John McLellan: Norman Mair knew value of trust

Rugby writer par exellence Norman Mair. Picture: Martin HunterRugby writer par exellence Norman Mair. Picture: Martin Hunter
Rugby writer par exellence Norman Mair. Picture: Martin Hunter
The small world of Edinburgh journalism has seen two significant events in the past week, the passing of sports great Norman Mair at the age of 86 and the publication of a referendum diary by veteran political reporter Alan Cochrane.

A double international at rugby and cricket in the 1950s, Norman was the doyen of Scottish rugby writers and became a pillar of The Scotsman’s sports pages in the heyday of print.

I first came across him as a player myself and then worked with him when he came out of semi-retirement to write a column for the Evening News back in the late 1990s.

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As a hooker he was always keen to discuss the niceties or otherwise of front-row play, but just as keen to find out what was going on behind the scenes in the newspaper industry too. Like most of the rugby press corps, I reckon Norman thought it was something of a novelty to see a member of senior editorial management getting duffed up in the pack.

So when the Evening News was undergoing major development in the late 90s and we were looking to support our reporting team by recruiting high-profile columnists, for the sports pages Norman was top of our list.

I thought it would be appropriate to meet for lunch at the Braid Hills Hotel, where Scotland rugby teams of old used to gather the night before internationals, and if I thought he’d need persuading to join the News I was very much mistaken.

Fast approaching his 70s, he was still hungry to be involved in sport and newspapers and he became a key part of our plans to open up a new readership.

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I’m not sure he was comfortable with the advent of professional rugby and it’s true the game lost something when total amateurism was eventually and inevitably swept away, but he never lost his love of sport for the simple joy of participation or of being with sports people. That’s something professionalism can never sweep away.

I didn’t know Norman anything like as well as the News’s rugby correspondent Bill Lothian or such rugby glitterati as Sir Ian McGeechan, but no-one held him in anything other than the highest esteem. It will doubtless be reflected in the turnout for his funeral service at Merchiston Castle School this Tuesday.

Writing this week, McGeechan paid this tribute: “He was not only a very clever man, he was also astute. You could talk things through with him. He would never compromise any confidentiality. He never ever misused or misconstrued a confidence. You could trust him implicitly.”

Trust is an extremely valuable commodity in any walk of life and journalism is no exception, which is why the publication of the referendum diaries kept by the Daily Telegraph’s Scotland editor Alan Cochrane has raised more than a few eyebrows in this business.

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As a former editor of the Scottish Daily Express, Cochrane was once a significant figure in Scottish journalism who is (or perhaps now, was) well-connected in the salons of a certain strata of polite Edinburgh society.

Published last week, the book documents Cochrane’s adventures in the two-year campaign as he lurches from one free lunch to another, occasionally catching breath to pen the odd column or to instruct his staff to write up stories based on his conversations.

There is nothing particularly untoward in all that, but unbeknown to anyone he met he was secretly squirrelling away what he was told for use at a later date when what were considered private conversations would be laid bare. As a result, confidence after confidence has now been betrayed.

Here I must declare an interest in that I was one of his unwitting bit-part players.

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From the book it would appear I had little of much consequence to say and as I no longer work in politics it is of no consequence to me anyway.

I’ve known him for about 15 years, going back to the time when I first edited the News and he was deputy editor of Scotland on Sunday and so when I worked for the Conservatives it was to be expected that I’d speak to someone working for a broadly Tory-supporting paper. As Cochrane would say, ho-hum.

Politics is a pretty dirty and cynical business and maybe that’s why he felt able to expose those who confided in him. But several of those who thought he could be trusted (and whom he plugged for information) are still in the same positions and have found themselves compromised. Some of them (not me, I hasten to add) regarded him as a good friend.

Unlike Norman Mair, Alan Cochrane has deliberately misused confidences for his own ends and as someone who has traded on being “in the know” he could now find his currency devalued. Admitting he has betrayed confidences, as he does in his introduction, will butter no parsnips.

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To make matters worse, this is at a time when the industry is fighting for the right of journalists to protect their sources and prevent police from using the law to find out to whom they have been talking. Cochrane has done that campaign no favours at all.

Nor for that matter does he do himself any favours either. The diaries catalogue behaviour many editors would regard as unacceptable – calling off sick because of a hangover, deliberately undermining an opinion poll in his own Sunday publication (whose editor can’t be that bothered because it ran extracts) and touting for private work with an Edinburgh investment company to name three.

The wisdom of putting all this in print is something only Alan Cochrane can explain, and as the proceeds are unlikely to cover the cost of a wet weekend in Perthshire, the biggest victim of the Cochrane diaries looks like being Alan Cochrane himself.

West end means business with launch of bid

It might have some way to go to match Notting Hill or Greenwich Village, but as a fashionable district packed with trendy boutiques, chic bars and over-priced restaurants, the West End has got ambition.

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Now the tram work is out the way and Haymarket’s shiny new railway station is working well, traders are getting together to launch their own Business Improvement District, following the Essential Edinburgh project in the city centre and the Grassmarket BID.

The aim is to create a different atmosphere to give people a reason to spend time and money there, although beyond notions of transforming Coates Crescent into some form of hub, it’s not clear how this will be achieved.

William Street and Stafford Street have long had an upmarket reputation, but two streets don’t make a district and how quickly a new BID can transform the entire area remains to be seen.

Congestion is still a major issue, with the effect of the roadworks being replaced by the new traffic light sequences, but it’s long been an under-used part of town which deserves to do better.

Recycling regime working well

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WEEK two of the new recycling regime and things seem to be going well. We’ve created our own wee recycling centre in the back garden and after a fortnight the slimline landfill bin is still able to cope.

The big advantage is only one uplift day, the disadvantage is needing to remember O Grade (yes, that long ago) Venn diagram exercises to work out the instructions.

We’ve had to cave on the slop bucket, though, bringing back memories of cleaning-up time at Boys’ Brigade camps. Maybe we should all get a badge for being so dutiful.

Shadow over Leith energy revival

The collapse of the Pelamis wave energy company in Leith and the continuing slump in the price of oil is casting a shadow over the industrial revival of the port of Leith.

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Although North Seas support will still be needed for years to come, pinning the port’s hopes on the energy sector, either renewable or fossil, would be risky.

So a new paper examining Leith’s economic future wisely concentrates instead on opportunities in administration, service industries, food, tourism, retail and the creative sector.

But guess what folks, unlocking the potential relies on better infrastructure which means more houses and better links… which means the extension of the transport system which dare not speak its name.

Given the furore over the plans to spend up to £400,000 on a new tram feasibility study, it will be a brave politician who attempts to drive this through but there is a growing sense of inevitability about it.

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If Cambridge and Manchester are the benchmarks, one is now talking about a tram system and the other has had one for years and is adding to its network.

The one key sector absent from the Leith paper is higher education and with so much brownfield land available that seems strange. And with gown-and-town tension in places like the Southside, is there not at least the basis of a discussion about higher education opportunities on the Waterfront.

Heriot Watt University is starting to build a £17m centre for climate change research which will house marine scientists, geologists and fossil fuel experts, the kind of institution for which Granton would have been perfect.

Leith is crying out for a major anchor in which people will live as well as work and a higher education should be high on the priority list.