While Editor-in-Chief of The Glasgow Guardian, Lucy Dunn interviewed former Editor-in-Chief of the newspaper, and current Editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson.
“Let me show you the office!” the man on the vertical Zoom display decided cheerily, after we’d briefly exchanged introductions. His phone camera flipped around, and he stepped back to reveal a large mahogany door, with a glistening metal rectangular plaque stating “EDITOR” in bold. “Andrew Neil had that hammered on,” he informed me, opening the door into the next part of my virtual tour.
Fraser Nelson is celebrating his 13th year as Editor of The Spectator. Before that, he was its political editor; before that, the political editor of The Scotsman, and prior to that, a business reporter at The Times. But, most importantly, before any of that, and right at the beginning of Nelson’s journalistic career, he started at The Glasgow Guardian.
“We’re right opposite St. James’ Park,” he finished, letting me catch a glimpse of the sun-stricken greenery in immediate sight of his window. “It’s a lot nicer than our office, I’ll tell you that for free,” I laughed. “You’re still in the same place? The room upstairs?” I confirmed; he sat for a second, musing. “Yeah, it’s funny; some of the happiest times of my life were spent in that little building.”
“Oh, I love it,” I replied, “A bit draughty at times, but I’ve probably lived there more than my flat this year. We’ve had some late nights… ‘til three, four in the morning.”
“Well, that’s what made me want to be a journalist,” Fraser nodded. “It was just how much fun it was. And how much I liked the company of other journalists as well.”
He sat on one of his office couches near the window as he reminisced on his time at the newspaper. “I got involved with the paper relatively late. It was the end of second year, and there was this girl I fancied – it’s the usual story – and she asked me to come along to this meeting… Do you still do your weekly meetings?”
I nodded yes – Thursdays at 5.30pm! – and he went on: “I got involved firstly by doing photography, and then I think I started writing some trash pop music stuff – I forget – and then I offered my services as someone who would run errands for the rest of the team. My first credit for The Glasgow Guardian was as an editorial assistant. I was thrilled, right, absolutely thrilled to be an editorial assistant – I just loved the production process.”
But it wasn’t just the work he loved; Fraser emphasised how special the team at the paper had been too. “I liked the chat of the other journalists. They were easily the funniest, most interesting people I had met at Glasgow.” (I agreed this too was still the case.)
“They were by no means the most fashionable,” he added wryly, “With the GUU set, there was this weird sense of hierarchy – who was cool and who wasn’t. The QMU guys had pretty much the opposite. As far as I could work out, no one at The Glasgow Guardian was remotely cool. But I was comfortable with that.”
An unanticipated blow to my own ego, I nonetheless took it on the chin as we moved into discussions about a career in journalism. “I sort of fell into it,” Fraser admitted. “I certainly didn’t think I was going to be the next big writer or pursue a career in journalism. There was some big squabble, or power struggle and for some bizarre reason I ended up the beneficiary of this. The next thing I knew I was Editor.
“Looking back on my Glasgow days, I wouldn’t say my additions were particularly good. I made the great mistake of writing about student politics, as if anybody cared. Nobody does. Like the SRC, and who was running for this position; the QMU, who was running for that… Nobody cared! Nobody cared who the President was.” God, I thought, has absolutely nothing changed?
“It was the great love of my life,” he reminisced. “I then knew – even though I didn’t think I was particularly good at it – it was what I wanted to do with my life, in some sort of way. Whether I was going to be a tea-maker, or an editorial assistant, at some newspaper for the rest of my life, that was fine – but I wanted to be involved. I fell in love with the people, I fell in love with journalism. You joke about having no social life with it, but we were each other’s social lives.”
It’s not often someone sums up your exact thoughts so succinctly but everything he said felt all too familiar to me. “I’ve definitely found this year that the paper has taken over my life,” I laughed. “But I mean that in the best way possible.”
Fraser Nelson is one of many notable figures that have emerged from Glasgow’s student paper. Andrew Neil, known far and wide as one of the world’s most formidable political interviewers, was also once part of The Glasgow Guardian’s team.
“I’ve actually got a picture somewhere of him and I standing in your Guardian office,” he told me, laughing. “He came to do this Radio 4 ‘This is your life’-style documentary, and they took him by the office, when I just happened to be the Editor. I actually interviewed him in the way you’re doing with me now. I met him in Edinburgh when I was at The Times, and he remembered me. It’s been almost 20 years since I joined The Scotsman to work with Andrew. And I’ve been working closely with him ever since. We had that Glasgow University bond.”
I pictured my own colleagues, many of whom had significantly helped myself and Hailie during our time as Editors to produce high-quality, impactful newspapers, often working late nights to tight deadlines and with very little in the way of finance. “A lot of us at the paper do want to go on to work in journalism,” I told him. “We look at career trajectories like Andrew’s and yours and think: ‘That’s where I want to be in so many years.’ It’s the saturation of the industry that scares us, though. It’s that mountain to climb up to get up to get to a ‘proper journalism job’ that’s just very intimidating.”
Fraser shifted in his seat. “Journalism is a bit of a lottery, right?” He explained: “It’s not the case that the best, most talented journalists rise to the top. Luck takes a massive chance of it. If I hadn’t met Andrew at that party, would he have invited me to The Scotsman? Andrew saw in me what I did not see in myself.
“Though it’s a wonderful way to live a life, the career is quite a jungle to navigate your way through. Now, you must be basically multi-platform. You must understand, instinctively, how to cut a podcast, how digital works, how social media works.
“Journalism is more of a disorder than an ambition. There are far easier ways of making money; there are far more straightforward ways of building your life. But if you are determined that nothing else will make you happy, then you should be a journalist.”
And what of The Glasgow Guardian? What role had our student paper played in building the career of one of the longest-standing editors in modern journalism? Was it merely a hobby that got the cogs turning? Or, instead, had our newspaper pulled away the undergrowth to reveal a path less travelled by your usual History & Politics student – yet one far more alluring? “It told me what I was going to do with my life,” Fraser replied immediately, as ironclad in his surety now as I could imagine he had been all those years ago. “Going to Glasgow University was worth the money, the time, everything, because in doing The Glasgow Guardian, I worked out what was going to make my soul sing, the thing that I wanted to devote my life to. That is an incredible moment; it’s like falling in love.
“And it also helped me get into a journalism degree. Postgraduate courses ask: ‘Is this person really serious about getting into journalism?’ And you need a realistic view about just how much graft is involved. If you’ve got experience being involved in the student newspaper, then that really demonstrates commitment.”
I thought of my own time as Editor of The Glasgow Guardian, often staying late into the night – or more often early hours of the morning – to proof-read our articles, to finish the print, to upload some last-minute coverage from COP26, or schedule up our articles and podcasts. It often diverted my attention from my university work, and even my non-paper social life, but it had never caused me to regret taking on the job. “It’s life-affirming to have found something that you know you could put however many hours into, and you wouldn’t feel like it’s a hard slog,” I reflected, contrasting it with how I felt about my medical degree. “You’d quite happily do it forever.”
“Yeah, it’s a labour of love, right?” Fraser Nelson replied. “One of the hardest things about journalism is how much time you can put into projects that never take off. And that can be quite dispiriting seeing all of that going to waste. But if you believe in the importance of something as good and true and interesting, you need to accept that that’s going to involve working on a lot of stuff that doesn’t quite work out. And if it is the labour of love, then none of the work is a burden.”