PUBLISH AND BE DAMNED
It was in 1980 that I decided the time had come for the council to have its own newspaper. The daily newspapers, television and radio had always given most of our stories a good show but these stories were heavily outweighed by political debate, petty squabbles between politicians and every other ill the news media could uncover.
The constructive decisions the council took and the many things its departments did to make the city a better place to live and work in and bring up one's children, did not get the coverage I thought they should.
I resolved our newspaper would not be a newsletter with items about bowls outings among the staff and pictures of happy brides but a newspaper with real news in it. Naturally the material had to be relevant to the work of the council and its departments but I knew there was plenty of scope there. After all, we had been producing news stories about the council's work for years.
David Bell, my deputy, had been editor of the Rutherglen Reformer. Alan Redfern was a former Daily Express man like myself and Hugh Leishman had worked for the Aberdeen Press and Journal. All we had to do was to produce enough stories to fill eight pages.
Two years earlier we had produced a four-page paper over a week-end after Prince Charles had opened a new model ship gallery in our Museum of Transport. A week-end may seem a long time compared with what they do in the newspaper industry but we had to write every word and go outside the council for setting, printing, and distribution. When the paper came out on the Monday everyone in my department was very pleased with our achievement but none of our political masters or anyone else said a word. I shouldn't have been surprised or hurt at this as no-one knew the work that went into the exercise.
In addition to being an editor David Bell was also a first-class sports reporter and his handling of major sporting events organised by the Parks and Recreation Department could not have been matched by anyone in the public relations industry, even in London where they delude themselves they can do everything better than anyone else. Producing a monthly newspaper should not be all that difficult.
I was determined to lay down certain ground rules for the newspaper; that it would not be used as a propaganda tract by the political hierarchy; that it would not be run by a committee of politicians, and that I would be the only one to decide what should go into it. All this was a colossal bluff on my part because the politicians could have dictated every move and there was nothing I could have done about it.
I lay awake night after night thinking how to achieve my objective. Then I cracked it. I would produce the paper without telling my political masters! I had the money in my budget for publicity projects and I could produce one issue and call it an experiment. I was sure they would let me carry on if it worked and if it didn't nothing would be lost. After all, we had produced one-off newspapers in the past about specific projects.
I knew that if I went to my committee with a proposal to publish a newspaper regularly I would have been asked innumerable unanswerable questions. Every councillor would have very definite ideas about how the paper should be run and what should go into it and there is not the slightest doubt that I would have ended up with an editorial board of councillors who would have interfered to an extent which would have made it impossible to produce anything worth while at all. The only solution was to Publish and be Damned, as Hugh Cudlipp of the Daily Mirror wrote so compellingly in 1953.
Then I had to find a name for the newspaper. I had a long debate with my staff and a whole lot of names were proposed but I didn't like any of them. One of them was THE GLASWEGIAN which coincidentally was the name of a freesheet launched some years later by the Daily Record group.
Finally, in the middle of the night, I came up with "The Bulletin." My staff were agog with apathy at my suggestion. The Bulletin, one of the newspapers in the George Outram (Glasgow Herald) group, had died 20 years earlier and to the younger members of my staff the name meant nothing at all. But I knew something they didn't; that a great many Glaswegians had fond memories of the newspaper and that they would be delighted to see the name again.
I put my idea in a letter to John Crawford, managing director of George Outram and Company, and told him I would use the very efficient publicity machine under my control to tell the world about the return of The Bulletin in its new form and about the agreement with Outram. I knew we would achieve great coverage for a story of this kind which would reflect well on both our organisations and the skill, imgination, enterprise, daring and wit of the public relations people involved!
I also told John I would not solicit advertising to try to defray the cost of producing the paper because I didn't want to take revenue away from other newspapers who relied for their income on advertising. In reality I wasn't all that morally upright; I knew it would be difficult to persuade companies and their advertising agencies to subsidise a labour council in this way. This was the case for quite a long time although we did eventually get quite a lot of advertising but never enough to make any significant contribution towards the cost of producing the paper. Besides, I looked on the paper as a valuable public service, like Libraries or Museums or Parks which weren't required to make a profit
John Crawford agreed to ask his board if I could have the title The Bulletin on permanent loan, or at least as long as we needed it. The negotiations took only a couple of months and in September 1980 the first issue came out.
As I predicted the event was reported throughout Britain because the title had been brought back after 20 years in limbo, an event which couldn't possibly fail to appeal to the sentimental side of media people, and because it was the first time a commercial newspaper company had given one of its titles to a local authority.
John Crawford was quoted as saying, It is good to see the title The Bulletin again, a name which was so loved by the people of Scotland and by emigre Scots throughout the world. It was a first-class idea to bring the name back into use and I wish Harry Diamond and Glasgow City Council all success with their venture. Even The Scotsman, the Herald's main rival, reported the come-back at length.
Our first Page 1 story also got tremendous news media coverage. It was about eight librarians from Belfast who were coming to work in Glasgow's Mitchell Library for a couple of weeks to relearn how to work under normal conditions and cope with normal crowds of library traffic.
Mr Ivor Crawley, Belfast's chief librarian, was quoted as saying, "After 12 years of terrorist activity the number of users of the central reference library in the centre of Belfast has dropped dramatically. Many young people have never been in the centre of the city, let alone in the library."
Mr Crawley added, "More than 180 bombs have exploded near the library; all our windows have been blown out 12 times."
I got this story from a four-line mention in the Library Committee minutes. No municipal correspondent, however conscientious, would have bothered to enquire why eight librarians from Belfast were coming to the Mitchell Library.
Another story was about the plan to build a £10 million hotel at Anderston, the Holiday Inn (now The Marriot) and the Skean Dhu (now the Hospitality Inn) in Cowcaddens. The justification for publishing these stories was that the council had given them planning permission, thereby demonstrating its commitment to tourism and conference promotion.
We also reported on the continuing development of the Clydeside Walkway, replacing miles of derelict dockland, that the city had given the Queen Mother a silver medallion for her 80th birthday, that Councillor Jean McFadden had been appointed the first woman Vice-Lieutenant of the city, and that Mrs Susan Baird (later to become Lord Provost) had been appointed chairman of the Manpower Committee. Altogether I think we had a good mix of stories.
A few issues later had a picture of Debbie Peterson, a young lady from Fresno, Californian, who came into the City Chambers to tell me she had been following with interest the council's efforts to attract investment from the West Coast of America. Debbie had arrived in Glasgow only a couple of months earlier to have a look around and after deciding it was a great place she got a job with an advertising firm so that she could stay a bit longer.
Later, in January 1984, after a business course at university, she started the California Cake and Cookie company in Govan and has been going from strength to strength ever since. The company, of which she is chief executive, now employs 75 people, has a turnover of £2 million, and produces a wide range of products, some of which go to America, Paris and Amsterdam. And she still thinks Glasgow is a great place.
The result of all this was that I was allowed to continue to publish the paper, which soon began to win awards from the British Association of Industrial Editors. One of the judges commented, One of the very best newspapers of its kind. With this level of content you must generate a lot of interest in the city.
A popular feature of the paper was a complete list every few months of councillors along with their pictures and surgery times because many people did not know who their councillors were or how to contact them. For years after the reform of local government in Scotland, to the despair of politicians and officials alike, many people still did not know which authority, Strathclyde Region or Glasgow City, were responsible for many public services. I confidently expect the public to be similarly confused when the new Glasgow authority takes over the running of the city in 1996.
When I published a brochure about the council's services and departments and who ran them it was hailed by the news media as a masterpiece of imaginative thinking.
My intention had been to publish the newspaper every six weeks but it caught on so quickly that we decided to bring it out every month. Within a short time Glaswegians started to send the newspaper to relatives and friends abroad and we got many letters from Scots and their descendants asking us to send them a copy each month. Eventually we had readers on all five continents.
In 1986 I decided to find out if The Bulletin was still popular and if the ratepayers of the city still wanted it. After all, it was a lot of work producing it and I didn't want to carry on if the public didn't really want the paper. We were producing 30,000 copies a month and distributing it through council offices, libraries and other outlets.
I wasn't all that surprised when the MORI (Market and Opinion Research International) poll revealed that 82 people out of every 100 polled said they would welcome the delivery of The Bulletin each month. That meant a print run of more than 300,000 copies and made the paper the largest monthly council newspaper in Britain. It was also confirmed as the council's most valuable platform for telling Glaswegians what was happening in Glasgow, which was more than the other newspapers did.
Various methods of distributing the paper in Glasgow were tried over the years and for some time it has been given away each month inside The Herald and the Evening Times, a method which seems to satisfy most people.
In November 1980 Bill Aitken, leader of the Tory group, accused me of using the newspaper for Labour propaganda. I had made great play of the claim that the paper was not to be used for political propaganda but it would be ludicrous to say it was never used for this purpose.
In fact some of the stories we published were blatant propaganda for the Labour administration because they roundly condemned current government policies. Steve Hamilton, the town clerk and chief executive, expertly articulated my problem in a letter I shall come to shortly.
Bill Aitken told The Herald and Scotsman that what I was doing was legally questionable and morally indefensible. When my group and indeed my party propagate our views we do so by means of the media or at our own cost, and most certainly not at the expense of the city ratepayers. We will not be contributing to the paper, particularly where it is clear that a complete bias in respect of space is given to the Labour administration
Bill's tirade was prompted by the impending publication of a report about Labour's opposition to the sale of council houses. I had asked the Tory group for a comment on the story but they had refused. I then wrote to Bill Aitken again offering space in the paper and added that their refusal didn't do much for his group's image. Bill's response was to tell the newspapers that he was preparing to report the whole matter to the local government auditor. When the ratepayers see this misuse of public money it is hardly surprising there is talk of rate strikes.
Unfortunately for Bill the ratepayers were consumed with indifference about this alleged misuse of their money. I don't know whether or not Bill complained to the auditor but nothing ever happened. The incident didn't prevent the Tories from constantly demanding space in the paper to have a go at the Labour group in one way or another but the paper didn't exist for the purpose of letting parties have a go at each other. I was quite happy to print stories about Tory councillors doing something interesting for the city or any of its institutions but as they were not in control they weren't in a position to do anything worth reporting.
Complaints by the Tories went on for a long time. Iain Dyer, another senior Tory, wrote to me at considerable length about allowing myself to be a Labour propagandist and about not getting space in the paper to give the Tory view on the sale of council houses. He repeated that I was responsible for illegal expenditure and in the face of a flagrant breach of the public code you also render yourself liable to dismissal.
I was a bit stung by all this abuse and wrote back, I am sorry you have been so deeply wounded by my recent efforts to fulfil my function of keeping the ratepayers of the city informed about attitudes and decisions made in the City Chambers which impinge upon their daily lives. I can only repeat that there exists within our council very efficient machinery by which complaints against officials may be registered.
I feel I have to add that I can understand the sound and fury of political debate, even on occasion involving officials, but I am grieved that you should think it necessary to attack me personally in such an intense and offensive way.
Iain Dyer also complained to Steve Hamilton who was not easily intimidated by councillors or anyone else. Steve wrote back, I do not share your opinion that the publication of members' views about Council policies is an irregular or improper use of public funds, and I am satisfied that the Public Relations Officer is operating within the law and in accordance with the best traditions of the public service as well as those of British journalism.
Then came the punchline, I hope that in future you will refrain from threatening and attacking members of the Council's staff who are carrying out their duties to the best of their abilities within the law and in accordance with the Council's policies.
Four years later the Tories were still hammering at my editorship of The Bulletin and writing tortuously long letters of complaint. In March 1984 Bill Aitken again wrote to Steve Hamilton It is quite inconceivable that by any stretch of the imagination the Bulletin content can be seen as other than completely partial to the Labour side on a number of issues which are quite frankly party political....The way in which the department has been used over recent months to feed to the media political views, and restricted political views at that, relating to, for example, the conflict with the Secretary of State regarding the rate rise restrictions and the other aspects of lcoal government legislation, has certainly been a matter for very real concern.
Steve wrote back The Public Relations Officer has two main responsibilites which are not always totally compatible. Firstly he is expected to project a favourable image of the City of Glasgow as a good place in which to live, work and invest and as an attractive place to visit for a holiday, shopping expedition, for entertainment or a conference.
The other main task is to publicise the work of the Council and to describe its activities and the various initiatives it takes and to explain and to justify to the public its policies and plans, since these involve the expenditure of public money.
In this latter role the Public Relations Department, operating as it does in an environment in which Party politics play an important part, cannot but reflect the views, aspirations and policies of the Party in power....The feature on Government imposed cuts concentrated on an aspect of Government policy which is clearly very controversial. In promoting its policies the Government has used its own powers and influence to attack local government in general in a manner which, in my experience, is quite unprecedented.
The majority view within Glasgow District Council clearly is that the Council and the services it provides, and local government in general, are under threat and against that background it seems to me to be neither surprising not unreasonable for the Council's newspaper to reflect that view.
Robert Brown, one of the very few Liberal councillors, also put in his tuppenceworth from time to time. He wrote that he was "horrified and astonished" at what could only be described as an election manifesto for the Labour administration. Very little notice was taken of him either.
Despite all the tough talk in some of these exchanges we were all quite friendly, or at least gave that impression. Politicians can attack each other, and officials, quite venomously but to see them in the dining room afterwards one would never think they would say a harsh word to each other although that certainly doesn't always apply. Some politicians would cheerfully cut each others throats, or anyone else's, if they could get away with it; and it wouldn't matter if the object of their animosity was in the same political party.