When a thistle becomesa thorn

Rob Brown, The Independent's new media editor, left The Scotsman as soon as Andrew Neil hove into view as editor-in-chief. Here he predicts a radical change in the Scottish newspaper landscape

Clive Anderson and Andrew Neil have just had a rematch. But this time the former Sunday Times editor wasn't kebabed by Britain's most acerbic chat show host before a national TV audience. The battle for oneupmanship on this occasion was a publicity stunt viewed only by a small, select gathering drawn from London adland.

The purpose was to try to drum up more recruitment ads for Scotland on Sunday, one of the titles now under Neil's command in his new incarnation as editor-in-chief of The Scotsman. Whether it will do the job for SoS remains to be seen. One thing, however, is absolutely certain: staff on The Scotsman will be anxiously scanning the appointments pages of a whole range of publications in the coming weeks and months.

Even if he isn't planning a purge at "Scotland's national newspaper" - and, given his brutal record at Wapping, none would wisely wager that he isn't - Neil is plainly intent on creating a drastically different working regime at the Edinburgh-based broadsheet.

He signalled that intention in the strongest possible fashion last Thursday by announcing that the new editor of The Scotsman is to be Martin Clarke, the 32-year-old southerner who has been editing the tartanised elements of the "Scottish" Daily Mail for less than two years.

Arguably there is no such thing as an editor of The Scotsman, now that Neil is editor-in-chief. But that doesn't bother young Mr Clarke, who sees it as an "unmissable opportunity"; perhaps to further his ambition of editing the Daily Mail (or maybe The Times or The Daily Telegraph).

Like his new overseer, he is a right-wing Unionist who has spent his brief time north of the border doing everything in his power to oppose plans for a devolved Scottish Parliament.

Clarke insists that The Scotsman will remain devolutionist under his stewardship, but that the paper will be "asking tougher questions" about Labour's proposals for a parliament. But what will these tougher questions be? Will they be the ones composed by Neil, who has pursued a right-wing political agenda throughout his journalistic career?

Even when he edited the Glasgow University it was, almost uniquely among student publications in the early Seventies, right wing.

Still, like many of the Thatcherite new establishment whom he cheer-led throughout his time at Wapping, Neil is adroit at selling the idea that he is ultra-radical.

Since his appointment by the Barclay brothers - the highly secretive property dealers who bought The Scotsman from the Thomson Corporation - he has been seeking to play down his ferociously anti-devolutionist past.

In Scottish TV and radio interviews - where he gets an easier ride than he should, from awestruck young microphone wielders - he has been trotting out the line that he believes devolution is desirable, but only if the parliament is charged with the responsibility of raising all its own budget via taxes. As several commentators have observed, this is not a million miles removed from nationalism.

So, is Neil now a Nat? No chance. In common with many right-wing Unionists he is craftily endeavouring to polarise the constitutional debate in Scotland by suggesting that the only two safe and sustainable options are separatism or the status quo. Faced with this stark choice, he calculates, his compatriots will stick with rule from Westminster.

Total tommy-rot, of course. When Neil's appointment was announced shortly before Christmas, The Scotsman was flooded with angry letters. None of this correspondence appeared in the paper.

Similarly, I suspect, Scotland's largest letters page won't find much space to convey the full disgust at Neil's first editorial innovation at The Scotsman: a Nigel Dempster-style social diary, wrapped in plaid and called Boswell's Diary.

He tried this trick at The Sunday Times when he even established a separate Scottish section to churn out Unionist propaganda. Indeed, as was once acutely observed, that tartan supplement majored in two types of stories: "Scottish racists spat at my daughter in the playground" and "Roddy and Fiona reel the night away".

Neil may need to be a little more subtle at The Scotsman, but there are already sad indications that Scotland on Sunday - The Scotsman's radical young sister title - is starting to drift rightwards. Yesterday its readers awoke to find a full-page feature extolling the virtues of parents who had switched their children from the state to the private education system. "The state school we're not in" ran the headline.

It would have been hard to envisage the editor of SoS, Brian Groom, running such a story, before Neil started to hover over his shoulder. Like many others, he seems desperately eager to co-operate with the new regime and convince himself that things will carry on basically as before.

In this sense the situation facing Neil is quite different from that which confronted him on his arrival at The Sunday Times. Journalists on The Scotsman are bending the knee, rather than fleeing in horror or daring to express anything remotely resembling hostility.

They are kowtowing for two main reasons. First, it has to be acknowledged, Neil is regarded with some awe and admiration by his new charges. There is nothing many stay-at-home Scots admire more than a Scotsman who has made it in the metropolis.

Secondly, Edinburgh affords far fewer escape hatches for disgruntled journalists than does London. The Scotsman Publications Ltd is the only newspaper group based in the Scottish capital, a compact and elegant city in which many of its employees are eager to remain for lifestyle reasons. But many Scotsman veterans are going to find Edinburgh a newly uncomfortable place to be.

One person who should be delighted by the arrival of Neil is Gus Macdonald, chairman of Scottish Television plc. A few months back STV acquired The Herald, the Glasgow-based broadsheet which was traditionally regarded as The Scotsman's arch rival. In reality the two titles have waged a phoney war for years, making little impact on each other's regional fiefdoms.

At last that could change. Now that The Scotsman is starting to shift to the right, The Herald has a glorious opportunity to break out of its Strathclyde stronghold and attain true pan-Scottish sales appeal by becoming the natural voice of Scotland's liberal, left-leaning elite.

To do this it will not just have to broaden the geographical focus of its editorial content, but also make a serious effort for the first time to attract more advertising from beyond its current core circulation area. The fact that it is now connected to a television station whose transmission territory bridges the great east-west divide must be an advantage.

Having been spared the short-sighted, tight-fisted style of newspaper management for which the Thomson Corporation was notorious, The Herald has held on to more star journalists than The Scotsman, which has suffered from a serious haemorrhage of talent for the past 10 years.

Macdonald's main challenge is to go for growth by bringing dynamic editorial leadership into the enterprise. I am hopeful he will rise to this challenge - because in my experience, he is totally switched on and subtly subversive. These qualities have been disguised in recent years, as he has upset many of his former admirers by becoming the scourge of the TV unions.

Now Gus Macdonald has a glorious opportunity to redeem his radical souln

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