THE editor of the Scotsman will resign if right-wing business leaders succeed in their bid to take over the newspaper.
James Seaton says that last week's offer from a consortium of industrialists to buy the Edinburgh-based broadsheet, which supports devolution, is politically motivated. The businessmen, who include the treasurer of the Scottish Tories and a former party president, plan to convert the 180-year-old title into a "Tory house magazine", he says, in a crude attempt to revive support for the Government north of the border.
If the Canadian Thomson Corporation, which announced the sale of the Scotsman and its other UK titles last week, accepted their offer, the paper's reputation for independence and impartiality would be destroyed, he says, and he would step down.
Mr Seaton said: "Our editorial freedom is precious. To work properly, an editor needs cast-iron guarantees of independence. The members of the consortium - high Tories all of them - say they will give those guarantees but I am suspicious. I find it inconceivable that they would not use their position to try to influence the paper's editorial line. If they won the battle for control, I would go."
The consortium comprises the chairman and senior executives of some of the best-known Scottish companies. To many observers, their decision to launch a bid for Scotland's national newspaper is an extraordinary response to the Conservatives' record 11 per cent low in the opinion polls. But it is not new. Twice before, senior Tory industrialists, alarmed by declining support for the Government, have attempted to buy media influence.
In 1987 a group led by Professor Ross Harper, the prominent Glasgow solicitor and former Scots Tory president, made repeated offers to Lonrho to buy the Glasgow Herald. When the offers were rejected, the group turned its attention to the Scotsman. Again it was rebuffed.
This time the industrialists are determined to succeed. One consortium member, Bill Hughes,Scots Tory party treasurer, said: "We have been speaking to the banks and we have their backing. The money is there."
He insisted the "prime motive" for the takeover bid was to ensure that the Scotsman was bought by a Scottish company, and he rejected accusations that the consortium would use the paper to spread the Tory message in the run-up to the next general election.
But he said directors would have the power to appoint a new editor and would try "to promote balance. What we want is fairness. We feel Scottish newspapers play down some of the great success stories in Scotland like the ongoing economic revival and fail adequately to scrutinise Labour's plans for devolution. We think that would be good for journalism and good for the people of Scotland."
Mr Hughes rubbished Mr Seaton's threat to resign less than one year after becoming editor. "That's just hot air - nonsense. The important thing for any editor is that the paper has a firm and stable financial base. We can provide that."
Magnus Linklater, the paper's distinguished former editor, said: "The Scotsman is vital to Scottish life and could have an important future role in scrutinising proceedings in a new Scottish parliament. It is essential that it survives and survives in good hands."
From his imposing office on Edinburgh's North Bridge, Mr Seaton is confident it will. He says he has "tremendous plans" to relaunch the paper this autumn. New journalists will be hired to replace those sacked this year. "We are going forward and although the threat from the Tory consortium is serious, I am sure that Thomson will not let the paper fall into their hands. There is still some sentiment left in the newspaper business."
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