Profile: Scourge of TV unions girds for new enemy: Gus Macdonald - The next battle looming for the canny head of Scottish Television is likely to be against southern bidders. He talks to William Kay

AS HE celebrated Hogmanay on Friday, Gus Macdonald was uncomfortably aware that the new year is bringing the toughest test yet for his siege strategy at Scottish Television.

Since he took over as managing director of STV in July 1990, he has single-mindedly pegged costs and maximised profits to guard against the looming prospect of a takeover bid.

While that was a remote danger under the old broadcasting rules, the game is changing rapidly. From the end of November, any one company was allowed to own two franchise territories for the first time, sparking the bids by Carlton for Central and Granada for LWT. From yesterday, non- media and companies from other European Union states can also buy ITV operators.

And this year, a joint committee of the departments of Trade and Industry and National Heritage is due to recommend yet more deregulation to be incorporated in a new Broadcasting Bill.

For a company of STV's size - valued on the stock market at pounds 218m, little more than a third as big as LWT, every liberalisation strips away another shield against predators.

But Scots do not come much cannier than Macdonald, whose career is a story of the long march from one side of Glasgow to the other, via London, Edinburgh and Manchester.

The journey has taken him from being a shipyard strike leader to the scourge of the television unions - a similar path to that of another 1960s left-wing torch, LWT's Greg Dyke.

Both became TV programme- makers who decided that their calling was being crippled by management-union conspiracies. Both rose to positions where they could clean the stables of corruption and overmanning, easing the blow with fat redundancy cheques.

Both became personally wealthy - although Dyke's pounds 7m comfortably outstrips Macdonald's million or so.

He has a large flat in Glasgow, designed by the Victorian architect Alexander 'Greek' Thomson, where he lives with his wife, Alice. They have two daughters, aged 26 and 28.

'The views people hold when they are young are often quite different from those they hold when they are mature and have gained experience,' he explains. 'I think I've just been constantly in touch with changing realities.'

An only child born in 1940, the son of a Clydeside docker, Macdonald trained as a shipyard fitter, led an apprentices' strike, joined the Govan and Gorbals Young Socialists and became chairman of the Clydeside Junior Workers' Committee - battle honours which were to be very helpful in the radical chic London media circles of the 1960s.

When the shipyards began to close in 1963, Macdonald went to London to seek work. His Labour Party contacts found him a job as circulation manager of Tribune, the left-wing magazine. He used that toehold in Fleet Street to persuade the editor of the Sunday Times, Harold Evans, to give him some work on the 'Insight' investigative team.

That enabled him to land a job as features writer on the Scotsman in Edinburgh, helping Magnus Magnusson (now of Mastermind) to launch an investigative unit.

Two years later, in 1967, Macdonald became the first editor of the Scotsman's new business section. That proved timely, for a couple of years later David Plowright at Granada Television was reviving World in Action and was looking for an experienced journalist with a financial background.

It marked the beginning of an 18-year stint that established Macdonald successively as a TV presenter and executive.

Apart from World in Action, he fronted Granada's party conference coverage for several years as well as prestigious programmes such as What the Papers Say and, inevitably, Union World. Returning regularly to London in this considerably more glamorous guise, he slipped easily into the Establishment milieu and became a member of the RAC and Reform clubs - as are several union leaders, he quickly points out.

Macdonald eventually forsook the greasepaint for management's greasy pole, ending up as head of current affairs. That was when he discovered that unions were not necessarily unalloyed good news.

'The life was squeezed out of TV companies by the labour movement,' he declares. 'It didn't serve the public to have 10 people on a current affairs crew; it was just a greedy monopoly.'

In 1986, he was lured back north of the border to be STV's director of programmes, succeeding four years later to his present job. There he acquired the nickname 'Ghost' Macdonald, because the staff never seemed to see him round the building - unlike his predecessor and present chairman, Bill Brown, who habitually lunched in the canteen.

Instead, he gained a reputation for slashing the payroll. More than half the staff was paid off as Macdonald cut the number of workers from 800 to 330.

Last month the heads of programmes, entertainment and documentaries, and the sports editor, were either given their cards or had their jobs merged.

'In fact, we are employing more people than ever before,' Macdonald insists.

'Before, there were 800 staff making 500 hours of programmes a year. Now we make 1,000 hours a year with a core of 350 and another 250 on contract. Because we have developed quite a big business in network production, we have a thriving freelance side. Airtime sales and other services like cleaning have been contracted out, and even our engineers have formed their own company.'

However, that still means that STV saves on holidays, pensions and national insurance and, as Macdonald admits, this gives the company the flexibility to step these services up or down as circumstances require.

One redundant former executive said: 'He has a very large ego, and he's very determined. But I'd rather you didn't mention my name, as I still want to work in this industry.'

While the group's profits marked time in the first two years of Macdonald's reign, they showed signs of breaking out in the first half of 1993 with a jump from pounds 2.2m to pounds 3.1m.

STV's production for the rest of the ITV network has been hived off into a separate company, Scottish Television Enterprises, which is already one of the largest suppliers of children's programmes in Europe and aims to become a force on the European scene.

It also has a 20 per cent stake in Good Morning Television, which should gain from the revival in advertising as the economic recovery gathers pace.

A month ago, Macdonald claimed confidently: 'I am peering over Hadrian's Wall, waiting for an opportunity to invade.'

But now he is gazing more warily into the new year, saying: 'We have just been keeping a close watch on the situation. We'll have to see how the dust settles.'

Sadly for Macdonald's defence strategy, STV shares have defied the stock market surge, falling by about pounds 1 as the year ended, from their 1993 high of 553p.

Some observers have speculated that a hostile bid for STV could be the excuse the tartan army needs to dust down its claymores for the first major battle against foreign invaders since Guinness snatched Distillers so controversially more than seven years ago.

STV's board bristles with the so-called Scottish mafia, from Sir Charles Fraser and merchant banker Angus Grossart to Gavin Laird, general secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, Macdonald's old union.

But while Macdonald is more than happy to play the Scottish card, he wisely does not rely on it.

'Any bidder would have to conform with our licensing agreement, in which commitment to Scotland is very important,' he points out. 'The nationality of the ownership is irrelevant, so long as the commitment is there.

'But we in Scotland have suffered a lot from the 'branch factory' economy. We'd fight to retain control in Scotland.'

Macdonald now forswears any party political allegiance, having voted for all main parties at different times.

But as he toasted 1994 in his flat in the small hours of yesterday morning, Macdonald faced a potent reminder of his early fights - his mother, Jean, who may veer nowadays between support for Labour and the Scottish National Party but still delights in drawing her son into argument.

'I was brought up in a political household, and I still pay my dues to Amnesty,' Macdonald admits. 'But statism is not a viable option any more.'

Bobby Campbell, features editor of the Scotsman and a friend of Macdonald for over 30 years, said: 'He's had a bumpy ride from Clydeside to the management floor. In the course of that he's lost a few friends, but he has basically remained the same guy. People on the left are always looking for hero figures to produce a socialist paradigm. I have always thought that was extremely naive.'

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Senior Analyst - ALM Data - Banking - Halifax

£350 - £400 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Analyst, ALM Data, Halifax, ...

Java developer - Banking - London - Up to £600/day

£500 - £600 per day: Orgtel: Java developer - Banking - London - Up to £600/d...

Liquidity Reporting-Basel III-LCR-Bank-£400/day

£400 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Liquidity Reporting - Basel III - LCR - Ba...

Investment Manager – Media and Entertainment

Up to £50,000 per annum + Bonus + Benefits : Sauce Recruitment: We are repre...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz