Colin Mackay brought integrity, charm and humour to broadcasting

MacKay is remembered by friends and colleagues as a savvy journalist with deep knowledge, a courteous nature and sharp wit.

Obituary: STV political broadcaster Colin MacKay brought integrity, charm and wit to broadcasting STV News

In the annals of Scottish broadcasting, Colin MacKay stands alone. He is the only senior journalist to have worked for the BBC and all three of the ITV stations who broadcast north of the border. 

To his trade as a political journalist, he brought a hinterland of knowledge which was always rich in facts and historical anecdote.  

And in his interviews with the leading figures of the day, he combined a gauche charm with a style of genteel probing which could frequently disarm those intent on evasion or filibuster. 

Since his death on November 10 at the age of 79, colleagues have been remembering the loveliest of men, who interacted with public figures with an unfailing courtesy and a belief that the purpose of political interviewing is to illuminate. 

Colin Hinshelwood MacKay was born on the August 27 1944 in Glasgow. His father, Dr Charles MacKay was the Group Medical Superintendent based at the Southern General Hospital and his mother Charlotte, a housewife. 

MacKay attended Kelvinside Academy, whose history he would write in a publication in 1978. This lifelong resident and devotee of the city’s west end took himself to Glasgow University at a time when the debating tradition of the institution was arguably at its height. 

MacKay, who was a member of the Liberal club, won the Observer Mace, a British Universities debating Championship, in 1967. He was a member of the two-man British Universities Canadian debating tour the same year. 

With a beautifully modulated voice, a slightly theatrical panache in argument and a wordsmiths’ sensitivity for exact language, it was perhaps inevitable that he would end up in broadcasting. 

Colin MacKay began his broadcasting career in the late 1960s

He worked as a reporter and presenter with Border Television from 1967-1970. One of his favourite stories was of prime minister Harold Wilson visiting the north of England.  

He was asked a question by an industrial correspondent, Bill Shakespeare. Wilson listened to the question before responding, “I’ve read some of your books. They’re very good.”

MacKay, who was a brilliant mimic, would impersonate the voices in the telling of the story.  

In later years, the green room would belly ache as he impersonated Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Churchill, Roy Jenkins and his best take, that on Lord James Douglas-Hamilton. 

He loved his time doing the same job for Grampian Television from 1970-73 and developed an affection for the area and the people. 

But when James Gordon, STVs first political editor, quit to form Radio Clyde in 1973, the door at Cowcaddens welcomed MacKay as Jimmy Gordon’s successor. 

Russell Galbraith, a former head of news and current affairs at STV, said: “He was a lovely man and a savvy journalist who, as STV’s political editor, brought deep knowledge, wisdom and a benign good humour to a difficult job, reporting and interpreting events to a large and critical audience.”

He would become best known for presenting the political programme, Ways and Means, which he anchored from 1973-86. He signed off every week with his trademark wink to the camera and the line “from all of us to all of you, please do have a very good week.”

Colin MacKay interviewing Margaret Thatcher.

It was impossible to divorce Colin’s modus operandi as a journalist from his personality: decent, courteous, inquiring but never overly confrontational. 

He interviewed all of the leading figures of the day including Margaret Thatcher. Occasionally, he would be required to interview those outwith politics. It is said his fastidious good manners impressed a certain Sophia Loren when she was interviewed for STV. 

He was the main anchor for election programmes and set piece interviews.  

During his tenure as political editor, industrial unrest was common. The 1974-79 Labour governments were bogged down in legislating for devolution. Then came the referendum of 1979 and the eventual election of Mrs Thatcher.  

De-industrialisation and home rule demands dominated much of the politics of the 1980s. MacKay was there every step of the way to record momentous events and interview the people who shaped them. 

Former first minister Alex Salmond recalls: “He was at the centre of events which shaped the politics of modern Scotland. Many an interviewee was lured to disaster by an apparent soft ball question which turned into an iceberg”.

In 1986, he was dispatched to Westminster and would report from the Commons for news and current affairs before returning to full time studio duties in 1990 as the lead presenter on Scottish Questions. 

His high public profile during this time led him to be appointed to the board of the Scottish Art Council in 1988, a position he would hold for six years. 

Political interviewing, comically deferential in the 1950s, had become more probing by the 1960s but by the 1980s it became more pugilistic.  

In part this was due to politicians becoming more guarded and a fashion for interviewers to goad and then hunt for answers.  

That was before the current fashion where the interviewers are frequently more famous than those they interview. 

Colin MacKay steadfastly held to his belief that the public was best served by a desire to illuminate, rather than turn the interview into a subset of the entertainment genre.  

The world-renowned political scientist, Professor Richard Rose said, “he was a good and fair interviewer, and we need more of these now”.

In retrospect, the integrity of his position helped undermine his television longevity. After a reshuffling of personnel in 1992, he left STV. 

Colin MacKay remembered as a 'wonderful broadcaster' by former colleagues

Such was Colin’s knowledge, he could have been the Scottish print version of an Anthony Howard or an Alan Watkins but the genesis of the permanent financial austerity of newspapers meant that money was tight. The gap in the market he could have filled, remained a sad void. 

In some respect, he found his broadcasting home in radio. It loves language more than television and allows issues to breathe, in contrast to the TV soundbite which can reduce the complex to the trite. 

MacKay loved his stint at Radio Clyde, hosting Talk-In Sunday. Again, he would impersonate some of the callers in an affectionate endorsement of the directness of the way folk in the west of Scotland voiced their opinions: unvarnished and unfiltered by political correctness. 

He enjoyed a remarkably long run at BBC Radio Scotland, presenting firstly, People and Power and then Politics Tonight, all under the watchful eye and common sense counsel of producer, Heather Fraser. 

In 1997, he won the BT Scottish Radio News Broadcaster of the year. 

He stepped down from front line broadcasting duties in 2008 although until recently continued to freelance with the BBC, answering complaints from viewers and listeners.

Colin was beyond diplomatic and no doubt his soothing replies and suffocating reasonableness, helped smooth potential trouble. 

An opera buff and a voracious reader, he had a fetish for the long-gone habit of amassing old newspaper clippings. His tendency to horde made his study look like an assault course only a soldier could scale. 

Colin MacKay married Olive Brownlie in 1982 and they had two sons, David born in 1984 and Andrew born in 1987. 

Along with older brother Charles and younger brother Stewart, daughter-in-law Jill, and grandchildren Esme and Archie, they all survive him. 

Former colleague and neighbour Fiona Ross offers this summation: a wonderful broadcaster, a true professional, a good friend and one of the nicest people I’ve ever worked with. 

In today’s world of polarised opinions, expressed angrily, and where the peddling of untruths becomes ingrained ‘fact’, Colin MacKay’s service to journalism stands as a memorial: his career is an antidote to all that is wrong with today’s discourse. 

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