Born: September 15, 1935;

Died: May 1, 2022.

FREDDY Johnston CBE, who has died aged 86, was a veteran Scottish newspaperman who was chairman of Johnston Press for 28 years, growing it from a small family firm to a giant of the industry, publishing more than 200 titles.

Always passionate about news and newspapers – he was the fourth generation of his family to work in the business – he was also approachable and keenly interested in the progress of his staff, to many of whom he was known as 'Mr Freddy'.

Having joined the family firm, F Johnston & Co, in the early 1960s, when it was publishing the Falkirk Herald, he continued to believe – even through the challenge of the internet and the days of sometimes turbulent change – that life was local and a newspaper’s job was to be at the heart of the community.

However, in his long career, he also proved himself to be a talented and able businessman. It was under his leadership that Johnston Press, as it became, bought the Derbyshire Times, the first of many acquisitions that transformed Johnston from a small family firm into a huge national operation.

Having floated on the stock market in 1988, it nearly doubled in size in the 90s when it bought the EMAP newspaper group for £111m.

Throughout it all, Johnston’s strategy was to expand, but not to expand too much. By the end of his chairmanship, the group owned 200 newspaper titles but the acquisitions were often through personal contacts across a network of small family firms. He once likened growing the company to riding a bike – get off at any point and you’ll fall over – but he was always cautious about over-expansion.

Asked why he loved the business, he would say that he didn’t see it as just a job; he saw it as his life, just as it had been for his father Fred, who worked on The Scotsman before running the family firm.

Born in Edinburgh, Frederick Patrick Mair was the eldest son of Fred Johnston Snr and his wife Kay, whom he had met while working at the Scotsman. Fred Jnr and his three siblings grew up in Falkirk, Dunblane and Crieff, where Fred attended Morrison's Academy.

Before university (he read history at Oxford) he did more than two years of national service, initially with the Black Watch, then Royal Scots Fusiliers and the 4th Battalion of the King’s African Rifles, and was in the army during the Suez Crisis in 1956. Much of his time was spent in Uganda, where his regimental sergeant major was the country’s future dictator, Idi Amin.

It was a reflection of Johnston’s internationalist perspective that while he was in Uganda he taught himself Swahili as a way of improving relations with the local people. Much later, in 2001, he became chairman of the campaign group Scotland in Europe, which promoted Scotland’s place in the European Union.

In the 1990s, he spoke out against the anti-European right wing that would eventually campaign for – and win – a British exit from the EU. “Britain is either part of Europe,” he said, “or it becomes an offshore island with Third World Standards of living.”

As well as a proud European, Johnston also saw himself as a very keen and proud Scot and a proud Briton. Although he never particularly shouted about it, he supported Scotland’s place in the UK and did not think that independence was the best way forward.

Having returned from Uganda and resumed civilian life, he worked for a brief time at the Falkirk Herald before going to Oxford and then joining the Liverpool Post and Echo. This was followed by a period at the Times newspapers in London, as assistant company secretary. It was while attending a leaving party for a colleague at the company that he met his future wife, Ann Jones.

Now married and living in Wimbledon, Johnston was approached by his father about coming back to work for the family firm as works manager. The salary was less than he was getting at the Times but the Falkirk job came with a house in the town's Hodge Street, so the family moved north in 1964.

Nine years later, Fred Snr died of lung cancer and his son became chairman of the firm. Shortly thereafter, the company made its first acquisition outside Scotland with the purchase of the Derbyshire Times, which at the time was the second-largest selling weekly newspaper in England. Other acquisitions soon followed in Sussex, the Midlands and Yorkshire.

The growth of the company really accelerated in the 1980s. In 1988, the parent firm became Johnston Press plc and was floated on the London Stock Exchange and continued to make acquisitions in Scotland, England and Ireland. It acquired East Midlands Allied Press’ newspapers (EMAP) in 1996.

Johnston announced his retirement five years later, in 2001, which was when he effectively left the industry. For a while, the business continued to expand – it bought the Scotsman in 2006 – but in the face of declining revenues and sales, it ran into debt and went into administration in 2018 and was bought by JPIMedia.

JPI in turn was then sold for £10.2m to National World, a media takeover vehicle led by the industry veteran David Montgomery.

Watching events from his retirement – he lived for the last ten years of his life in Shropshire and Wimbledon – Freddy Johnston was saddened by what became of his old company. He would say that he’d been born in the newspaper industry, grew up in it and lived it, and he retained a strong belief in journalism and its core purpose. Newspapers, he said, weren’t about marketing, publicity or entertainment, they were about the dissemination of news.

Away from newspapers, Johnston was interested in literature (he was a former chairman of the Edinburgh Book Festival) and in travel; he was particularly fond of unusual train journeys.

He is survived by his wife Ann, his sons Michael and Robert, his grandchildren Kathleen, Patrick, Angus and Grace, and his brother Harry, who was also involved in the family business and lives in Gibraltar. He was predeceased by his brother Jim and sister Patricia.