John McKay: The media, the new Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon and Ron Burgundy


John Mckay talks to CommonSpace about his upcoming book ‘Notes of a Newsman’

JOHN MCKAY, chief anchor on STV’s News at Six and presenter of Scotland Tonight is releasing a book of recollections from his twenty years as a news presenter titled ‘Notes of a Newsman’.

McKay spoke to CommonSpace about his new book, the media and the changing political landscape of Scotland.

You are speaking at Scotland Fest 2015 promoting your new book ‘Notes of a Newsman’. What prompted the book?

The day of the referendum result came in was my 20 year anniversary at STV. No one could have predicted 20 years earlier how much would have changed.

We could never have foreseen Scotland coming so close to independence. We may have seen a Scottish parliament on the horizon. But nothing like what actually occurred. When I started no one would have expected how close it came.

And I suppose that’s what the book is about; what has changed and what hasn’t in Scotland.

Although, many of the things covered in the book go back much further than the independence referendum. I became a journalist during Thatcher’s time.

In your 20 years of experience as a news anchor which year has been the most newsworthy?

That depends on what you consider newsworthy. Quite clearly last year was a big year for Scotland; the independence referendum, the CommonWealth games.

If you are interested in politics then there have been other big years. The devolution referendum in 1979, the election of Tony Blair’s Labour government 1997.

But there are other years that stand out for things besides politics.1996 with the Dunblane shooting, the Lockerbie in 1988.

What has changed in Scottish media in the course of your career? What changes are you glad for, what do you miss?

The major change is how news is delivered.

We are seeing the rise of social media, the newspaper industry is suffering. There were some worries that television news would get hit just as hard as print, but TV is proving to be more robust.

What’s good about social media is instant news that’s easily accessible. The downside is that it’s sometimes not very well considered and it’s often inaccurate.

To remedy that you still need professional journalists. And the pressure from new forms of media means there are fewer of those today than there used to be.

Which side of the independence campaign fought the better media campaign, Yes or No?

There’s no doubt about it. The Yes campaign, no doubt.

To have started from such a low mark and come all the way up to 45 per cent. You have to remember at the start of the referendum support for independence was about 30 per cent.

Yes had the better campaign, but in some ways it was easier for them. Calling for change is always going to be more appealing than justifying the status quo. Especially justifying a status quo that’s fragmented into so many competing parts.

Which Scottish political figure understands the media best?

A lot of politicians are still enthralled to papers. But, there’s a generational change in politicians, a new generation coming through and some may prove more adept.

Nicola sturgeon. She always makes herself available, and always comes across as straight forward. You don’t feel she has a game plan or anything when she talks to you. I suppose Johann Lamont came across as quite straight forward as well.

But we are still living with a culture inherited from the days of Alastair Campbell, the spin culture and so on. You have political parties still more used to communicating through press releases, a culture that’s very guarded and controlled, and that’s not healthy. Before all that a politician could meet one on one with a journalist and could be expected to be quite candid and open.

Is the public more or less media savvy today?

There is generation coming through who are very savvy – or at least they are accessing news all the time through things like social media.

But as for the broader public I don’t know. I think most of the public still rely on television news and the newspapers. During the referendum we saw a hard-core of media users, particularly social media, who wanted to access information and news all the time. That’s got its own risks, as I’ve said.

But the majority still want a news digest at the end of the day, the kind of thing that the television news format provides you with.

Do new forms of media, especially online, threaten traditional television news programs like they threaten the print media?

Like I say I think a lot of people still want that digest. Most people don’t want news thrown at them all the time throughout the day.

People will want that digest if they feel they can trust the information they are being given. It’s not just one or the other of course. We also take part in social media, we use news apps.

More people are now getting information from bloggers and citizen journalists and that’s a different kind of information, often more opinionated.

But most still don’t want that. Most people still want news from more traditional sources.

This is your first non-fiction work, but your fourth book. Your trade is in a far more modern and accessible medium, so why write – and why books? What do you get from that medium?

In terms of writing fiction it’s the complete opposite of doing the TV news.

When you are doing TV news it’s all factual, very straight forward, very simple language. You broadcast the day’s news that night and its gone the next day and then no one wants to know about it.

Writing fiction you’ve got so much more time to think. You can be more creative in your writing. You can really let both your ideas and writing flow, you don’t have the same constraints on you.

U.S anchors are expected to be bombastic and sometimes acquire celebrity status. The received English of early BBC news presenters established them as authoritative and austere figures in the public imagination. Is there a Scottish anchor, a type?

People still want their news to be delivered to them by someone who is authoritative. But not too distant. If you tried to present the news in that formalwear dinner jacket style today the audience would just be turned off. So I think we need to be approachable for people.

But you have to remember we have a public license both in the BBC and at STV – and that means impartiality. Certainly it’s the case with newsreaders in the U.S, and in some cases even in the UK, that some newsreaders opinions are very well known.

I wouldn’t want that myself. Firstly because what’s my opinion? My opinion is only as valuable as anyone else’s. And also because it could affect my authority on news stories in the eyes of viewers if I’m seen to have an opinion.

Speaking of bombastic anchors, you once interviewed comedy creation Ron Burgundy – are there any grains of truth in the satire?

Actually I interviewed Will Ferrell who offered me some advice from his best friend Ron Burgundy. He gave me some sound advice, told me I should grow a beard and ware aftershave that could stun a man at twelve paces.

Are there news anchors like that? Not now, and actually not even in the past as far back as I go. Partly I think because people would see through it. People in Scotland want a warm and genuine presenter I think.

Pre-recorded or live?


Book or kindle?


Newspaper or Smartphone?


Edinburgh or London?


Hugh Edwards or Trevor MacDonald?

I couldn’t possibly choose between them

Twitter or Facebook


Beard or clean-shaven

Clean Shaven, though Ron Burgundy would probably scold me for that.

Ties – stripy or block colour


George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway