrood election.

The first issue, assembled by visionary editor Andrew Jaspan and his team, carried a front-page interview with Blair by Kirsty Milne, who was the paper’s first political editor. The then prime minister told the fledgling paper that devolution was a “21st-century symbol” of a “multi-layered democracy” based on “partnership” in the UK and the European Union.

Fast-forward to today, which marks the last issue of the Sunday Herald, and few people could have predicted how the political landscape that had existed under Blair would change.

Back then, the SNP had around half a dozen parliamentarians. Now the party has more than 100 MSPs, MPs and MEPs. Labour dominated UK and Scottish politics in 1999 but has been out of power at Westminster and Holyrood for a generation. Debate still centres around the constitution, but on independence, not devolution. And Brexit looks set to extinguish our relationship with the EU.

The Sunday Herald’s political journey over that period reflects the switch made by large segments of Scottish voters: broadly sympathetic to Blair in the early years of his premiership, but turned off by the Iraq war. Tentatively pro-SNP in 2007 – more out of frustration with Labour than anything else – before becoming pro-independence.

However, regardless of constitutional politics, the paper’s political anchor never moved. Under all three editors – Jaspan, Richard Walker and Neil Mackay – the Sunday Herald was centre-left, socially liberal and pro-European. Appealing to younger readers was also a key part of its ethos.

My overriding memory of the Sunday Herald is not just of a paper that adopted a distinctive position on independence, but of a publication that broke big political stories and had far-reaching consequences. In circulation terms we were bantamweight, but in our coverage we fought at a higher level.

Milne, who passed away in 2013, was in the job for barely a few months before moving on and going on to become a renowned columnist. Its first Scottish political editor, Douglas Fraser, brought intellectual heft to the Sunday Herald and was in post for five years from 1999. While anti-devolution publications tried to undermine the Scottish Parliament, his coverage was marked by fairness and balance. He was an authoritative presence who was the right political editor for the time.

Fraser was in post during one of the most shameful episodes of recent Scottish history. In 2000, when Labour’s former minister Wendy Alexander announced plans to repeal anti-gay legislation which banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools, forces including SNP donor Brian Souter, the Catholic Church and the Daily Record mounted an ugly campaign of opposition.

Fraser and his colleagues, to their credit, extensively reported the distortions of the Keep the Clause campaign, while the Sunday Herald’s stance urged the Labour-led Executive to hold firm. The paper’s uncompromising stance in defending a vulnerable minority group helped define its political outlook more than any other issue. Opposition to the Iraq War, meanwhile, bolstered its progressive credentials.

Fraser also covered the early traumas and controversies of devolution, such as the death of Donald Dewar and the resignation of his successor as First Minister, Henry McLeish, before moving to The Herald. We also benefited from first-class Westminster coverage from Iain Watson, James Cusick and Torcuil Crichton.

I became the Sunday Herald’s Scottish political editor in 2004 after an approach by a senior figure on the paper. Although there had been a formal process, I got the impression the job was mine unless I cried or puked at the interview. I held my nerve and was hired by Jaspan.

Without making myself sound like a sociopath, I had a different temperament to Fraser and brought my own style. He was cerebral – I use that as praise – and interested in policy, whereas I was an angry 27-year-old who wasn’t quite sure what he was angry about. My title should have been “anti-political editor”. Months after I started, Jaspan moved to Australia and Richard Walker became editor. He wanted a more robust approach to politics, which I was comfortable with, and we worked together closely for 11 years until he left the paper in 2015.

I’m proud of our working relationship. An investigation into Scottish Tory leader David McLetchie’s expenses – yes, I think it was legitimate; no, I don’t believe it was petty – led to him quitting and Holyrood publishing the entirety of the MSP allowances system online.

Stories on Labour chief Wendy Alexander’s dodgy donation to her leadership campaign triggered her resignation, while coverage of crooked MP Jim Devine’s expenses got him jail time. During the latter investigation, I was lucky not to die after getting knocked down by a random driver on the way to doing a television interview on the Devine story. I was later told a senior Holyrood figure had said he wished the accident had been “more serious”.

In 2012, by which time I was writing about politics as investigations editor, our stories on abuser Bill Walker, who was an SNP MSP at the time, led to him getting a custodial sentence. We also broke, and covered endlessly, the story on Labour shenanigans in Falkirk, which had major consequences outwith one town in central Scotland.

Reporters are only as good as their editors allow them to be. If your boss spikes your work, or puts it on page 38, the article has either zero or marginal impact. All these political stories were published during Walker's editorship. We had cross words once – it was my fault – and I can recall only one occasion in 11 years when I felt a good story had been canned. Any journalist would accept that sort of ratio.

Before this sounds like a self-regarding roll-call of glory, I should offer full disclosure by admitting to a mistake or two. In 2007, I reported that a mystery Labour MP – “he or she” – was “poised” to defect to the SNP. The story, much to my embarrassment, subsequently proved to be cobblers.

So appalled was I by the prospect of winning the Tartan Bollocks – given to the journalist who penned the most inaccurate story of the year – I fled to Paris for two nights and skipped the dunce ceremony. One colleague woundingly described my loser’s expedition as a trip to the “city of self-love”.

I also over-wrote a story about something vaguely controversial former first minister Jack McConnell had said about drugs when he was a student. My awful piece, which we splashed, had all the zest of a casserole that had been decomposing in a garden for six months. Walker's last-minute “tweaks” did not help. In the end, it read like it had been written in Bulgarian and put through Google Translate.


Image: Bill Walker's violent past


Front pages: Wendy Alexander and Jim Devine


Splash: the Labour/Falkirk fiasco and free school milk

My successor, Tom Gordon, became Scottish political editor in 2008 and stayed in the job until 2016. To paraphrase author PG Wodehouse, it was never hard to tell the difference between Tom in a grumpy mood and a ray of sunshine. If there had been an Olympics for small talk, it is unlikely he would ever have made the podium. He was also the best reporter I worked with.

He and I – friends as well as colleagues – competed with rival papers, of course, but also with each other. We would have endless “discussions” about joint bylines, whose beat a particular story fell on, and who had the best angle to justify top billing. It was my favourite time on the paper.

Gordon was the paper’s longest-serving Scottish political editor and had a terrific scoop count. He revealed how Alex Salmond had congratulated former RBS chief executive Fred Goodwin on the botched ABN AMRO deal. He also reported how the Tory Government was planning to axe free school milk for under fives, a story that triggered a televised U-turn by the Government hours after its publication.

He also disclosed how Better Together secretly called their campaign Project Fear – a phrase that went viral – and exposed how the SNP had been auctioning Holyrood lunches at party fundraising events. One caveat: just as I cringe at my McConnell drugs “scoop”, I imagine Gordon does not dwell too long on his 2013 “exclusive report” about a predicted “oil boom” in the North Sea. I did not seek a joint byline on that one.

Gordon's time in the job also coincided with the editor of the paper backing a Yes vote in the referendum. I offer no comment on this decision – it was above my pay grade – but some basic facts should be noted. Unlike other newspapers, whose big editorial decisions are influenced by proprietors living abroad, the Sunday Herald’s position was not taken by its owner but its editor. It was Walker's call and he made the decision. He explained it clearly and never shied away from defending what even opponents of independence would concede was a major moment in the campaign.

It has also been said Walker was motivated by commercial opportunism. Again, wrong. His decision stemmed from his personal belief in independence. He had been moving the paper in this direction for around three years and was convinced it was the right move for Scotland.

Walker left in 2015 and was replaced by Neil Mackay, who continued with the Sunday Herald’s pro-independence stance and who was instinctively supportive of investigative journalism. Our last Scottish political editor was Andrew Whitaker, an impressive story-getter who was known for his persistence in pursuit of an exclusive. Whitaker's reporting led to the SNP Government announcing an inquiry into the miners’ strike and he revealed Nicola Sturgeon’s plan for a reshuffle.

Having worked for 14 years on the Sunday Herald, it is natural I feel a huge sadness at the paper’s demise. However, a combination of branding difficulties and low circulation made the company’s decision to cease publication inevitable. The creation of two new Sunday newspapers is also a positive move for the media in Scotland.

The Sunday Herald no longer has a future, but this should not detract from the impactful political coverage that its editors and reporters produced in the years since its iconic first edition nearly two decades ago.