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Media: Small town, huge story

With the suicide of Gordon McMaster and its aftermath, there's plenty going on at the Paisley Daily Express - not all of it welcome. Rob Brown reports
Local newspapers the length and breadth of Britain are, by and large, a fairly dismal prospect. Most, being owned by large chains, have a depressingly Identikit appearance. Their news content is all too often sub-tabloid, being penned by eager young college graduates desperately striving to get a job on The Sun or the News of the Screws by putting excessive top-spin on the most mundane misdemeanours in local courts or council chambers.

The Paisley Daily Express (owned by Trinity International) is different. Recent events on its patch often do warrant sensational banner headlines.

The suicide of one of the town's MPs (Gordon McMaster) and the subsequent suspension of another accused of conducting a smear campaign against him (Tommy Graham) has burst open a political sewer in the west of Scotland. It has certainly proved that the councillor who dubbed Paisley "a town called malice" wasn't just being funny.

"We don't need to put top-spin on stories. We've got plenty happening in Paisley," says Norman Macdonald, editor of the Express, with a note of pride which would be considered warped in any other walk of life. Macdonald is immensely proud of the fact that his office has become the first port of call for London journalists dispatched to cover one of the most grotesquely fascinating sleaze stories in British politics.

At times, however, the never-ending stream of newspaper, radio and television reporters queuing up to pick his brains about Paisley has become a bit of a pain. "Everybody - the tabloids, the heavies, TV news - is eager to get every ounce of news value out of this. But we have our own paper to get out," says Macdonald, who isn't flattered by attention from Fleet Street.

He has been a hard-bitten national newspaper hack himself, working on the news desk of Scotland's top-selling tabloid, the Daily Record, before taking over the helm of his home-town paper two years ago.

He stepped into what soon became literally a very hot seat. Within weeks of his arrival, the paper's office was firebombed. The Express had been running stories about a local drugs war, which plainly upset someone.

"The dugs in the street know who did it but no one was ever caught," explained one scribe.

"Fortunately for us, there are people living across the road who called the emergency services the minute they heard the first smash," recalls Macdonald, pointing out that fire and smoke damage in the front office did not keep the paper off the streets.

Macdonald has seven reporters, several of whom (especially the political writer, Linda McConnell) have used up numerous notepads chronicling one of the most intriguing political sleaze stories in Britain. "The day McMaster took his own life, the story left the political arena and became a hard- news human interest item," explains Macdonald.

"This is such a huge story with so many tricks and angles; it's been quite a task covering it. But we've covered all the angles everybody else has and we've also got our own exclusives."

The Paisley Daily Express (circulation 9,000) has bucked the national trend by putting on sales in the past two six monthly audits. Macdonald is naturally pleased with this performance. But he is also mindful of the fact that Paisley folk - known as "buddies" - are angered by the coverage their home town has been attracting.

"Paisley has taken a hammering in the national media, which only dwells on the negative side. You'd think there was a gun-totin' gangster on every street corner. Actually, there are a lot of smashing people doing good in all parts of Paisley, even Ferguslie Park."

This district, the roughest in Paisley, was vividly portrayed by Iain Banks in his novel Espedair Street as a wasteland of bad architecture and "problem" families. "A triangle of land, formed by three railway lines, it was always on the wrong side of the tracks," observed Banks, who also commented: "It was a toss-up which were the most broken - the families or the houses."

One suspects that the editor of the Paisley Daily Express - who describes himself as a "buddie born and bred" - wouldn't enjoy such prose any more than some of the headlines he has seen recently in the national press. "A lot of Paisley folk are bloody angry about the way their town is coming across, so we're being careful not to sicken them with splashes on politics and sleaze allegations," says Macdonald.

"Of course we're keeping tabs on the baddies, but we've gone out of our way to also highlight the good things happening here. The Paisley Daily Express presents the full picture."

On behalf of its community, the paper has also engaged in what Americans call boosterism. Last year, it even published a special good-news edition containing only positive news and comment. The newsreader Martin Lewis would have loved it, and Macdonald has no difficulty defending it.

"Any newspaper has to be proactive as well as reactive," he says. "As well as reflecting events, it's also got a responsible role to play in organising people and galvanising a response to problems."

To that end, the Express brought together the town's business leaders and other opinion-formers with the aim of devising an image-building slogan for Paisley along the lines of the celebrated "Glasgow's Miles Better" campaign. Macdonald is quite keen on "Glasgow's Miles Away", which, he feels, might persuade more Paisley buddies to shop and socialise in the town.

Paisley is 12 miles away from Glasgow but has always struggled not to be swallowed up by its municipal maw. William Hunter pursued this crusade for several decades on the op-ed page of the Glasgow Herald, never tiring of telling his readers how he found Glasgow a small place coming from the metropolis of Paisley.

The harsh reality, as he knew, was that his home town had the heart knocked out of it when its textile industry went into drastic decline. The once world-famous Paisley shawl has now been eclipsed by the national notoriety of Paisley sleazen