The eminent STV anchor speaks with The Glasgow Guardian about his distinguished career and the ever-changing Scottish media landscape.
There are many monikers used to describe John MacKay — whether it’s “Cronkite of the Clyde”, or simply the man from the telly your granny from Easterhouse raves about. One can wrestle over appellations, but what cannot be disputed is he has made a prodigious contribution to journalism in Scotland. At the heart of current affairs and broadcasting in Scotland for over a quarter of a century, John MacKay is something of a ubiquitous presence in Scottish society. Whether he’s beaming through the telly into your household, or instead at the pub, he has long been the presenter of what he reminds me is Scotland’s most watched news programme.
He joined what was then Scottish Television to present Scotland Today alongside Shereen Nanjiani in 1994. Nearly 30 years on, he is the chief presenter of Scotland’s flagship bulletin: STV’s News at Six. The West of Scotland edition of the programme features commensurate and commandingly deep and local vocal tones. As a former editor of The Glasgow Guardian during his time at the University, John MacKay afforded me the privilege of sitting with him in the studio before the lunchtime bulletin went out, discussing his career to date, literary contributions, and counsel for young journalists in an ever-changing field.
I ask him, perhaps in a twee manner, firstly, where it all began: the fons et origo of MacKay’s journalistic passions. He invokes a secondary school English teacher who was particularly inspirational. As a young man he reveals he was a newspaper delivery boy, who “got a buzz out of putting headlines through people’s doors” — an enterprise he’s kept up all these years, only exchanging the letterbox for the aerial. A penchant for writing and that “buzz” would be served by an undergraduate degree in Politics at the University of Glasgow. His student years, he reveals, are ones he recalls with mixed emotions. (We agree on the tension between “wine and cheese” and “pint and crisp” culture raging on to this day, of which no doubt we are both casualties.) The highlights for MacKay instead came from his time as Editor of this student paper. His advice to budding or avid journalists who wish to follow in his footsteps culminates in an ability to “always be curious, accrue work experience, and consume articles voraciously of whatever hue”.
Work experience was exactly what a young John MacKay accrued. In print, he worked for The Herald and the Sunday Post, providing a good grounding for a then trainee journalist. On radio, a stint at Radio Clyde and sports commentary helped develop his skills further. Each in turn would help him secure a post at BBC Scotland, for which he occasionally presented Reporting Scotland. This propelled his broadcasting career, finally joining what is now STV in 1994 .
At the time of entering the industry, one might have been deterred by perceptions, registers and the plummy voices that suffused broadcasting, particularly on the BBC. He stresses that “audience connection is so important… the audience sees themselves in us”. Initially, MacKay didn’t see himself in television, and was once even told he didn’t have the voice for broadcasting. Yet, a quarter of a century on, it is interesting to reflect on a paradigmatic shift. MacKay’s signature resonant and robust voice is undeniably the voice of news broadcasting in Scotland, imitated and parodied by the likes of Kevin Bridges, and reflected in popular culture.
MacKay has borne witness to a changing Scotland which is, helpfully, the other half of the title of his book: Notes of Newsman. There have been unprecedented changes in Scottish society, many of which he has covered. The Dunblane massacre, Scottish devolution and the death of Donald Dewar – the first First Minister of Scotland — all occurred just before the turn of the millennium. He delivered the first of these stories with young children at home. Whilst never becoming inured to some of the most difficult stories, his maintenance of composure has no doubt emboldened his career.
Swathes of changes to the media landscape then occurred, both in print culture as well as in broadcasting itself. Those who bemoan the decline of print are as quick to prognosticate on the death of TV news. MacKay refutes the notion – instead, he asserts that “TV news isn’t dying” (and not just to cover his back). The statistics demonstrate that not only has STV’s audience barely changed, but their share has in fact increased during his time there, outstripping that of BBC Scotland.
The advent of social media has, nonetheless, posed challenges for the dissemination of information and news as it happens. The incessant noise and echo-chamber-feedback-loop of online platforms can be nauseating to many. Still, MacKay suggests that Twitter (now X), Instagram, and Facebook can be useful as initial barometers of public opinion. As for TikTok, a newcomer to the fray, John concedes in the third person: “The very fact that John MacKay has heard of TikTok suggests that it is past its peak”. As for his own use of social media, in an age of increasing self-aggrandisement and by-line inflation by hungry journalists, MacKay typically tweets a picture of his tie. It’s not his job to demonstrate cleverness or seek recognition, he says — a principle he also applies to political interviews.
I ask him about difficult guests and how he conducts interviews with them. Circumlocution and deflection aside, he pays tribute to Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, both of whom he has faced on Scotland Tonight. He confesses, however, some of his most memorable interviews are those with sillier moments (such as when a woman and her dog were left in the studio to fill an eight minute slot).
Of Hebridean heritage, MacKay has something of a stake in the Gaelic language – a language I ask if he ever foresees the news being presented in. Not in his lifetime or career, he says. STV offers little in the way of support for it, due to funding and because of the commercial remit. Yet, MacKay — if not to the language – has made a contribution to the Gaelic literary landscape, with his novel, The Road Dance, since being adapted into a film. The film adaptation features a cameo appearance, and won the Audience Award for Best Feature at the 2021 Edinburgh Film Festival. It makes sense that his first regard was to storytelling, never from a commercial angle. MacKay’s authorship lends an authenticity to the portrayal of the Scottish Gaelic diaspora.
MacKay has presided over Scotland’s major transformation across a wide variety of spheres. As he approaches three decades at STV, and for a man whose career has already been distinguished, I ask whether he might consider a return to the University as the rector elections approach. He politely snubs my request, insisting there’s more work to be done. Back to John in the studio.