There ain’t no going back when your foot of pride comes down

ashdownI HAVE always been a political animal and am proud to be labelled a socialist and a pacifist.

But as a journalist I have tried to maintain a political neutrality and treat politicians from all parties just the same.

I was close personal friends with the late Tory politician Bill Hodgson and the SNP’s Margaret and Fergus Ewing. I also class as friends former Labour Defence Secretary Des Browne, SNP Leader Alex Salmond and the Lib Dem MP Charles Kennedy.

Among politicians, as in life, there are good and bad, and in my opinion these were some of the good guys.

But “proud and smug” are just two words I would use to describe the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown.

It is probably wrong to feel so strongly about one man after just two short intercessions, but Ashdown pressed the wrong button for me, and now when I see his face on TV or hear his voice on the radio… I turn off!

I will take you back to early 1992.

I was in my first editor’s chair overseeing The Argyllshire Advertiser, a wonderful small weekly paper in the west of Scotland.

Our paper happened to sit in the middle of the marginal Westminster constituency of Argyll and Bute.

It was a General Election year. The seat was held by likeable Lib Dem MP Ray Michie, but under threat from the Tories and the Scottish National Party (SNP). Indeed after the Tories committed electoral suicide by deselecting their own candidate, the SNP’s Neil MacCormick was coming up fast on the ropes as an unlikely favourite to take the seat.

Meanwhile, nationally it appeared that John Major’s Tory Government could be defeated by the narrow swing in just a handful of seats.

Argyll and Bute was one of them.

So in March 1992 I decided to commission a public opinion poll on the streets of our principal towns to gauge which way the votes might fall. We polled 450 people (about half that of a typical Mori or Gallup opinion poll) and were amazed to find that Prof MacCormick was ahead of the sitting Mrs Michie by about 3%.

The ramifications of this poll were bigger than anything I imagined at the time.

Within 24 hours of my paper publishing the poll results, both BBC and ITV were reporting on it. They wheeled out each of the party leaders for comment and each in turn gave their own turn or spin on the result.

Except for a clearly rattled Paddy Ashdown who in an obvious fury branded our poll as: “A Mickey Mouse poll taken by a Mickey Mouse newspaper”. Quite amusing in hindsight as my paper had been known locally for almost 100 years as “The Squeak”!

I was angered by Mr Ashdown’s outburst and sought to get a response for the following week’s edition of my paper. Each party obliged by giving us good reactive comments. But Mr Ashdown refused to even speak to me and the Scottish Lib Dems moved into dirty tricks territory to discredit our poll and our paper.

As it turned out the Mrs Michie held the seat at the General Election that year with a 2,600 majority.

She later privately told me that she often found Mr Ashdown: ‘quite pompous’ and she apologised for the way he had treated us.

But it wasn’t quite the end of my affair with Mr Ashdown.

Some years later while I was a reporter with Scotland’s national broadsheet The Scotsman I had to attend a question and answer event with the Lib Dem leader.

I sat at the front of the audience of about 200 people with my carefully prepared questions.

When it came to my turn to ask a question, I gave my name and publication. Ashdown looked down at me from his podium and as if he did not hear me, moved on to the next questioner!

This was Paddy’s cold shoulder.

 

Poppycock – or why remembrance rituals make me see red

Posting this brilliant piece by esteemed writer and journalist Robert Fisk, published in today’s The Independent.

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/poppycock–or-why-remembrance-rituals-make-me-see-red-8927751.html

The poppy helps us avoid a search for the meaning of war

On the briefest of visits to London, I was appalled to notice that our television presenters and politicians and dignitaries have almost all resorted to stereotype by wearing those bloody poppies again – even though I suspect most of them would not know the difference between the Dardanelles and the Somme. How come this obscene fashion appendage – inspired by a pro-war poem, for God’s sake, which demands yet further human sacrifice – still adorns the jackets and blouses of the Great and the Good? Even Tony Blair dares to wear a poppy – he who lied us into a war, which killed more people than the Battle of Mons.

I know all the reasons they give us. We must remember our dead. “They” died for us and our freedom. The cost of sacrifice. Remember Passchendaele. Never forget. At school I used to wear a poppy – without the leaf which now prettifies this wretched flower – and so did my Dad who, as I often recall, was a soldier of that Great War, in the trenches of the Third Battle of the Somme, 1918, and at Cambrai. But then, as 2nd Lieutenant Bill Fisk grew older and became sick, he read the biographies of that most meretricious of officers, Earl Haig – butcher Haig of the Somme, whose wife gave her name to the original poppies – and came to regard the wearing of these sickly and fake petals as hypocrisy. He stopped wearing the poppy for 11 November, and so did I.

At Ypres four years ago, I was honoured to give the Armistice Day lecture just before 11 November; but I did not wear a poppy and politely declined to lay a wreath at the Menin Gate – that “sepulchre of crime” as Sassoon called it – and I discovered, as the clergy purred away beneath the names of the 54,896 Great War soldiers with no known grave, a headstone atop the city’s old medieval wall. Nothing could equal the words which his family had courageously inscribed above the final resting place of 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Conway Young, who died on 16 August, 1917: “Sacrifice to the fallacy that war can end.”

So is there not some better way to remember this monstrous crime against humanity? The pity of war, as Wilfred Owen described it, must, for individuals, have a finite end, a point when time – looking backwards – just runs out. British men and women – and children – who visit the Somme battlefields and their vast cemeteries, still cry, and I can understand why. Here lies indeed the flower of youth cut short, only just over a generation distant. But we do not cry when we visit Waterloo or Agincourt. At Flanders Fields, the tears still flow. But not at Flodden Field. Who even weeps for the dead of the Boer War? No poppies for them. Only when you move into religious ecstasy can the long dead touch our souls. Watch the Christians walking the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem, or the Iraqi Shia remembering in the oven-like heat of Najaf and Kerballa the martyrdom of Imams Ali and Hussain. The tears splash down their clothes.

Perhaps in war, it’s the names that count. Dead soldiers had no gravestones before the Great War, unless they were generals, admirals or emperors worthy of entombment in Saint Paul’s or Les Invalides. The soldiery were simply dumped into mass graves. At Waterloo, the remains of the dead were shipped off to England to be used as manure on the fields of Lincolnshire – sometimes tilled, no doubt, by their unsuspecting farmer sons. So much for our remembrance of the “thin red line”. No posthumous glory for them.

Yet glory, I fear, does lie somewhere in our souls when we decide to bless our clothes with this preposterous poppy, this little paper and plastic “blood-drop” on our breasts, fake flowers that supposedly spring from the blood-red soil of the Flanders dead. It is perhaps easier to believe that the names will “live for evermore” – as it says on the walls of cemeteries of both Great Wars of the 20th century – even though hundreds of thousands of First World War Brits and French and Germans and Austrians and Irishmen in British uniform and Hungarians and Indians and Russians and Americans and Turks and, yes, even Portuguese (at Ypres) have no graves at all. But the poppy also helps us avoid a search for the meaning of war.

Wyndam Lewis, the master of Vorticist art who became a soldier at Ypres, wrote of the Great War that it “went on far too long… It was too vast for its meaning, like a giant with the brain of a midge. Its epic proportions were grotesquely out of scale, seeing what it was fought to settle. It was far too indecisive. It settled nothing, as it meant nothing. Indeed, it was impossible to escape the feeling that it was not meant to settle anything – that could have any meaning, or be of any advantage, to the general run of men.”

Tolstoy caught the other side of this “non-meaning” of war in his critique of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. An “event took place”, he wrote in War and Peace, “opposed to human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, incendiarisms and murders, as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.”

It was Lewis’s idea – that war was ultimately devoid of meaning – which my father was, I think, trying to capture when he described the 1914-18 conflict to me in his hospital room as “just one great waste”. He had survived that war and outlived another and the end of the British Empire, which I suspect we have not ceased mourning – could that be really what the poppies are all about? – and even lived long enough to watch the first Gulf War on television. He often quoted what he believed to be the last words of Nurse Edith Cavell, shot in Brussels by the Germans for rescuing Allied soldiers behind enemy lines, words which are inscribed on her monument beside the National Gallery: “Patriotism is not enough.” But in full, her very last words – spoken to a British chaplain before she was executed – were these: “But this I would say, standing in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” Read her words; and cast poppies aside.

For they are better, surely, than that terrible, almost orgiastic poem by the Toronto doctor John McCrae who died in 1915, and whose words inspired the armies of poppy-wearers. “In Flanders fields, the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row…” McCrae begins – but then his dead soldiers exhort the living to “Take up our quarrel with the foe…/ If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders Fields.” The poppies were there to remind us of our duty to kill more human beings.

And what did I see on television a few hours before writing these words? Why, the mayor of Toronto – McCrea’s own city – admitting to the smoking of crack cocaine. “I sincerely, sincerely, sincerely apologise,” he burbled to us all. And what did I see in his jacket button hole? A bloody poppy! How they must have cried at Passchendaele…

I’m closing the book on the pages and the text

Iain BanksMY meeting and dinner with the late and great author Iain Banks is wholly memorable for so many reasons.

And it was totally unexpected.

I had long been an admirer of the Fife born author since I picked up The Wasp Factory at my local branch of WH Smiths in the late 1980s. It was a book I read in one sitting and returned to again and again.

Following that ground-breaking novel I began to consume almost everything Banks wrote. The Bridge and Espedair Street were similarly devoured in one go. Crow Road took a little longer and remains my favourite Iain Banks novel.

Well-thumbed copies of Complicity, Whit and a Song of Stone all sat on my bookshelves by the time I actually met the great man.

And the meeting was a complete and wonderful surprise.

It was early 1997, I was working as Chief Investigative Reporter at the Scottish broadsheet daily The Scotsman. I had been working closely with award-winning TV producer Sara Brown on revealing the dark and murky history of Scotland’s Dounreay experimental nuclear reactors. We had come close to proving that the plant almost suffered a Chernobyl type meltdown in the mid 1960s… but that is a story for another day.

After one particularly long day of research with Sara, she suggested I might like to have dinner with one of her old friends, who shared my passion in investigations and writing. I almost fell through the floor when she told me her old friend was Iain Banks.

And so it was a few evenings later we gathered at a small restaurant at North Queensferry (just over the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh) to share a wonderful meal.

I cannot remember what we ate, but do remember the wine flowed freely as Iain took centre stage. Star-struck, I just sat and held onto almost every word.

He waxed lyrical about the wine, the food and his passion for fast cars and boats. He talked about how his writing had helped fund one boat he kept moored on the west coast of Scotland.

He asked me in detail about my job at The Scotsman and talked about how his own enquiring mind sparked his journey into writing best-selling thrillers and science fiction novels.

As the meal and wine flowed I mentioned Iain’s amazing 1993 murder novel Complicity, which was clearly set at The Scotsman – named The Caledonian for the sake of his book – and which I had already read three times. He smiled and said it was his new Wasp Factory. Sara suddenly chipped in and suggested that the hero of the novel Cameron Colley was actually me! That was hardly likely as I was not even working at The Scotsman when Iain wrote the book. Iain seemed amused and asked for more details about my job. I filled in a few and he laughed out loud.

“Sounds like Cammy to me,” he quipped.

It was only when I watched the movie of the book, starring Jonny Lee Miller, some four years later, that I realised just how close the character of Cameron Colley was to my own at The Scotsman. There was also a sad irony that the trigger for the murders in Complicity stemmed from child sexual abuse.

Anyway, the meal and chatter lasted for more than two hours before we drifted off home.

Iain as the true bon viveur insisted on paying for everything.

I hoped to meet him again sometime soon. But life events meant that I moved away from Edinburgh later that year and the brilliant Sara emigrated to the USA a couple of years later. The link was lost and three respective lives moved on.

I was deeply saddened when Iain succumbed to terminal pancreatic cancer in June this year. The world has lost an amazing author.

As I proof this blog posting I sit with a copy of his 2002 book Dead Air next to me and a few tears in my eyes. I have some re-reading to do tonight.

 

Stay far from the fence with the electricity Sting

mayfairSELDOM have I ever spoken with quite so many so-called music celebs in a single month as I did in November 1997.

At the time I was working for the North East tabloid the Sunday Sun under its mercurial and quite brilliant editor Chris Rushton. I was charged with running a small campaign to help save Newcastle’s Mayfair Ballroom from demolition to make way for a new leisure and shopping complex.

The ballroom was iconic with the North East. It opened in 1961 and had been the launch pad for hundreds of bands including The Animals, Roxy Music, The Police, Lindisfarne, Dire Straits and Prefab Sprout.

I spoke at length with the Mayfair’s promoter Sue Collier who told me: “All the North’s rock bands came through the Mayfair. And Jimmy Nail has been thrown out of here more times than we can think.”

She said she was planning a Ballroom Blitz to highlight the likely demolition of the venue. Already Dave Stewart, Alan Price, Chris Rea, Lindisfarne and Jimmy Nail had agreed to take part. She said she was hoping to get Bryan Ferry, Danny McAloon, Toy Dolls, Venom, Mark Knopfler and Sting to join the fray.

Sue suggested I should try to speak with some of these rock legends to get them ‘on the record’ for our campaign.

The idea of interviewing these guys was for me a complete joy. So I began telephoning each artist on Sue’s amazing list.

Mark Knopfler’s agent was bubbling with excitement and said that the former Dire Straits guitarist would “certainly be keen to get involved”.

“It’s a great rock venue and it only needs one big star to get off the pot and you will have hundreds involved,” he added.

Sunderland born Bryan Ferry was even more enthusiastic. “It’s a great venue and I would view very favourably the chance to take part,” he said.

“You ought to get in touch with Dave Stewart… he’d do it like a shot,” he added.

Danny McAloon, Chris Rea and Jimmy Nail were also buoyed up by the plan and spoke at length about their passion for the Mayfair Ballroom.

So what about rock superstar Sting – former frontman for The Police – surely he would join the campaign?

One phone call answered that question. His PA abruptly told me: “I am sorry but Sting is far too busy at the moment to even contemplate this.”

Saving the Amazon rainforests maybe? I guess that is Sting for you!

Sadly the campaign to save the Mayfair failed and a compulsory purchase order by the developers ensured its fate.

In the autumn of 1999, the ballroom was demolished, to make way for a leisure complex, called The Gate. The closing night was attended by 5,000 people.

I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now

Ted Heath 2MY first proper interview could not have been with a more eminent British statesman.

It is January 1977, I am 20 years old, and to my lasting embarrassment I am vice chairman of our university society: the Federation of Conservative students. I can only blame my position on political naivety and the right wing doctrines of my late father. Thankfully, my Tory years are brief!

Anyway I will cut to the chase…

The evening before this encounter I am part of a small group of third year students attending a new book signing function in Leeds. The guest of honour is the author and recently defeated Conservative Party leader and former Prime Minister, Edward Heath.

During the evening, two girls in our group share a drink, some jokes and a lengthy chat with Mr Heath’s personal assistant and his Special Branch bodyguard. Bearing in mind this is at the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland, Mr Heath’s protective partners are amazingly lax in attitude and seem almost too friendly.

But nothing can surpass the surprise as we leave when the Special Branch detective smiles and says: “See you tomorrow then.”

The 20 mile journey home on a number 75 bus answers the obvious question I need to ask.

Our two female companions had persuaded Mr Heath and his police protection to join us for drinks the following day at the university union!

And to top it all, we will get to interview him on his three favourite subjects: music, sailing and politics – in time to publish in the next edition of our society newsletter.

A heady mix of nerves and excitement mean I do not sleep much that night.

The next morning, I organise the logistics for the meeting with my Tory cohorts and officers from the student union.

We set up three students to ask questions and arrange with the Special Branch officer to sneak Mr Heath up a back staircase into the union president’s office and avoid any verbal flak from fellow undergrads.

I also arrange for a bottle of Mr Heath’s favourite malt whisky to be on hand to help lubricate the interview and settle our nerves.

At about 2pm, an ebullient former Prime Minister arrives accompanied by his Special Branch officer and the personal assistant from the previous evening.

Mr H has a quiet air of someone who has held the highest political office and is smartly groomed in his green and grey Saville Row wool worsted suit.

We gather together in the small but tidy office: Mr Heath, his PA and the Special Branch agent and four nervous students.

We take it in turns to socialise and ask questions and I pour Mr Heath his first whisky, which he drinks quite speedily.

Two minutes suddenly become 15 minutes and it is my turn to ask the political questions.

At this point, with my prepared question about the Warnock Report on education reform, at hand I notice the former PM’s glass is empty.

“Would you like another whisky?” I ask, stalling for time.

“That would be very good,” comes the reply.

I smile and reach for the bottle of malt.

But disaster strikes.

I try to juggle my still full glass of whisky (a double measure), a notebook and pen, while taking Mr Heath’s glass from him.

It all goes horribly wrong.

I drop the notebook, struggle to catch the empty glass from Mr Heath’s hand while pouring the entire contents of my glass down his Saville Row suit.

There is a sharp intake of breath from all corners of the room.

I can feel my face reddening as I stutter an apology.

Mr Heath reaches for a white handkerchief and attempts to mop up the spilt whisky and dry his jacket.

One of our party offers some paper tissues,

I apologise once again, still shaking.

But a smile greets me… “It doesn’t matter… it was an accident,” he says.

The rest of the interview remains a blur, except for the fact I did manage to ask my Warnock Report question, but I can’t remember the reply!

I wait another eight years before daring to try and be a journalist again.

 

The Shadowy One Who Fires the Gun

Daily Mail

THERE are only a few things in life I really hate, and one of them is the Daily Mail.

It is a poisonous rag which cloaks itself in the clothes of middle class decency while demeaning everything which is good.

And, as a journalist, I find its pretense at factual reporting frightening. Its so-called news reeks of innuendo and loaded propaganda.

And its agenda is unwavering: preserve Conservative Britain from the rabid threat of Marxism, the Labour Party, trade unions and working people.

So the savaging of Daily Mail deputy editor Jon Steafel by Alistair Campbell on BBC 2’s Newsnight over the paper’s scurrilous article about Ed Miliband’s late father Ralph, was an unexpected delight.

Particularly pleasing was the bright light Mr Campbell shone on the paper’s shadowy editor Paul Dacre.

My own dealings with the Mail as a journalist were rather more obscure.

I would like to take you back to 1997.

I was at the pinnacle of my career working as the Chief Investigative Reporter for the Scotsman.

A whole world away from the Daily Mail.

In three years, I had broken a series of major exclusive investigations. Among the highlights were the dumping of millions of tons of munitions in the Irish Sea, the deadly legacy of the Dounreay experimental nuclear plant in Northern Scotland and a probable link between pesticides and BSE.

I had also been honoured with two back-to-back awards as Scottish Journalist of the Year and was in line for a third.

I loved my job and the collegiate atmosphere I worked in. I honestly believed I would spend the rest of my working life at North Bridge, with no aspirations other than to continue in my role.

But all that changed when in December 1996, our newspaper was surprisingly bought out by property billionaires, the Barclay Brothers.

With the new owners came a new Editor in Chief, the infamous Andrew Neil.

There was a corporate intake of breath as we all wondered for the future.

That intake turned into something approaching choking when our much loved editor, Jim Seaton, was placed on ‘gardening leave’ awaiting early retirement and a new editor Martin Clarke was announced.

We all winced… Clarke had trained under Paul Dacre and he was well known as a Rottweiler in the newsroom.

Clarke’s editorial demeanour attracted a range of tributes from former colleagues: “vile”, “offensive”, “appalling”, “obsessive”, “childlike” and “foul-mouthed” being among the less flattering.

Like Dacre, whose briefings were called “the vagina monologues” for their reliance on one particular expletive, Clarke went one better.

“He would start by saying, ‘You’re all a fucking disgrace and one of you is going to be fucking sacked this week,” and the terrible thing was, one of us usually was,” said Alexandra Blair, The Times educational correspondent, who worked for him for a year and a half at The Scotsman.

Another reporter who worked under Clarke said: “He once said to me: ‘You’ve got to go and shout at the bastards or they won’t respect you.'”

My stay under Clarke’s editorship was brief… just six months.

I moved on after being told to follow his own loaded agenda, which included one weird instruction to prove that wild deer being pursued by hounds are “no more stressed than a cow in a slaughterhouse”!

The final straw came in a bleak week, which began by Clarke blanking me at a press awards lunch after I had been highly commended as reporter of the year and finished by him standing over me at 10pm on a fourth rewrite of a story, berating my journalism as “fucking bollocks”.

I introduce a clipping of a piece written by Rob Brown in June 1997.

“Senior writers and sub-editors now find themselves being showered with expletives by their new editor Martin Clarke, whose lexicon of abuse is fairly extensive.

“Several executives have resigned in disgust. They included the picture editor Paul Dodds, who quit after being ordered to get better pictures from his “f***in’ monkeys”.

“Also out is associate editor Lesley Riddoch, who suddenly found her articles being repeatedly spiked.

“One of the journalists who has quit in disgust said: “I have worked for some brutal editors in my time, but Martin Clarke behaves like a feudal squire and treats his staff like serfs. Change was certainly needed at The Scotsman, but not this. He is running amok, creating a totally demoralised and demotivated staff.”

“But, put it to Clarke that he is pursuing a monstrous form of macho management and he professes his innocence with almost schoolboyish sense of hurt.

“Clarke, 32, says the complaints are emanating from only a couple of “malcontents”. Some people, he says, are driven by “personal pique because they never got a job they wanted”. Nic Outterside, head of the paper’s investigative unit, left last week. Clarke says the unit was disbanded because it was “a crock of shit”.

“Others, according to Clarke, have become “malcontents” simply because they cannot stand the new pace in the newsroom.

“I demand a greater level of working than perhaps some people are used to here and I can be robust at times, like all editors,” he says.

“Clarke confirms that he drew up a five-and-a-half page document a few weeks after he took charge recommending that a number of senior Scotsman staffers should be removed from their posts. This “operation review” leaked from the editor’s office into the newsroom, where it was seen as a sinister hit list. Clarke admits to some regrets about that.

“Of course it was bloody unfortunate, but you don’t expect to work in a place where such illegal activities take place. It was stolen from my computer. I’ve worked in some pretty rough newspapers, but nowhere where people are that underhand.”

At the time of writing this blog, Clarke and Steafel are both tipped to succeed Paul Dacre as the next editor of the Daily Mail.

The art of being underhand is surely what the Mail is all about.

Darkness at the break of noon

WEDNESDAY, 13 March 1996 will stay etched in my memory for every day of my life.

But it started like any other day.

It was a typically dreich spring morning in Edinburgh as I settled down to a diary of interviews and enquiries in my job as an investigative reporter at The Scotsman – at the time Scotland’s most pre-eminent broadsheet newspaper.

Back home in Perth – some 33 miles north of my office – my partner was planning a shoe shopping expedition for our two young daughters. Over a rushed slice of toast a few hours earlier she said she planned to browse a couple of shops in our fair city and maybe venture out to Dunblane or Stirling later in the day.

Here in The Scotsman’s Victorian offices I looked out over the grey North Bridge towards Princes Street, checked my diary and clocked a quick coffee before waiting for a telephone interview with Scottish born actor Tom Conti.

Tom was a champion of the London based organisation Justice, which campaigned on behalf of those imprisoned as a result of miscarriages of justice by the Scottish and English courts.

At the time I was running a campaign on behalf of a young man named Craig MacKenzie who had – in my opinion and according to the facts I had obtained – been wrongly convicted of murder of a fellow Edinburgh teenager David Edwards. My campaign had been running over three months with little movement from the Scottish legal system to intervene. I saw the interview with Tom Conti as a key move to add weight to our demand for an appeal.

The newsroom was quiet and I sipped my coffee. The phone rang at the arranged time and the unmistakable burr of Mr Conti’s voice greeted me at the other end.

The star of Shirley Valentine and The Norman Conquests was relaxed as we shared notes on the weather in Edinburgh and London and the state of British politics. It was like meeting an old friend for a coffee in town as we progressed to discuss our work and recent challenges.

Eventually, after what seemed 20 minutes we began to discuss the Craig MacKenzie case. Tom was up to speed with the case and agreed with me that MacKenzie’s conviction was probably unsafe and we should press hard for an appeal.

We began to discuss the details in earnest when suddenly the Press Association (PA) updates on my monitor began to flicker an instantly disturbing piece of news: “Six children believed shot in Dunblane”.

I reported the news immediately to Tom, just as a clamour of noise erupted around me in the newsroom. And with it came a further update from the PA wires: “Ten children shot”. I quickly relayed the information again as a voice from the newsdesk was shouting in my direction.

Tom and I politely suggested to each other that we leave the interview for another day. He rushed to his TV, I glanced once more at my monitor to see the horror of Dunblane unfolding before my eyes. We put down the phone.

The news editor ordered my friend Stephen and fellow colleagues, Jenny and Lynn, to get to Dunblane as quickly as they could. “And be safe,” he added, as they scurried out of the newsroom, notebooks in hand. He turned and asked me to stay at my desk and collate information as it came in and try to make some sense of it all.

But my mind was in panic.

Which children had been killed and exactly where in Dunblane? And, selfishly, where was my partner and my two gorgeous daughters?

This was 1996 and very few people had the luxury of mobile phones, least of all newspaper journalists and their families.

I tried our home phone vainly for an answer.

Had she gone to Dunblane already?

My heart was racing.

Then PA reported the shooting was confined to the town’s primary school, but there was no word as to whether the gunman had gone on a rampage elsewhere.

Within an hour the death toll had risen again before my partner telephoned me to ask if I had heard the news about Dunblane.

I think my reply was something akin to: “Of course I feckin’ have, where the hell have you been?”

She calmly told me she had heard the news on a radio in a shoe shop in Perth!

Back in the fray by mid-afternoon it was clear the gunman was also dead.

The day had become a blur of adrenalin

By early evening, a couple of my colleagues had returned from Dunblane and I had pieced together information about the shootings from many different sources:

After gaining entry to Dunblane Primary School, 43-year-old former shopkeeper Thomas Hamilton made his way to the gymnasium and opened fire on a Primary One class of five and six-year-olds, killing or wounding all but one.Fifteen children died together with their class teacher, Gwen Mayor, who was killed trying to protect them.

Hamilton then left the gym through the emergency exit. In the playground outside, he began shooting into a mobile classroom. A teacher in a mobile classroom realised that something was seriously wrong and told the children to hide under the tables. Most of the bullets became embedded in books and equipment.He also fired at a group of children walking in a corridor, injuring one teacher.

It later transpired that Hamilton had returned to the gym and with one of his two revolvers fired one shot pointing upwards into his mouth, killing himself instantly.

A further eleven children and three adults were rushed to hospital as soon as the emergency services arrived. One further child was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Along with my colleagues, I worked until 9pm that evening and turned in a 12 hour shift the following day, trying to keep a clear head and report calmly the events which had transpired on that fateful Wednesday.

Sleep on the Wednesday and Thursday nights was impossible as my mind ran overtime. It was like being on speed in something akin to the movie Jacob’s Ladder.

Friday morning dawned and I grabbed my toast, kissed my sleeping daughters goodbye and again drove the 33 miles to Edinburgh.

Ensconced at my desk, I managed to look and at marvel at the Thursday and Friday editions of our paper side-by-side. Those papers still fill me with pride at what my editor, news editor, page designers and reporting colleagues had achieved.

The front page sub-deck written by our columnist Ian Bell still rings true: “Call it madness or evil, sickness or sin: those are just the words we use to give a name to our incomprehension. Thomas Hamilton was one of us, part of the species. There is horror in the suffering he inflicted but a deeper horror, a terror, in the fact that we cannot explain how one of us became what Thomas Hamilton became.”

So while the families and friends of the bereaved were going through their own personal hell, the Friday at work was all about investigating what had gone on at Dunblane, how Hamilton had acquired such an arsenal of guns and, I suppose, who else was to blame.

We needed some clear lines of enquiry for our Saturday edition.

I had to keep my clear head fully engaged.

It worked and when the news editor said we could all go home at 5.30pm I felt I had at last finished the longest shift of my life shift.

I recall getting into my car and driving through the rush hour haze towards the Forth Road Bridge and the journey home.

The car radio was tuned to BBC Radio 4 and I was half listening to live feed from the House of Commons.

Suddenly the voice on air was instantly recognisable as the Ulster Unionist MP Ian Paisley. Politically, I detested the man, but his words at that moment rang clear and true: “And I say, suffer little children to come unto me, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.

Just as I drove my car up to the toll booth at the southern end of the bridge I broke down. Tears flowed uncontrollably as I choked for breath and fumbled my change into the hand of the booth attendant.

To this day I still don’t remember the rest of the drive home, just a blur of trying to focus on the road until I pulled up outside our house.

That evening I sat with my young children and partner and drank too much red wine while talking incoherently about the events of those three days.

Early the next morning, we agreed to make the short drive to Dunblane and lay flowers at what was becoming an international shrine to those killed in the carnage.

The scene that greeted us is also still with me now as I write these words… flowers and cards lining the road up to the school for more than 200 yards, with red-eyed police officers standing sentry duty barely able to meet the eyes of the scores of mourners and parents surrounding them. Tears and choking grief like I had never felt or witnessed before or since. Incomprehension.

We held our children close that day and forever afterwards.

Note: I never did finish the interview with Tom Conti. Craig MacKenzie was eventually released from prison in 2005 after winning a partial appeal. He was sadly found murdered in his Edinburgh flat earlier this year aged just 40.