Scotsman editor Frank O’Donnell has waded into the battle for control of parent company Johnston Press and today hit back former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond’s attack on the paper.
Salmond revealed yesterday that he has has joined investor Christen Ager-Hannssen’s plot to unseat the current leadership of the regional press group. With a 20 per cent stake Ager-Hannsen is the largest single shareholder of Johnston Press and he wants to install Salmon as chairman.
Salmond told the Telegraph yesterday: “In terms of journalism, which is my area of interest, the standards are depressing across the group. That is not the fault of the people who are there it is because of all the people who have left .Unfortunately and for the first time in its 200-year history The Scotsman has become largely irrelevant.”
Salmond, who lost his Westminster seat in June’s general election, said he would not have editorial control but that each of the around 300 newspapers in the group should be “a champion of the community of interests they represent”.
“Under our plan, The Yorkshire Post will be pro Yorkshire, The Scotsman pro Scotland, and The i trusted everywhere for the quality and accessibility of the information it provides.”
The Scotsman did not support independence in the run-up to the 2014 Scottish referendum when Salmond was leading the push for a Yes vote.
Under current the current editor it is neutral politically.
In a comment piece today Scotsman editor Frank O’Donnell stood up against his possible future boss, saying: “I can’t allow an ill-informed attack on The Scotsman to go unchallenged.”
He said: “For those who missed it, Mr Salmond said the title is now ‘largely irrelevant’ and that he would restore pride and confidence through a ‘pro-Scottish’ agenda. And this is where his logic starts to unravel.
“Mr Salmond doesn’t appear to have read the title much recently, or perhaps he has a very different definition of pro-Scottish and relevance.
“When I began this role in April I set out an aggressively pro-Scottish strategy. Our manifesto, outlined as part of the general election, specifically underlines our unrelenting commitment to Scottish news. We also said that we would no longer support any political party at a future referendum or election, a pledge we upheld in June and will continue to do so.”
He added: “Mr Salmond is either ignorant of the paper’s content or perhaps he equates ‘pro-Scottish’ as being pro-SNP. Under his guidance he says ‘editors will decide the editorial policies’ but significantly doesn’t rule out installing a pro-nationalist editor.
“The idea of Mr Salmond being chairman of Johnston Press and restricting his involvement to prosaic monthly business meetings seems highly unlikely.
“It has long been known that nationalist supporters in Scotland have coveted a quality daily newspaper that supports the Yes movement and have looked at buying The Scotsman to further their agenda.”
— Frank O’Donnell (@fodonnell23) November 2, 2017
The Scotsman has an average daily circulation of 21,214. Paid-for sales were down 5 per cent year on year in the last ABCs – making it one of the better performing UK daily newspaper titles.
Its website reaches around 123,000 “unique browsers” per day.
Salmond said: “The Johnston Group has great titles and some great people. What it needs is a senior management team to match that commitment.
“Every local newspaper will be valued for the journalistic reach it can bring to the group and all of the 300 communities covered by the titles will be treated with respect.
“Christen Ager-Hanssen is a visionary and I am delighted to be working with him. He is a man with the necessary thought leadership to help this great company move forward confidently in the Information Age.”
Ager-Hanssen, who owns a Scandinavian version of the Metro newspaper and is a shareholder in Johnston Press through his Custos Group, is expected to call an emergency general meeting to put his plans forward.
He said: “Alex and I are agreed about the new direction we need to take to save Johnston Press, reinvigorate its staff and transform the company into a digital media powerhouse.
“We are committed to advocate a new direction for the company which we believe will protect and enhance its future and provide it with real leadership.
“Central to our vision are the interests of shareholders, staff, pensioners and the communities who trust and rely upon the Johnston titles to provide them with information and news.”
Ashley Highfield has been chief executive of Johnston Press since 2011.
Since then he has led widespread cost cuts, in common with other regional press giants, which have included:
- Adopting standard newspaper design templates
- Widespread office closures
- Newspaper closures
- Widespread editorial redundancies.
Johnston Press has been hogtied for more than a decade by the huge debt acquired partly as a result of its £160m purchase of The Scotsman titles in 2006.
In the first six months of this year Johnston made a pre-tax profit of £6.7m (down 31 per cent) on turnover of £102.9m.
In the first half it spent £15.2m on debt interest payments and finance costs alone.
Highfield has yet to comment on the boardroom coup.