Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Invasion of the carpetbaggers?

By Bryan Cooney
THE newspaper game in which I’ve participated for half a century has been declared a bogey. I’ve decided to leave the Sunday Herald - and thus pre-empt its sacking me.

Now, don’t go thinking there’s been any impropriety on my part. Just absorb the narrative and judge for yourselves where the impropriety, if any, lies…

I had been writing for the paper on a regular freelance basis for twelve years. So, when there seemed little appetite for my contributions, I was immediately alerted. I therefore sought a degree of transparency from an old friend who works for Newsquest, or Gannett, or whatever it calls itself.

The curricula vitae duly was trotted out. I told him I’d served three sports editors, won two Sports Journalist of the Year awards, been twice short-listed in that same competition, experienced temporary insanity by turning down a substantial wage rise to benefit the company, and not once been found drunk in charge of a laptop computer. I emphasised, then, that a little respect might be in order.

His response encouraged me to instantly regret my eternal self-absorption! Seventeen editorial staff had been made redundant whilst I’d been on holiday; and a new operating system, together with a welter of alternative working practices, had employees working like frenetic sheepdogs at trials.

Then came another revelation which sponsored another sharp intake of breath. He claimed the sports budgets had been cut again, taking them to less than a quarter of what they had been in 2011. Thus, he felt it unlikely that I would continue to be used on a regular basis, given that my £450 fee alone accounted for more than 50% of an edition’s resources.

Hereabouts. I remembered my days as the Daily Mail head of sport when over £5million was at my annual disposal. In other words, close on £20,000 per day. So, Sunday Herald sport is expected to exist on an alleged weekly 800 or so sovs? Who are these skinflints, I wondered?

I outlined my fears in an email to the sports editor, Jonathan Jobson. Back came a scarcely encouraging response. He more or less suggested that I was too expensive to maintain, stressed that he’d be very sad to lose me but would always be happy to run occasional pieces. The mention of the word ‘occasional’ encouraged a cynical smile. My initial brief back in 2001 had been for two, sometimes three, interviews a month. By the turn of this year, it was running at approximately one every four or five weeks. Now we were exploring new territory. Were biannual interviews being contemplated, perhaps?

For once in an admittedly rather turbulent life, I played the responsible card and explained, again in an email, that I had a duty to consider my options. I told him my sympathies lay with those who had been culled, but added that every man must fight his own corner. I’d never signed a contract, but that didn’t mean Newsquest was entitled to nudge me off the cliff face without providing me with a financial lifeline, however flimsy. Significantly, there had been no mention of compensation. I began to contemplate possible litigation and even now it remains a consideration.

In reality, however, my troubles are miniscule compared to what’s going on in Renfield Street. Jobson? I felt sorry for a man who not only has to run Sunday Herald sport but apparently is also obliged to supervise its Evening Times sister paper. It’s no fault of his that he’s employed by a company which appears to have devised more ingenious methods of torture than Vlad the Impaler.

This, remember, is a Yankee organisation which consistently has been doling out grief to workers since it took over from the Scottish Media Group in 2003, and to quote a former Labour MSP ‘inclining them to have a long list of causes for dissatisfaction - redundancies, staffing shortages, poor working conditions and high stress levels.’ She was trading in euphemism.

This, remember, is an organisation run here in Britain by Scottish born chief executive Paul Davidson, who’s on an annual £600,000 - and that’s not factoring in his share options. It’s also an organisation that favours banging on about its profitability like carpetbaggers.

Back at my list of options, I quickly concluded that I’d never write another word for the Sunday Herald. Nay, not even if they suddenly discovered extravagance and gave me the kind of dosh that would enable Wayne Rooney to buy the missus another designer handbag.

So, as Duncan Bannatyne of the Dragons Den might say, “I’m out”. Before I’m kicked out, of course. I acknowledge the rules: no sympathy will be, or deserves to be, distributed my way. My only regret is not possessing the courage to walk away sooner when, quite disgracefully, the body bags began being thrown out of that capacious building in the city centre.

Being comfortably into my seniority, although not quite yet matching strides with Methuselah, you always find time for reflection. There have been moments when working for the Sunday Herald has been enjoyable.

Oh, I didn’t much fancy the early-morning calls from aggrieved sportsmen claiming their reputations had been traduced, etc. But there were compensatory factors: who, for instance, gets to have afternoon tea with Sir Jackie Stewart, lunch with Denis Law (if you call bacon, egg and chips a lunch) and spend an hour plus in Sir Michael Parkinson’s company in the Ivy Club?

Of course, a tiny element of sourness remains. Might someone not have called me and explained the reasons for my demise? There again, a lunch invitation from the editor might have ameliorated matters. Better still, a letter. Yeah, a letter - that erstwhile tribute to class and good breeding. Now that would have been appropriate.

Shame on me again. I’m guilty of being too judgemental. These are the working practices of a wholly different generation and they’re considered acceptable, sad though this might be.

These guys, by order of their draconian employers, are locked into a system whereby an idle moment is just a distant memory. Travel up to 200 Renfield Street and you’ll find a workforce that is disillusioned and demoralised; a workforce indeed which this week strengthened its resolve on taking industrial action. Where once they worked and played, they now just work and try to remember when times were better.

Now we arrive at the delicate question of retirement. At 68, maybe I should go home and vegetate, and perhaps that line of action would be widely endorsed. But that’s not in the DNA as they say. I have prostate cancer and a problematic heart condition, but I’m still here and have much to live for - a lovely wife, four sons and five beautiful grandchildren, all girls.

Retirement? No! This pensioner is willing to work and test-drive the theories of this abject Government. So, my business colleague Jim Black and I have opened this new interview and discussion website which you are now reading. We hope and pray that you like it.

But, at this moment, my thoughts and commiserations are lingering with a beleaguered Glasgow workforce. Yes, the newspaper game's a bogey and that’s a fact. 

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