Friday 30 October 2009

All power to the workers at the Free Press

It's official - the West Highland Free Press, my old newspaper, has been bought over by its staff from the shareholders of West Highland Publishing, including the founding editor, Brian Wilson.

When the idea of sale was first mentioned there were obvious concerns about what might become of Am Paipear Beag and its tradition of combining local news and radical journalism with lamb sale prices and first rate shinty coverage. This outcome guarantees an independent editorial and commercial future for the paper.

In the West Highlands the newspaper, and its politics, are taken foregranted as part of the landscape but in the context of British journalism it's important too. The Free Press is the only survivor of the flourishing alternative publishing movement of the 1970s and just about the only weekly periodical I can think of, apart from the New Statesman, that maintains a solidly left of centre editorial line. It also just happens to be a very good local newspaper.

Its values and its journalism are safe in the hands of Ian McCormack, at the helm now for 33 years and possibly the longest-serving newspaper editor in the country. The rest of the staff that I know are completely rooted in Skye and I have no doubt they're capable of carrying on what they have been doing to a large degree anyway, running the company smoothly.

Ian (or "James Shaw Grant" as we're now calling him) is the most modest of media barons. He is one of the unsung heroes of the Free Press who kept the presses turning, week after week, when lesser men would have been defeated by faulty technology, power cuts, winter ferry timetables and my bad spelling.

The changeover marks the end of an era for Brian Wilson, though hopefully not the end of his involvement in the paper. You can read Brian's thoughts in the Free Press itself and he gave a stirring and superbly fluent Gaelic interview to the BBC yesterday.

I gave him a quick call the other day to wish him well after handing over ownership of the paper that he founded in 1972 as a long-haired graduate newly arrived in Kyleakin along with Jim Wilkie, Jim Innes and others. He said he felt quite unsentimental about the whole thing and I didn't believe him for a second.

I feel a great attachment to the paper myself, although I only worked there for five years. Brian and Ian set me on the path to journalism and the paper has been the foundation stone for many lifelong friendships. It also nurtured for me an enduring love affair with the Isle of Skye, which I have still to confess to the Isle of Lewis.

The Free Press, I believe, has had a far more fundamental effect on its readers - mirroring and defending the language and the culture of the modern Highlands, broadening and strengthening a sense of community. It can pretty much claim to have vanquished the influence of Highland landlordism through campaigning, exposure, ridicule and by fostering in its columns the debate that culminated in the community land ownership movement.

If you had to sum it up you'd just say the Free Press has made people feel more confident about their own place and that's no small achievement for any paper. A lot of that is due to Brian Wilson who for most of these years has been the embodiment of the Free Press, just as much as the paper made him a substantial political figure in Scotland long before he became an MP.

He told me the other day he didn't want to carry on with the Free Press for another 20 years, but when he has time for reflection he might find he doesn't have that much choice in the matter. I can't imagine the paper without "Brian Wilson Writes", unlesss he starts "Brian Wilson Blogs", and he's always been a late adopter.

The Highlands will have to cope with the change, I'm sure the West Highland Free Press can. Meala naidheachd oirbh.

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