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

cards blogTODAY is my last day as a bona fide journalist.

It is a day when I close the pages on a 28 year career in magazine and newspapers with tears in my eyes but real excitement inside.

I have cleared my desk, handed back my company car and door fobs and now sit here in my study overlooking our beautiful market town contemplating the future. A town currently weathering under grey clouds and cold winter rain.

Journalism has been the largest and most consistent part of my life since I stumbled into it by accident way back in the spring of 1985.

At the time, I was in a sort of limbo land between careers, but I was a young man willing to explore possibilities.

I had just bought my first home computer – a BBC Acorn Electron – and began offering reviews and solutions to text adventure games for a couple of glossy computer magazines in Manchester.

As Elvis Costello once wrote: “Accidents will happen”, and soon I had accidentally accepted the offer of a regular column for one of the magazines. Then more reviews and columns came my way, and within two years I was appointed assistant editor of yet another monthly mag.

The rest as they say is history and since those early years I have worked as chief investigative reporter for two Scottish dailies and a North East Sunday tabloid, and edited five weekly newspapers in places as diverse as Argyll, Galloway, Peterhead and Denbighshire.

It has often been hard work – with long unsocial hours as standard – and it has sometimes been gruelling, harrowing and frightening… but it has also been immense fun.

The low points include working on the Dunblane Massacre in 1996, attending some horrific road traffic accidents and fatal accident inquiries, and being ordered to make staff redundant, refusing to do so, and resigning my own job instead.

The high points, however, are almost too many to list, and will save for other blog postings.

I guess it is the stories which have driven me along… especially so when so many of them were breaking exclusives, exposing corruption or unmasking state duplicity.

The other drivers in my career were the awards I acquired as a writer and as an editor and the boost they give to keep on keeping on.

The singular most memorable moment was in 1994 when I was given a special judges award for my year-long investigations into the link between the firing of Depleted Uranium tank shells at a MoD testing range in South West Scotland and local clusters of childhood cancer. It was a link later replicated in the aftermath of the first Gulf War with Iraqi children and Gulf War Syndrome among allied service personnel.

I remember with renewed tears as I walked back to our table at the press awards ceremony in Edinburgh to be greeted by my father and his words; “I am proud of you”.

I think it was the first time in my life I had ever heard him say that.

Since dad’s death in 2008 that memory often revisits me.
Around the same time in the spring of 1994, I was deeply honoured by an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons – signed by 41 MPs – praising my journalism http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/business-papers/commons/early-day-motions/edm-detail1/?session=1993-94&edmnumber=1143&orderby=Party&orderdirection=Asc

The fact that the main sponsor of the motion was Alan Simpson MP and a co-signatories were Dennis Skinner and Ken Livingstone, who were all political heroes of mine, made it very special indeed.

But I guess if I had to condense my time in journalism, it is not about the stories or the headlines or even the awards, it is about the people I was lucky enough to work with and for.

With the exception of my first sociopathic editors – the first would not speak to anyone for days on end and the second would relieve his stress in the gents’ urinals by banging his head against the wall – I have been privileged to work for some amazing people.

I owe a huge debt to Tom Davison, editor at the Galloway Gazette, who, for two whole years, gave me the freedom and guidance to become the investigative journalist I had sought to be. I haven’t seen or spoken with Tom in more than 17 years. I hope one day he may read this and accept my gratitude.

Then there was Jim Seaton at The Scotsman, a true gentleman and newsman to the core, who was savagely treated when the paper was sold to the infamous Barclay Brothers in 1996. Quite simply, Jim, you were the best.

I was also blessed to work for design guru Andrew Jaspan who reinvented how daily and Sunday newspapers should look and feel; the hard-nosed Derek Tucker (who insisted on being simply called The Editor) at the Press and Journal and the mercurial Chris Rushton at the Sunday Sun. You guys were all immense editors.

And finally, Graham Breeze, an editor who lived for his patch and was still turning in breaking stories – often by phone calls at inappropriate hours – after 38 years at this game. Thanks Graham for your support as my boss and as a friend.

But above all, it is my colleagues in the newsroom who I will always remember.

Recently I was humbled beyond belief by the friendship of some of these amazing people.

Shortly after my nervous breakdown in June this year, I received 18 individual testimonials and references from reporters, photographers and trainees who have worked for me over the years.

Those statements are more valuable to me than any reference from a former employer and they arrived at a critical moment in my life.

To repeat their words now would invoke such emotion that I would not be able to finish this posting. I have thanked you all personally for your words and now I do it publicly… you all know who you are!

And there are many others who I count now as life-long friends.

One of my photographers has been my closest friend and support for 21 years now.

One of my earliest editors and I fell out big time in 1992, but when the going got tough we realized the truth of our friendship and remain good friends to this day.

In 1998 I witnessed the wedding of an amazing colleague in a very personal service at a ruined Scottish monastery. We were there for each other when both our separate relationships failed two years later. She emigrated to the USA in 2000, but we remain in touch and our friendship endures.

Another fellow journalist became a regular house visitor when she went through a traumatic marriage break-up. The friendship also endures and I was lucky enough to spend a wonderful week in her holiday cottage in North East Scotland – renovated by her and her new husband – two summers ago.

Much more recently two colleagues were the first people to give help when I was the victim of an unprovoked assault in 2007, an assault which almost took my life. Their unconditional assistance remains truly remarkable.

And to close this incredible list of friendships, I must name check more recent additions: Natalie, Hannah, Lia, Sophie, Rachel, Angela and Craig who I also class as very special friends indeed.

Without a career in journalism, none of you would have been part of my life and that would have been a tragedy.

So thank you for the memories and the friendships.

Now it is time to move on…

Brief Encounter #5

Cyril Smith MP

Cyril SmithMY meeting with the obese child abusing MP for Rochdale was thankfully very brief.

It was the late summer of 1980 and I was standing outside Euston Station following an enjoyable day out in London.

Suddenly I heard a kerfuffle at the nearby taxi rank.

I apologise to anyone who may find the following offensive but it really was bizarre in the extreme.

I turned to witness the gargantuan Cyril Smith trying and failing to get into the back of a black cab.

The moment of dark humour was complete when a man – I presume to be his secretary or parliamentary aide – pushed him with both hands into the taxi.

Suddenly he was in!

It was like a dry cork popping from an over-full wine bottle. The aide looked exhausted!

I never did find out how Mr Smith exited the taxi or whether this was a daily exercise in fat cabs.

Cyril Smith died in 2010 aged 82.

In 2012, following allegations of child abuse, the Crown Prosecution Service formally admitted Smith should have been charged with the sexual abuse of boys during his lifetime.

Greater Manchester Police said the boys “were victims of physical and sexual abuse” by Smith.

In November 2012, GMP Assistant Chief Constable Steve Heywood said there was “overwhelming evidence” that young boys were sexually and physically abused by Smith.