GEORGE MCKECHNIE FEATURE
Pressing times ’
Hot off the tabloid press, GEORGE McKECHNIE is raising a few eyebrows as the new editor of The Herald. Kathleen Morgan met the man expected to give the
newspaper a kick up the broadsheet.
hen Scottish newspapers begin hitting the headlines. there has to be a revolution shaking the industry’s foundations. Talk of editors being relegated to their own cuttings tiles and fears of a price war undermining quality journalism have been echoing in the corridors of the nation’s newspaper offices. The buzz word on and off the printing presses is ‘change’.
In the reception of the The Herald’s Glasgow offices. change is not only in the air. but in the decor. Walls have been stripped of their coverings and the ceiling is being moved heavenwards. but so far. the refurbishment is the only sign that Scotland’s most popular broadsheet has installed a new editor upstairs. Only days ago. Glasgow’s tabloid king George McKechnie was at the helm of The Herald’s sister paper The Evening Titties. Overnight. he has becotne editor of a ‘quality’ newspaper which has prided itself in its intellectual response to news and the arts.
The 48-year-old known by his staff as Big George. as much for his manner as his bulk. has been the brains behind The Evening Times’s award-winning. aggressive campaining style for fourteen years. His appointment to The Herald has ruffled more than a few pages within Scotland’s close-knit media world — McKechnie is expected to shake up a newspaper that has nestled itselfcomfortably into the consciousness of west central Scotland.
He replaces Arnold Kemp. one of Scotland’s most respected journalists and an editor well loved by his staff. who resigned abruptly against a background of cost-cutting after thirteen years in the job. McKechnie is grateful for the legacy he has inherited. ‘Arnold is one of the outstanding journalists of this generation.’ he says. ‘He has a different approach tojournalism than 1 have. but I’m in the lucky position of inheriting all the qualities Arnold has left behind on The Herald.’
Between the lines lies another story. Stepping from his Evening Times desk to his new office at the other side of the Caledonian Publishing building. McKechnie has entered the big league. In the face of a price war between the London- based nationals. he will be leading The Herald into new territory. It can no longer take its traditionally loyal readership for granted with a cover price at least 10p higher than some of its English competitors. But McKechnie is confident he can maintain The Herald’s I 12.000 readership.
6 The List 2—15 December 1994
George McKechnie: ‘I’m a bit mellower than I was ten years ago.’ Photograph © Evening Times
‘Price wars are a fact of life.’ he says in a characteristically gruff manner. ‘The Herald is not in a financial position to engage in them. It will have to light the battle on its quality. its Scottishness and those elements not available in London. There’s plenty of evidence Herald readers have remained loyal to their paper. despite the price cutting.’
Asked about the editorial revolution which has swept The Herald’s main Scottish rival The Scotsman. with the appointment of former Scotland on Sunday editor Andrew Jaspan in place of Magnus Linklater. McKechnie simply raises his eyebrows. ‘The Scotsman has been redesigned yet again.’ he says.
‘lt anyone on The Herald has a problem with me as editor, it’s their problem, not mine. I’ll be too busy to worry about why
other people are upset.’
Like Arnold Kemp. McKechnie is Edinburgh born and bred. but has adopted the west coast as home to his professional and personal life. The similarity stops there and McKechnie is quick to admit it. While Kemp is middle class and university educated. beginning working life as a sub-editor on The Scotsman. McKechnie began as a sixteen-year-old copy boy for the Daily Mail. moving on to the Paisley and Ren/i'ewshire Gazette as ajunior reporter at seventeen. After a brief period at Edinburgh‘s live/ring News. he was back on the Daily Mail and was soon in the fast lane. becoming news editor of the Sunday Mail and at 30. deputy editor of the live/ring Times.
The large. bearded man. renowned for his bear-like presence. is aware of the whisperings about a tabloid journalist taking up the more refined reins of a ‘quality‘ newspaper. but he is unperturbed and openly proud of his pedigree: ‘I know some people are drawing comparisons between tabloid and broadsheet journalism and are asking questions. but l’tn feeling very relaxed about it.’ He says he does not intend to go in withjackboots on: ‘I want to have a look at things before embarking on what changes might be made.’ These changes could involve hardening news coverage and improving the sports section. but McKechnie promises there
will be no revolution. What he will do is put the reader first. even before hisjournalists.
Raised in Edinburgh’s Craigmillar. the son ofa brewery worker and a bus conductress, McKechnie is reluctant to play the working class boy made good. ‘Things were different then.’ he says. ‘The move from being a copy boy to a staff reporter or sub-editor on a national Scottish newspaper wasn’t as great a leap as it would be now. The opportunities were there and I wasn’t unique in making that kind ofjump.’
He has few regrets about his lack of a university education — from where he is sitting. he has little need. ‘lt would be nice to be armed with better educational qualifications rather than just a couple of highers and a string of ‘0’ levels. but what’s the point in worrying about that right now?’ he says bluntly. But in an increasingly competitive industry run as much by accountants as journalists. he stresses the value of further education. ‘If a sixteen—year-old came into my office today and said: “I’ve the opportunity of a job on a local newspaper or a place at university.” my advice would be that education should be the priority.’
McKechnie has felt the backlash of snobbery only outwith his beloved newspaper industry. when looking for ajob to supplement his income as a copy boy. ‘l soon felt the fact I came from Craigmillar counted against me.’ he says. ‘But that’s something I left behind a long time ago.’
Caledonian Publishing boss Liam Kane obviously has no doubts about his new editor’s talents — ‘Presumably they have thought long and hard about this.’ says McKechnie. For anyone on his staff who has doubts. McKechnie says this: ‘If anyone on The Herald has a problem with me as editor. it’s their problem. not mine. [’1] be too busy to worry about why other people are upset. I would hope the journalists will understand I only want to be successful for The Herald.’
Whatever the outcome of McKechnie’s move to The Herald. his hard-nosed reputation got there first. Asked about the editor’s appointment. one Caledonian Publishing employee remarked: ‘Evcn his dog goes bow-fucking-wow.’ McKechnie has his own ideas. ‘I think I’m a bit mellower than i was ten years ago.’ Just mellow enough. he believes. to kick The Herald into the next century and maintain its prime position in
the Scottish newspaper world. C]