Horror! Mail man let loose

No firings, no redundo, just howls and resignations as the youthful Martin Clarke storms through `The Scotsman'. Rob Brown reviews the spectacle

This should be a joyous time for the media in Scotland. At long last Labour is back in power and poised to honour its pledge to establish a Scottish parliament, a development which should make life distinctly more interesting for the press and broadcasters north of the border. Especially joyous should be journalists on The Scotsman, whose offices are barely a block away from the neo-classical school building in Edinburgh which will house the assembly. For three decades senior scribes on that title have campaigned tirelessly (and sometimes tiresomely) for devolution.

But that ambiguous Chinese blessing "May you live in interesting times" has turned out to be something of a Confucian curse for some Scotsman staffers. Life has become interesting for them, all right, but in a way some find unbearable.

They are not famed for their emotionalism in Edinburgh - a cold city once dubbed the "Reykjavik of the south" by Tom Stoppard - but there are some people on Scotland's self-styled national newspaper who would have you believe that the barbarians have stormed the gates of North Bridge and The Scotsman is being run by a madman.

Who could possibly be creating such angst and turmoil in such elegant surroundings? Martin Clarke, the ultra-ambitious young Englishman whom Andrew Neil, editor-in-chief of The Scotsman, hired to transform it to his specifications. Clarke is believed to have been lured away from the Daily Mail by a salary of almost pounds 150,000 - almost twice what his predecessor got paid.

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

Several executives have resigned in disgust. They include 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.

Riddoch, who alternates with Andrew Neil as a presenter of BBC2's The Midnight Hour, is suing Clarke and the paper for constructive dismissal, sex discrimination and breach of contract. Other resignations are understood to be pending and even some of those who have not themselves been the target of abuse say they are actively seeking a move to what they see as a more civilised work-place.

All have been advised not to air their grievances on the record in case their comments jeopardise future legal actions or industrial tribunals. But 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. "But there have been no sackings or redundancies."

Not yet. But 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."

Clarke has spent most of his short career on the Daily Mail, where you have to be fairly robust to survive and flourish. But even former colleagues there remember him as particularly abrasive.

Clarke was posted up to Scotland just over two years ago to edit a "Scottish" edition of the Daily Mail, which more than trebled its sales from a very low base with the aid of prolonged price-cutting. Clarke proved quite adept at toning down the paper's middle-England bias and making it more palatable to certain Scots, particularly middle-aged, middle-class females.

He is plainly bent on turning The Scotsman into a tartanised, broadsheet Daily Mail. The emphasis on the news pages is increasingly on "human interest" stories and there is a new aggressiveness in the paper's political coverage. The Scotsman eclipsed Glasgow's Herald recently in its coverage of the turmoil in Glasgow Labour Party. Clarke has also just poached the high- profile Herald columnist Jack McLean - Scotland's self-styled "Urban Voltaire" - at great expense.

Whether any of that is what The Scotsman's traditional core readership, the Edinbourgeoisie, expect or want is highly debatable. But their opinions do not appear to count for much at the paper any more.

The Scotsman has a long history of supporting devolution. Suddenly wriggling out of that commitment at this crucial juncture in Scotland's political history would be rather awkward, especially when an opinion poll in The Herald last week found that support for devolution among Scots is now running at three-to-one in favour.

So, Neil, who has vehemently opposed devolution throughout his journalistic career, is having to box clever - or as clever as he can. In a rather soft interview with The Guardian at the start of this month, conducted by a former colleague, Neil declared that he is now enthusiastic about devolution because "the problems, particularly over tax, will ensure a greater political maturity among the Scottish people".

But even Roy Greenslade was not swallowing that, observing: "In truth, I detect his genuine disappointment and frustration at the Scots achieving home rule."

Clarke openly admits that The Scotsman's stance on devolution is changing under his stewardship and that anger about this motivates some of his critics. "We've slightly changed the politics of the paper," he said. "It hasn't gone right-wing, but we're not following the cosy consensus any more."

Not that Scotland's constitutional destiny will be decided by those who fulminate from their secular pulpits on The Scotsman. It may claim to be "Scotland's national newspaper', but its sales are heavily concentrated in one part of that small country. Even in its heartland of Edinburgh it has struggled to maintain its sales in recent years. Its circulation has been less than 80,000 for several years, which is almost 20,000 less than it was selling in the early Eighties.

The figure has risen by a few thousand since Clarke became editor four months ago, mainly because the paper has launched a "London edition", at considerable expense. Each copy flown down to Scottish expats costs 75p to produce and retails for 42p.

It is hard to determine how pleased the Barclay brothers, the paper's new owners, are with Neil's performance or that of Martin Clarke. They don't grant many lengthy interviews at their neo-Gothic fortress on the Channel island of Brequou. But Bert Hardy, the 69-year-old chief executive of European Press Holdings, the brothers' newspaper company, says Clarke retains its full support. "I'm delighted with what he's doing," he said. "There are bound to be some problems when a new editor takes over. I'm not surprised some people wouldn't like his different style. But we didn't bring him in to maintain the status quo."

As a former managing director of Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail, Hardy is obviously quite accustomed to the "robust" approach to man management.

But it remains to be seen whether he and the Barclays will remain so relaxed if, as threatened, the disagreements messily spill over into the Scottish courts or into a succession of industrial tribunals. Some members of the Edinbourgeoisie would certainly be horrified by a headline which rival Scottish newspapers are eager to splash on the front pages: "Scotsman editor called me a *!*!*!"n

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