NO matter how good it looks, no matter how well it’s marketed, A paper stands and falls on the quality of its stories. Neil Mackay looks at the ethos behind the fledgling Sunday Herald and remembers when its journalists got it right – and occasionally very wrong 

LIKE many firsts, a first edition of a newspaper is a strange hybrid – it pops into the middle of a living, breathing news cycle with no hinterland and presents the puzzle of the new to readers. The first edition of the Sunday Herald shared those problems, but it made a splash.

First of all, it signalled that it was taking seriously the idea of a new era for Scotland with a front page piece based on an interview with then PM Tony Blair vowing sweeping new powers for Scotland; secondly, it signalled that it was young and happy to kick over the traces thanks to an interview with Spice Girl Mel C in which the word "F**k" ran unasterisked in bold type in a pull-out quote. No paper had done that before – and it soon became apparent why. Many first-time readers were far from happy. Let’s just say there were more than a few letters from Disgusted of Morningside vowing to never read the paper again. It wasn’t the last time the Sunday Herald would upset the apple cart.

The style and tone of the paper was also perfectly underscored by the release of a series of languid, aspirational TV adverts that focused on the imagined lifestyle of our readers – beautiful, intelligent people having croissants and coffee in bed while reading the Sunday Herald. The ads ran over a tune by a little known singer called Dido – back then she was cool, pretty much unknown, and on the verge of working with Eminem.

What any new paper needs, though, is a story that both tests it and proves what it stands for – and for the Sunday Herald that story came in the year 2000 in the shape of Section 28, which sought to ban the "promotion of homosexuality in schools". It was a pernicious piece of legislation backed by the most reactionary elements in Scottish society.

Richard Walker, then assistant editor and head of production, says: “Section 28 showed exactly what we stood for and what we were against. It showed we were a liberal paper, a progressive paper, a paper with values young people could identify with – a paper that represented modern Scotland and the direction that modern Scotland was going.”

We fought the battle just as brutally as the opposition – because we knew we were on the side of the angels. When it came to Section 28, Iain Macwhirter led on the opinion front, and I did a lot of work in news. I do recall one big name on the "Keep the Clause" side – who felt pretty wounded by Macwhirter’s commentary and my reporting – telling one of the senior executives to "rein in your f**king left-wing attack dogs Macwhirter and Mackay –or they’ll get their legs broken".

An idle, silly threat that they neither meant nor had the means nor guts to carry out – but such macho posturing was indicative of how polarising this debate was in Scottish society.

With the repeal of Section 28, the Sunday Herald had a win under its belt, and had shown its mettle and values. The biggest test was yet to come, however – Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

Both David Pratt and I had done a lot of work on al-Qaeda. Pratt had reported from Afghanistan many times since the Soviet invasion and knew the area and its people and culture intimately. He’d even met and drank tea with Osama bin Laden, when the terrorist leader was just another mujahideen commander. I had long covered terrorism, especially Irish terrorism, and once peace began to lay down roots in Northern Ireland, I had turned my attention to Islamist terror, as had many of my best contacts in the intelligence services, the police and military – which is why, one quiet Saturday in August 1999, not long after the paper had started, I was ringing around various intelligence sources looking for a story when I spoke to a CIA officer I knew in Pakistan. He told me that he’d heard of a plot by al-Qaeda to hit America with planes. We didn’t have anything that made a splash that day – so two years before 9-11, the Sunday Herald ran a front page warning about intelligence fears over just such an atrocity.

It’s little wonder, then, when those planes ploughed into the World Trade Centre in the early afternoon of a crystal-clear Tuesday in September that Pratt and I knew immediately that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terror network was behind the attacks. It may sound strange now, but few people, even in journalism or politics, had a clue who bin Laden or al-Qaeda were back then. The work Pratt and I had already done gave us a head start on the opposition. Come Sunday, the team had put together a 16-page supplement on the attacks which was better than anything the rest of the UK press had done, and rivalled anything the best of the US press had done as well. It went on to win countless awards for reporting, design and photography. Remembering the front page image still chills me – an incredible, haunting shot, showing the first tower in flames and far away, a tiny plane soaring in from the right of the page heading for the second tower. It was, as Jaspan said, “a great first draft of history”.

Our next big test would come in the form of a special project I was working on: the dirty war in Northern Ireland, investigating collusion between British intelligence and security forces and terrorist double agents in both the IRA and loyalist terrorist organisations. The work saw us name the Scottish army officer accused of being behind much of the dirty war – Brigadier Gordon Kerr; we discovered the innocent civilians who died as a result of collusion; we revealed the crimes abetted by agents of the British state; and, finally, the reporting culminated in the naming of the British army’s highest ranking spy inside the IRA – agent Stakeknife, aka Freddie Scappaticci. But it was a long and dangerous slog.

My adventures in the stygian world of Irish terrorism stay with me as some of the most dangerous experiences in my life. I had a mock execution carried out on me by a drunken terrorist commander; I was kidnapped and driven around for hours with a bag over my head by paramilitaries; I almost had my cover blown while undercover at a gunman’s funeral. Alongside the danger, the British Government harried the Sunday Herald and opposed us every step of the way. We were gagged by the MoD over our reporting of collusion at one point, and Jaspan was on the receiving end of glacial calls from MI5. But we persevered, and kept our eyes on the prize – getting the truth out.

Much of this work would have been impossible without the legal mind of David McKie, the Sunday Herald’s lawyer and a much-loved member of the team. He fought tooth and nail to help us get the truth out – and he met every moment of pressure with grace, guts and a wicked sense of humour.

Again, we came back from the fight with arms full of awards but, to me at least, this was a story about more than awards, this was a story which asked questions almost too dark to pose about what the British state and government had been up to in Ireland. It questioned the very nature of British democracy – and it found it lacking.

The Dirty War investigations of the early 2000s were sobering reading for anyone who cared about "what Britain stood for" – and they set the paper up for its next big standoff with authority, the push for war against Iraq by the Blair government in late 2002 and into 2003.

The Sunday Herald has only had three editors – Jaspan, Walker and me, but all of us believe the Sunday Herald’s opposition to the Iraq war stands as our proudest and most important moment. Each week, in the run-up to the invasion, we systemically dismantled the lies behind the Bush and Blair governments’ push for war.

I spoke to spies, military brass,

and weapons inspectors who poured scorn on everything Washington and London were saying; David Pratt drew on years of on-the-ground reporting throughout the Middle East to explain exactly what the context of the trammel for war was – and why it was wrong; Trevor Royle synthesised the thinking of the world’s top diplomats; and, as so often when it came to the Sunday Herald’s most determined efforts, both Iain Macwhirter and Ian Bell expressed in elegant opinion and analysis why it was all so utterly, terribly immoral. Jaspan and Walker shaped and moulded the paper to give the journalism the best platform any writer could ever hope for. As an aside – remember the Dodgy Dossier? We had it first – the only problem is for a Sunday paper that if you get a scoop midweek, there’s a chance you lose it by the weekend. This one we lost.

The vast bulk of the British press was supine over Iraq – at worst colluding with the Blair government in its lies (you might recall those "45 minutes from doom" headlines in the tabloids?). Apart from The Guardian, we were the only paper really standing up against the war party – and it paid dividends. Online, our journalism became required reading for an estimated one million American readers every week – readers who were getting from us what they could not get from their own US papers.

The international success of this type of Sunday Herald journalism inspired both David Pratt and me to write our first non-fiction books – championed and supported by Jaspan. Pratt’s on the Israel-Palestine conflict, mine on the Iraq War.

A few days ago, Richard Walker and I were chatting about the life of the Sunday Herald, and we both agreed the Iraq War changed everything and helped mould the future course, not just of Britain, Scotland and the rest of the world, but also of the Sunday Herald. There was a revulsion that Westminster could have let this happen, horror at the lies pumped into the body politic, an utter disenchantment with the New Labour project, and a sense that maybe Scotland could do things differently, better. It was disgust over the war in Iraq, some argue, that helped sow the seeds of what would become the independence movement. The sense of a broken, corrupted British state was a great fertiliser for separatism.

Come 2004, with the paper now five years old, it had shown itself to be an intelligent, combative, campaigning paper that knew exactly what it stood for. At the end of those five years, Jaspan was to leave as editor of the Sunday Herald, to take up a new position as editor of the Age newspaper in Australia … but not before he threw the biggest party in newspaper history.