Laird, Endell Johnston
- Magnus Linklater
Laird, Endell Johnston (1933–2015), journalist and newspaper editor, was born on 6 October 1933 at 8 Alpha Place, Whitehills, Forfar, Angus, the son of Isabella Johnston Laird, a jute weaver, and Alexander Cormack, a painter from Kirriemuir. Brought up in conditions of poverty, he helped his mother make ends meet by picking potatoes during school holidays.
Educated at Forfar Academy, Laird discovered that he had a natural inclination towards art, and he would have liked to attend art school but did not have the means to do so. From school he did two years’ national service with the RAF before joining the D. C. Thomson newspaper empire in Dundee in 1954. His first job was collecting the artwork for the Sunday Post’s ‘Oor Wullie’ cartoon strip, but he also worked for a time on The Dandy and always remembered picking up cartoons from the legendary artist Dudley Watkins. Laird himself was a cartoonist of some skill and would often be seen doodling well-observed caricatures on a notepad during editorial conferences. Given the job of writing storylines for Roger the Dodger, the loveable but trouble-making schoolboy in The Beano, he would lie awake at night, wondering what Roger would be getting up to that week.
Later Laird moved to the Dundee Courier as a sub-editor. He showed rare judgement one night when he decided to strip out the editor’s chosen front page and run instead a major story about a rail crash. Nervous staff backed away from the decision, but the editor applauded it. Laird always retained great pride in his D. C. Thomson days, and the group’s somewhat patrician approach to its staff and its anti-union stance never entirely left him. When, however, he was refused promotion, he left, in 1956, to join the Scottish Daily Express in Glasgow, before moving in 1958 to the Glasgow Evening Times. Years later a D. C. Thomson executive told him that letting him go was one of the worst decisions they had ever made. On 5 September 1958, at Merrylea Parish Church, Glasgow, he married 23-year-old June Stanners, secretary, daughter of William Keenan, master baker, and his wife, Mary. Endell and June Laird had three children, Susan, Jackie, and David.
In 1960 Laird was offered a job on the Sunday Mail, sister paper of Scotland’s biggest-selling newspaper, the Daily Record. He rose to become assistant editor, and it was during this time that he pulled off a journalistic coup, when, on the night of 2 January 1971, he was trying to bring the paper out in the middle of a journalists’ strike. He had only a few executives with him, when news filtered in that there had been casualties on the stairways at Ibrox stadium as 80,000 spectators were leaving a Celtic versus Rangers football game. He stripped the news pages and began to run the story as the death toll rose from fifteen to a total of sixty-six. Three staff sub-editors, who had been at the game, broke the strike to help, arriving at the office without shoes, which they had lost in the crush. Because none of his photographers was available, Laird used a piece of subterfuge to get pictures by sending his secretary to the Glasgow office of The Scotsman, innocently claiming that she had permission to collect a set of photographs. Later that night, he attended a police press conference at the stadium, where the names of the dead were read out. The result was a powerful piece of reporting which scooped his rivals.
Laird was promoted to deputy editor of the Record, where he introduced Europe’s first national newspaper colour presses, then became editor of the Sunday Mail in 1981, introducing a more punchy editorial style. Circulation began to rise dramatically, reaching sales of a million after he had run a serialized glossy magazine, ‘The Story of Scotland’. In 1988 he was made editor of the Record, pushing sales to close on 800,000 copies. ‘He made serious news popular and popular news serious’, said one of his news editors, Malcolm Speed (Scotsman, 13 July 2015). Another colleague, John McGurk, wrote that ‘he had an instinct, a shrewdness, and a single-minded editorial judgment, which was more often right than wrong’ (ibid.). His campaigns on behalf of threatened industrial plants, where jobs were at risk, were forthright, and he ran reader appeals which raised £600,000 for bone marrow units at Yorkhill Children’s Hospital and £4 million to build Scotland’s first children’s hospice, Rachel House in Kinross, an achievement of which he was especially proud.
Tabloid journalism in Laird’s day was respected and feared in the corridors of power, and, during the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, the Record and the Mail, with their working-class readership and strong Labour connections, became a powerful voice of opposition to the Conservative government at Westminster and Scottish ministers in Edinburgh. Though some suspected Laird himself of nursing Tory inclinations, he had an innate sense of what his readers wanted, and he represented their views in forthright leaders and through columnists like Gordon Brown, later prime minister. ‘If you got on the wrong side of the Record, you knew about it’, recalled one former minister ruefully (The Times, 21 July 2015).
In 1983 the publisher Robert Maxwell acquired the papers, and Laird found himself having to accommodate Maxwell’s unpredictable demands. He developed a technique of appearing to agree with his proprietor while deftly sticking to his own editorial policies. ‘That’s a wonderful idea, Bob’, he was reported as saying, ‘but think how much better it could be if we do it this way’ (Scotsman, 13 July 2015). He faced a dilemma when, during an editorial strike in 1986, Maxwell wanted to erect barbed wire round the plant and, later, to change the name of the Record to that of his London paper, the Mirror. Laird knew that both moves would be disastrous and was able to head them off. Although he incurred criticism and sometimes dislike from some of his staff for appearing to side with Maxwell, he was also much loved by those whose jobs he protected. In 1988 he was appointed editor-in-chief of both titles and promoted to the London board.
When Maxwell was found drowned in November 1991, after disappearing from his yacht, and was later exposed for stealing from the Mirror’s pension fund, Laird was shocked and disappointed, but at Maxwell’s funeral in Jerusalem, where everyone had to have his or her head covered, Laird showed an unexpectedly jaunty side, by wearing a Scots tartan ‘bunnet’.
Laird chaired the Scottish Editors’ Committee from 1986 to 1988, and from 1988 to 1994 he was a member of the D-notice committee. He retired in 1994 to pursue his love of travel, painting, reading, hill-walking, gardening, and family. He died of bronchopneumonia and Parkinson’s disease at Lillyburn care home in Milton of Campsie, East Dunbartonshire, on 8 July 2015, and was survived by his wife and children.
- M. Linklater and R. Denniston, eds., Anatomy of Scotland (1993), 129–130
- Daily Record (10 July 2015)
- The Guardian (10 July 2015)
- Sunday Mail [Scotland] (12 July 2015)
- The Scotsman (13 July 2015)
- Evening Times [Glasgow] (13 July 2015)
- Daily Telegraph (15 July 2015)
- The Times (21 July 2015)
- WW (2015)
- personal knowledge (2019)
- private information (2019)
- current affairs recording, BL NSA
- photograph, with Masters gold winner Archie Kidd, c.1990s, Mirrorpix
- photograph, repro. in Daily Record [Glasgow] (21 March 2016)
- obituary photographs