Roy Thomson’s invasion of Scotland
At a speed that shocks the cautious Scots, this transplanted Canadian has revitalized their shaky national newspaper, taken charge of commercial television and become as well known as Johnnie Walker
Leslie F. Hannon
The cobblestoned Royal Mile in Edinburgh runs gracefully between centuries-old stone storefronts connecting the city’s most famous sights — Holyroodhouse Palace and Edinburgh Castle. A short block from the intersection where the Mile begins to climb sharply toward the Castle, a third famous sight has recently appeared—Roy Thomson in his 1958 two-tone Cadillac coupe de ville.
Four times a day Gunther Hirsch, a meticulous German chauffeur - handyman, wheels his master to and from his chairman’s office at The Scotsman, the ornate thirteenstory stone pile that houses the crown jewel of Thomson’s newspaper-television-radiofinance-furniture-trucking empire. It's a safe bet that more Edinburghers each day turn to watch the passing of Thomson’s Cadillac than turn their eyes upward to admire the royal castles that dominate their lovely city.
Of course, the Castle has been there since the 12th century and the Cadillac is the only one registered in Scotland. But there's more than anachronistic novelty in Thomson’s public appeal. In the five years since this son of a Toronto barber startled the publish-
ing world by reaching out from his pyramid of smallish Canadian daily papers and radio stations to buy the historic Scotsman he has become perhaps the No. 1 public personality of all Scotland.
All over the craggy north his bustling blue-suited two-hundred-and-ten-pound figure, his silver-white hair, his double-lensed glasses are generally recognized. In the very home of reticence and caution, his irreverent hail-fellow manner has proved astonishingly effective in breaking down social barriers both high and low. With beaming bonhomie he greets His Grace the Duke of Hamilton as “Doug”; with equal ease he invites young keelies in Glasgow to come for a spin in the Caddy. The first time he met the Queen at Holyroodhouse, she said she had been told that he was a Canadian. "Don’t let my accent fool you, Ma’am,” Thomson chuckled. "I’m a Scot now.” To a homely waitress in a wee teashop in Cowdenbeath he said, "Anybody that can make scones like these won’t be long getting married.”
He hasn’t charmed everybody, to be sure. His Canadian reputation as a tightwad where salaries are concerned is heartily endorsed by Scots both on and off his staffs. "He pays buttons,” says one ex-Canadian on his television staff. On the other hand, he's free with high-sounding titles that have a certain value in class-ridden Scotland. "You know, mon,” a rival Edinburgh newspaperman snorted, "Thomson’s got executives yon getting less than a thousand a year.” That's under $2,800. Another man, parodying Thomson’s delight in mentally figuring a business deal, said with Celtic gestures: "You see the lights flash off and on behind his glasses as the computer goes into action. I always expect to hear a bell and see a cash drawer shoot out from his waistcoat.” A colleague added: “Yes, and then he’d stuff some more rolls of fivers in, and snap it shut.”
Thomson’s bullmoose social tactics appall many middleclass Scots who still accord the laird his due. Recently in Aberdeen where he was addressing the Rotary club on the delights of commercial TV Thomson fell into lively conversation with a big-framed Scot whose name had registered only as 'George.” As the group walked into lunch. Thomson said to the Aberdonian. "George. I didn’t catch your name.” With a ringing "r" the man announced: "Sir George Williamson." Many may wince, but Thomson’s gaffes are committed in such a spirit of obvious friendliness that, rather than create offense, they seem to help him through doors that money alone couldn't force.
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“His bull-moose social tactics appall many Scotsmen. Yet they seem to help him open doors”
Thomson's Hair for identifying himself with Scotland has paid princely dividends. When he bought The Scotsman in 1953 he announced that he was "retiring" from his Canadian interests, that his only son. Kenneth Roy, would take over there as president, that from his new residence in Edinburgh he would devote himself to lifting “The Times of the North” from the red into the black and to further peaks of influence. Thomson’s conception of retirement would interest a semanticist. First, he has kept his hand firmly on the Canadian complex, as chairman of the board. He has launched Scottish Television Ltd., which has a commercial TV monopoly in the central Scotland area, and a weekly TV Guide that coins money. He is acquiring a group of weekly papers in the Inverness area which he plans to amalgamate into a daily; he has added to the Thomson British holdings a hire-purchase firm that he intends to push into the TV set rental business. Although The Scotsman group—it includes the Evening Dispatch and the Weekly Scotsman—is not yet out of the red. Thomson’s other United Kingdom interests are earning him what is possibly Scotland’s highest income. When Scottish Television ended its first year this fall, its gross revenue was expected to reach ten million dollars. Thomson’s interest in STV is eighty percent and his profit from this venture alone should be around three million dollars for the year.
In an age when the tycoon is becoming as rare as the Eskimo curlew, Roy Thomson at sixty-four is happily becoming one as fast as he can. He is actively considering newspaper purchases in Tangier and Casablanca, in Addis Ababa, Calcutta, Ceylon and Singapore. A new major purchase in the United Kingdom is believed to be imminent. "Jeez,” says Thomson, “if only I was twenty years younger!”
It would be tiring to trace the strands of his business web; it's enough to say that through holding companies in both Britain and Canada, control of all his interests channels back to the Woodbridge Company, on Toronto’s King Street, which is owned in the main by his three children and their five children. "They pretty much let me have my own way,” Thomson comments. The total value of the companies is estimated to be over thirty-five million dollars. Since all of Thomson’s companies are privately owned, he doesn't publish balance sheets; but he does not deny the accuracy of this estimate.
Lord Beaverbrook — he is “Max” to Thomson — is reported to have said shortly after Thomson invaded Edinburgh: "The question is not what will
Roy Thomson do to The Scotsman, but what will The Scotsman do to Roy Thomson?” Rather than a newspaper, it was an institution. Dull as ditchwater to North American eyes, it droned along with want ads and death notices on the front page,
its editorial page a curious mixture of narrow parochialism and unworldly world affairs. But it did have influence: it was frequently quoted in the Commons by politicians on both sides of the House. And it inspired a proprietary affection
in its fifty-five thousand readers — the most conservative of Scotland’s conservative families. Its massive stone walls at the end of Edinburgh's historic North Bridge contained one of the best printing plants in the world, a small army of old retainers, portraits of past editors, busts of past publishers, a chaotic internal organization, more marble than any Canadian bank and a palpable, if musty, air of tradition.
When Thomson bought it in 1953 for two and a quarter million dollars it looked as though he might have overreached himself in his desire for prestige. His twenty-three-paper chain in North America (it has now grown to thirty-six) had prospered on the principle of monopoly—that is, the Thomson paper, whether in Moose Jaw or Sarnia, was the only paper in town. In Edinburgh, quite apart from the burdens of tradition, The Scotsman and its sister papers faced cutthroat competition from the national dailies, the nearby Glasgow papers and from the local Evening News. Thomson’s afternoon Dispatch was staggering along at 67,000 daily copies against the opposition Evening News’ 156,000.
Thomson was so little known in Scotland when his purchase was first announced that when Maclean’s, in its issue of Jan. 1, 1954, carried a profile on him, the few copies reaching Scotland were thumbed into tatters. They are still being read by Scots puzzled by some fresh gust of the Canadian cyclone that has come into their lives.
The first plea Thomson met in Edinburgh was to resound in his ears with the monotony of a piper’s lament: You mustn't change The Scotsman. The plea came from his editorial staff, his business office, from Edinburgh’s powerful families, even from the Duke of Edinburgh himself. To all, Thomson responded stoutly that he considered the prestige of The Scotsman to be a sacred trust. Summoning the ghost of his Scottish great-grandfather, he swore he was a Canadian no longer and encouraged the belief that his business plunge had in some mystical fashion converted him into a latter-day Johnnie Walker. Then, of course, he set about changing The Scotsman.
Now, five years later, he is still changing it, and diligent questioning in Edinburgh doesn’t uncover more than a few peeps of protest'. Some of its readers don’t seem to be aware that things have changed at all. And, in fact, most of the changes are not visible to the passing eye. Certainly, news under moderate headlines has pushed the ads off the front page; the writing and editing is sharper, though still windy and often obtuse by North American standards; features and advertising are now grouped efficiently instead of wandering all over the paper. But, to
Thomson, the editorial side of publishing has never been more than a curious phenomenon. In the fifteen years since he first entered the business by launching the Timmins Press as a daily he has probably learned less about journalism than the average cub reporter picks up in his first month. He simply hires an editor whom he trusts, gives him a budget, then turns his attention to the books. And that’s where the big changes have occurred.
With his original Scotsman purchase he acquired almost a whole city block, part of it fronting on the Royal Mile. With characteristic candor, he had stated: “You’d have to be crazy not to make money . . . The real estate and buildings alone are worth a million pounds.” Assisted by S. F. Chapman, secretarytreasurer of his Canadian holding company, he sold off all the property The Scotsman publications didn’t need. This returned him within months a large fraction of his outlay. Cautioned by such experts on the Scottish mind as James Muir, the lad from Peebles who
became president of the Royal Bank of Canada—and a director of The Scotsman Publications — Thomson approached the whittling and reorganization of his new staffs with what could be described as relentless caution.
One day the town rang with a rumor that Thomson had fired sixty-eight girls the week before Christmas. The number let out was twenty, and Thomson kept them all on the payroll until they were placed elsewhere. He arranged that they could continue to eat in The Scotsman’s subsidized cafeteria in the interim. Always with the velvet glove, he opened the gate to the entire management staff except three. As his new managing director, he brought in James M. Coltart, a coldly brilliant Glasgow-born Beaverbrook executive who combines a surgical knowledge of newspaper accountancy with strict teetotalism and belief in Moral Rearmament. Coltart’s assignment covers both The Scotsman and Scottish Television Ltd. When Scotsman editor J. Murray Watson retired, Thomson gave the plum (most previous Scotsman editors have been knighted) to a canny choice — Alastair Dunnett, a curly haired Highlander whose family come from Dunnett’s Head, the most northerly tip of Scotland’s mainland. Known as “Black” Dunnett to distinguish him from Alastair (“Red”) Dunnett, a well-known radio free-lancer, he has on occasion edited The Scotsman resplendent in the MacTavish kilt. Respected throughout Britain as an independent journalist, Dunnett handles his new chief with just the right blend of familiarity and reserve. Thomson says: “I make a lot of suggestions to the editor. He doesn’t have to follow them. Very often, he doesn’t.” Referring to his boss’s recent request to the Lyon King-of-Arms for a Thomson tartan, Dunnett says, “As long as Roy isn’t kidded too much about it, we’ll get him into it.” Dunnett believes most men are improved by the kilt.
Perhaps the best example of how Thomson has changed his technique to avoid a clash with Scottish opinion can
be seen in his method of easing the gloomy ads off the front page of The Scotsman. After three years of rumbling patience, he hired London’s Festival Hall and invited every big-time Scottish businessman resident in the metropolis to a dinner. “It is not' fitting,” he told them, “that The Scotsman which carries the voice and thought of Scotland to the far reaches of the world should introduce itself with advertisements which are, after all, of only local interest.” This apparent selflessness on Thomson's part, his placing of Scotland’s interests first and his own revenue second, stirred (and probably astonished) his listeners, most of them men who could squeeze more halfpence out of a pound than were minted into it. At a luncheon at the Savoy Grill for all Scottish MPs, the story was repeated. And on the night that The Scotsman “went front page” Thomson was host at a buffet supper in his Edinburgh offices to a glittering assembly among which mere knights were a dime a dozen. When the first copy of the first edition came off the press it' was borne in by an old retainer and dutifully admired by all.
The Scotsman, as a single unit, is profitable today. Its circulation has jumped ten thousand under Thomson rule to a daily 65,000. The Weekly Scotsman is nearing the break-even point. But the Evening Dispatch is Thomson’s disgrace. Not only does it lose enough money to put the combined operation in the red, but it has actually lost circulation under the best efforts of the Thomson machine. He hired Jack Miller, a graduate from London's Daily Mirror (circulation: four million) to turn the Dispatch into a workers’ tabloid. In another town, it might have worked. Miller struggled manfully for a year but the job of trying to combine the last-minute “nap” (hot tip) for the greyhound races with highly moral rumblings against most human pleasures from the innumerable committees of the Church of Scotland beat him down. Since Miller’s departure, the Dispatch has kept searching feverishly and vainly for a success formula. Knowing Thomson’s impatience—indeed, his intense dislike—of unprofitable business, many Edinburgh newspapermen, printers and even some publishers are nervously awaiting his next move.
“The big question: how did Roy Thomson win his fabulous TV contract?”
The question most asked about Roy Thomson in Britain is: how was it possible for this Canadian, a mere three and a half years after his arrival in Scotland, to win his commercial television contract with its fabulous rewards? What strings did he pull to beat out the big established interests that must have competed? The answer is almost too simple to be believed: apart from a few promoters whose ambitions were larger than either their pocketbooks or their experience, Thomson was the only man to put in a bid.
The television setup in Britain must be briefly explained. The BBC’s monopoly of both radio and television was broken by the passing of the Television Act, 1954, which set up an Independent Television Authority. The ITA had the responsibility of supplying transmitting facilities for nation-wide commercial television and of selecting and policing the "program companies” that would be licensed to provide the actual programs in the various areas. There are no sponsored shows in British television: the program companies provide the shows and a maximum of eight minutes per hour is allowed for advertisements by the ITA rules. "Spot” ads, from fifteen to sixty seconds long and rising in cost during peak viewing hours, are by far the most common form of advertising. To date, eight program companies have been licensed.
Four program companies were operating, and were losing their shirts, when Thomson came into the picture. In their first year of operation the pioneer companies lost a net three and a quarter million pounds. When commercial TV went on the air in September 1955, only 190,000 sets had been “converted” to pick up their signal. “And,” comments Thomson, “those people spent money like drunken sailors.” The ITA pushed doggedly ahead and selected a site at Black Hill, near Glasgow, for a transmitter to serve the central Scotland area, and applications were invited for the program license. Here a special factor entered the picture: Scotland, like Wales to follow, with strong regional prejudices, needs and attitudes, could not be dealt oil' to an English company.
To Thomson the situation screamed opportunity. He was convinced that the rate of conversion of TV sets to the commercial channel must spiral and that a fortune was going begging. But when Thomson, feeling that he needed some big Scottish names to bolster his application, went calling to raise both names and cash he was astonished to find a granitic disbelief in the future of commercial television among the cautious Scots. Waving an incredulous hand, Thomson says, "I even offered them that if they’d put up a lousy thousand pounds I’d guarantee to buy back their stock after a year at the same figure plus bank interest.” Rai Purdy, for years Canada’s biggest independent radio producer, now Thomson's director of programs, adds: “The people who wouldn’t go into STV with Roy must be ready to shoot themselves.”
Among the few who did go in was Sir Edward Stevenson, for twenty-eight years Purse Bearer to the Lord High Commissioner for Scotland. Describing
his ceremonial role, the unstuffy Stevenson says, “I’m like Pooh Bah in the Mikado.” He has played an even more telling role in the Adventures of Roy Thomson in Caledonia. Stevenson has facilitated Thomson’s entry into high places: it is Stevenson who sends out all the invitations for state functions and arranges royal programs when the Queen comes to Holyroodhouse Palace. Another investor was the Howard and Wyndham theatrical chain, represented in Edinburgh by Charles McQueen. Thomson bought the Theatre Royal in Glasgow from H & W and the theatre chain took up ten percent of the STV stock; McQueen took a little nibble on his own. Association with the lively, handsome McQueen has given Thomson, a widower and near-teetotaler, entry into another level of Scottish society where the absence of titles is perhaps as marked as is the high level of sharp brains and sociability.
With Thomson, these men have watched Scottish Television in its first year soar to amazing success. STV’s contract with ITA runs to 1964; its license currently costs two hundred and forty thousand pounds a year against the year’s estimated revenue of up to three million pounds. Even allowing a generous percentage for programing costs, the net profit is handsome indeed. Late last May a three-inch story in The Scotsman announced—in terms that must have set a record for vagueness, even for The Scotsman—that “a closer corporate arrangement" had been worked out between Scottish Television and Scotsman Publications ... As the companies are largely owned by the Thomson interests no change has taken place in this respect.” The fact that came through the fog was that Scottish Television now owned The Scotsman. By changing his money from one pocket to the other, Thomson had made the deep credit of his television unit available for further newspaper or other expansion, if he cared to so use it.
When STV went on the air on August 31, 1957, the number of television sets in the central Scottish area that could receive its signal was 187,000. Early this summer, out of a total of 596,000 sets in the area, the Thomson station was available on 404.000 sets. Figures released by Television Audience Measurement Ltd. claimed that for a four-week
period this spring sixty-seven percent of the sets that had a choice between the non-commercial BBC-TV Scottish service and the commercial STV were watching Thomson’s station.
By and large, the BBC makes it dead easy for commercial operators like Thomson to walk off with the audience. Early one evening Thomson turned on his home set, watched the Adventures of Robin Hood on STV with silent satisfaction, then switched to the BBC and with even greater satisfaction watched about thirty seconds of an illustrated lecture on the sex life of the octopus. In earlier days in Canada he had once said, “The most beautiful music to me is a spot commercial at ten bucks a whack.” Not long ago, with his television spots bringing in a peak eight hundred dollars for sixty seconds, he rephrased this sentiment: “It’s like having a license to print money.”
Thomson is well aware that remarks of this candor rebound to his discredit in a land where the tightly buttoned lip is traditional. "I talk too much,” he admits with a grin, and his Scottish associates wholeheartedly agree. But Thomson likes to talk and he believes that his frankness is disarming. Knowing that he’s generally regarded as a tough businessman, he’ll even act as his own straight man. He once told Scotsman staffers: “I didn’t come to Scotland to make money but, constituted as I am, I can’t entirely forget the subject.” When delivering speeches—sometimes three in a week—Thomson usually rams home a couple of locker-room stories. “I’ve never forgotten what Milton Berle used to say," he explains. “Always leave them laughing.” Some of his stories raise almost as many embarrassed coughs as they do roars of laughter.
In any one week Thomson will likely be in Glasgow twice, and at least once in London. This summer he spent five weeks in Canada. Each year he makes a long overseas trip, usually tying it to some international conference in the publishing or television fields. He is intrigued by cosmopolitan racy spots like Tangier. Wherever he goes he’s likely to be found dickering with the local newspaper proprietors. One night last May he flew down to London to take Sir John Kotelawala, the ex-premier of Ceylon, and a group of Singhalese newspapermen to a party at the Pigalle, a spot where good food is backed up by a feathers - and - sequins semi-nude floor show. Two nights later he was dining in Edinburgh with Prime Minister Macmillan. A w-eek later he had a London luncheon with the Earl of Bessborough and an Edinburgh dinner with the Duke of Hamilton at Holyroodhouse.
On June 18 when Thomson gave a dazzling dinner for the NATO commander-in-chief. General Lauris Norstad, the invitation list looked as though it had been torn out of Burke’s Peerage. Two years earlier he had similarly entertained General Alfred M. Gruenther at the time of his retirement from the NATO leadership. One incident marred the first spectacle. When the dinnerjacketed newspapermen arrived to cover the event, they found themselves shunted off into a separate room where the table and surroundings suggested they were to get "below stairs” treatment. After a hurried discussion, most of them left. Only Thomson's papers carried stories of the event.
Hugely relishing a schedule of responsibilities and activities that would crush many men half his age, Thomson enjoys almost boyish good health. The thousands of meals he snatched in greasyspoon restaurants in northern Ontario when fighting his early properties to success didn’t harm his digestion. With the world’s best food at his command, his great weakness is bread. He knows he should lose about twenty pounds, but he slaps his small corporation and says. "I’ve got a stomach like a rhinoceros.” He has a slow-growing cataract in his right eye that may later require surgery but it can’t be noticed behind the heavy glasses that earned him the nickname of Mr. Magoo when he first came to Edinburgh. He has no thought of retirement. "Where could I find anything more interesting to do than what I do now?”
It is only in his home on the lower slopes of Edinburgh’s Braid Hills that signs can be found of what Scotland, and wealth, have done to Roy Thomson. Few of the hundreds of celebrities, businessmen, and visiting Canadians whom he entertains in a year ever see inside the door. It’s his refuge, perhaps the one place where he can relax. The red sandstone three-story house was formerly the home of Sir James Learmonth, surgeon to King George VI. Thomson owns only the top floors and half the grounds, a circumstance not uncommon in Scotland. He lives alone in his ten rooms, served I if not indeed supervised) by his German housekeeper and her chauffeur husband.
When Gunther brings his master home at six o’clock in the eye-catching Cadillac, Thomson walks past the Morland in the hall, up the stairs past the Gainsborough, by the Raeburn on the landing and into his study. This small room is crowded with a television set, a stack of newspapers and business magazines, an over-stuffed reclining chair and a large wall cabinet. On the wall before the chair is a rather garish modern painting of a pretty girl turning her head in a continental street. In Thomson’s bedroom are two large nudes by the same artist, an Austrian called Fried Pal. One of the nudes, startlingly realistic, is the girl on the study wall.
Flung back in his chair Thomson tries to catch up on some of the papers he controls in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. It’s a hopeless task—he owns several papers that he hasn’t visited yet. He turns on his own TV station and watches Jig Time, his proudest production. For two weeks earlier this year, this corny highland barn-dance program, outpulled all other programs available in the area served by
both STV and BBC, beating out even the best American films and such top network shows as Sunday at the Palladium, which STV takes from the southern stations.
Whether or not Thomson is seeking a title to crown his upward march from the back streets of Toronto has been the subject of gossip ever since he followed in Beaverbrook's footsteps. In Toronto last April, David Walker. MP for Rosedale, stated flatly before the St. Andrew's Society that Thomson should be given a peerage for bringing commercial tele-
vision to Scotland. Certainly, in Scotland, Thomson has been moving in the right circles if that were his aim. The Princess Royal cut the tape when Thomson gave Panmure House, a centuriesold home where Adam Smith once lived, to a boys’ club. It had come to him as part of his original Scotsman purchase and he had spent ten thousand pounds restoring it. This summer, during the royal residence in Scotland, Prince Philip stopped by to inspect it.
Discussing a prospective title could easily keep a man out of the honors list
and, when pressed on this score. Thomson rejoins: "If you were offered a title, what would you do?” Now that nonhereditary peerages are being granted it would seem likely that a man of Thomson’sstature and influence would be an early choice for elevation. He is already sitting for a marble bust to add to the line-up of past publishers that glower dustily in one of The Scotsman’s paneled hallways. If he does enter the peerage he’ll be starting a new tradition: the previous publishers have all had to be satisfied with baronetcies, if