By The Drum, Administrator

July 14, 2005 | 5 min read

Ian McColl 1915 - 2005

Ian McColl, who died last month aged 90, uniquely achieved what no other native-born Scots journalist has done: after ten years editing the Daily Express in Glasgow, McColl was sent to London to edit the big sister national title.

The Sun was in the ascendant; the Daily Mail under David English was making great strides. The once mighty Express was struggling. And Ian McColl, the Glasgow Kirk elder, was sent to turn the tide.

He might have seemed an unlikely choice. But Roger Wood, the flamboyant executive who preceded McColl in Albion Street, knew better.

Wood himself had been sent to Glasgow as the Daily Record, from a lowly base of 300,000, began chewing into the Express circulation.

He found a paper in which the largest headline was “around 24 point”, and a ready and willing ally in McColl in turning the paper round.

“I leaned on him heavily,” said Wood, now retired and living in the US. “There were two Ian McColls. One was the quiet Kirk elder. The other was the revved-up newsman he became once he stepped inside the office. He was as aggressive as any of us. There was a great tabloid journalist in there waiting to get out.”

When McColl succeeded Wood as editor in Glasgow, in 1961, he stepped into Britain’s fiercest newspaper war. McColl was ready for it. At one point a battle for ‘exclusives’ after a High Court Case, ended with the editor of a rival paper claiming McColl’s Express was tapping his phones. And this wasn’t the pushy Daily Record; it was the Evening Citizen, sister paper of the Express.

Wood believes McColl did a great job in his three years in London. “He transformed the paper. The London Express had been a bit demure, but McColl brought a real dose of Glasgow style to it. I saw one page one where there was no text over the fold, it was all headlines and pictures. Beaverbrook would have jumped all over him for some of that – but the Beaver was dead.”

The greatest scoop of McColl’s London editorship was finding Ronald Biggs in Brazil. The hoax finding of Hitler’s deputy Martin Borman in Argentina was probably his biggest bummer.

Ian Jack, now editor of the world-renowned literary journal Granta, worked as a downtable sub-editor at the Express in Glasgow when McColl was editor.

“He wasn’t one for publicity or appearing on TV shows,” said Jack.

“He was there every night on the back bench, dressed in his cardigan, with his foil-wrapped packet of banana sandwiches for his supper. Later in the evening McColl would yell ‘Boy’ and order a plate of chips from the canteen – with half-a-dozen forks for other members of the back bench to share.

“His favourite word for a story he didn’t like was ‘foosty’,” said Jack. McColl encouraged young people, including himself, and the editorial floor was a clique-free zone.

After the death of his mother, McColl – a confirmed bachelor – married Brenda, his secretary, in 1968.

Jack said McColl and Clive Sandground, his own close personal friend and mentor, were a really good team and together they drove the Scottish Express forward to a record sale of 658,000.

Much of McColl’s close relationship with Lord Beaverbrook hinged on the fact that McColl was a Kirk elder and Beaverbrook a son of the manse.

“I remember a memo from Beaverbrook saying he had heard the provost of a small town near Glasgow was an atheist. ‘Should we not be attacking that?’ asked the Beaver.

“McColl’s reply, ‘We must learn to be tolerant.’”

He was less tolerant, however when he discovered the “Holland house plot” to install bishops in the Church of Scotland. The “No bishops in the Kirk” crusade he launched to squelch that notion must go down as one of the most effective newspaper campaigns of all time.

It was Roger Wood who introduced McColl to the more social side of newspapers. “He used to arrive in the late afternoon, ready to get down to work. I suggested he come in to lunch occasionally and even attend a few social events. At first Ian said he only wanted a bowl of soup, but he quickly got the idea.”

McColl returned to Scotland as chairman of Scottish Express newspapers in 1974 and enjoyed regaling friends with behind-the-scenes tales from London.

Later, in his column in Scotmedia, predecessor of The Drum, he told why he held out on the story of his political editor’s two children by Marcia Falkender, Harold Wilson’s number one aide.

McColl wrote that he killed the story about Walter Terry – it was finally published 16 years later – not because of pressure, but because it would have ruined Terry’s career.

“That I was not prepared to let happen to a colleague,” said McColl, distinguished editor, Kirk elder and loyal friend to the end.

Ian McColl, CBE, was born 22 February 1915 and died 21 June 2005. He is survived by his wife Brenda and daughter Elaine.


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