The University of St Andrews recently retained its spot as the highest ranked university in Scotland and the third best in the UK in the Times Higher Education Guide’s rankings for 2019. Whatever you make of those rankings, it is undeniable that over the years this university has become home to some of the best and brightest minds.
One name who would shy away from such descriptions is Peter MacMahon, the current Political Editor at ITV Border and former Deputy Editor of The Scotsman. Mr MacMahon studied at the University during the 1980s, doing a degree in Geography and serving as President of the SRC (Students’ Representative Council) in the days before the SRC and Students’ Association merged.
He recently caught up with The Saint to talk about his time on the East Fife coast, student politics, his career in Scottish political journalism and the advice he has for up-and-coming young journalists.
The obvious place to start the interview was talking about his degree and whether doing Geography helped him in his future journalistic career. The answer wasn’t quite a resounding no, but it was fairly close. Instead, he put his future career down to his time working with the SRC and the opportunities that gave him.
He served as SRC President at the time of the Thatcher government, when universities across the country faced hefty budget cuts and thus student experiences were of great interest to the wider public.
Mr MacMahon said, “It was an interesting year to be involved in university politics and quite a good year to be on the Court. There was a lot of media attention, local media and some national Scottish media as well, and it was through that and through an interest in politics and through coming across journalists, that really sparked my interest in journalism.”
Perhaps the most significant event during his presidency was the referendum on whether the University of St Andrews should rejoin the National Union of Students (NUS). Despite the best efforts of Mr MacMahon and David Aaronovitch, then NUS president and now a Times columnist, the referendum ended with a fairly wide defeat. In recent years there has been a trend of more universities walking away from the NUS, seeing it as a diminishing force, so The Saint asked Mr MacMahon whether he felt there was still a place for student politics.
“Student politics is much derided; people see it as wannabe politicians playing politics but in my experience and having been back to St Andrews fairly recently and speaking to a recent President, finding out what they do and finding that they still sit on the University Court, I think there absolutely still is a role for student politics.
“Someone needs to be articulating the student view… and it’s a healthy process, with democracy and elections, and the fact the President is answerable to students.”
He also added, “Here in Holyrood, on issues like tuition fees, the student voice is definitely listened to.”
Since leaving St Andrews and the world of student politics, Mr MacMahon has spent a lengthy career in journalism. After working as a lobby correspondent in Westminster for roughly a decade, he has since worked as a political editor for The Mirror, The Sunday Mirror and latterly The Scotsman, where he went on to become deputy editor. Throughout that career, he’s seen a number of massive changes, the biggest being the formation of the Scottish Parliament.
“Without being too pretentious about it, [I’ve] witnessed a bit of Scottish political history, and the biggest change has been establishing this [the Scottish Parliament], somewhere that has powers over education, health, justice and now taxation. It’s maturing into a more mature parliament and it’s impossible to think of it ever disappearing.
“People in Scotland perhaps look more now to Holyrood than they do to Westminster.”
Another change that Mr MacMahon pointed to was the ‘extraordinary’ growth of the SNP as a political movement within Scotland, describing how when he first moved back to Scotland they had only a ‘handful’ of MPs, before becoming a minority government and then a majority, holding the independence referendum in 2014.
He said, “It’s been an absolutely extraordinary rise of one party and partly the decline of other parties – first the Tories, although they’ve revived a bit, and then Labour.”
In 2013, Mr MacMahon made the switch from print journalism, a field in which he had spent virtually his entire career to that point, into broadcast journalism, joining ITV Border as a political editor. He presents Representing Border three nights a week, reporting on the happenings at Holyrood, whilst also working for a news programme that covers both the south of Scotland and Cumbria in England.
Was his move motivated by the forthcoming Scottish referendum or simply a desire for something new? It turned out that it was definitely a bit of both.
“By that time the independence referendum was certain to happen and I wanted to do something new, different. It’s a cliché, but a new challenge. I’d done a lot of television as a pundit – BBC, Sky, ITV – and I thought maybe I could do it as a presenter and ITV agreed.
“I’m really pleased I made the change. I really miss the colleagues and some aspects of print journalism, but I absolutely love this job.”
Mr MacMahon spoke about how his job has allowed him to interview the big players in Scottish and British politics and that it has been “fascinating” to chart the ebbs and flows of Scottish politics.
With that in mind, The Saint enquired as to where he sees the big battlegrounds for Scotland in the next few years. Unsurprisingly, Brexit was a recurring theme throughout.
“Brexit is dominating absolutely everything that is happening.
“It affects the relationship between Holyrood and Westminster. It’s divided the political parties at Westminster obviously and in terms of the biggest question that still exists in Scotland, whether we have another independence referendum, it looks pretty clear that Nicola Sturgeon is going to say – although she may change her mind – that she doesn’t have enough information about Brexit to make a call on a second independence referendum.”
He also lamented the way in which Brexit is perhaps overshadowing some key domestic issues that need addressing in order to help Scotland move forward, citing changes to local government and the integration of health and social care as key examples.
When discussing Mr MacMahon’s switch to broadcast journalism, the question was raised as to whether he felt there were different physical strains between the two. The general idea was that they both take a toll, forcing you to work towards regular deadlines, but that they both have the ability to give you a real adrenaline rush.
“What gets the pulse going, what gets the heart going, and this is in a good way, is when I do something for the news programme. Even though I’d done some of that stuff before as a pundit, it’s not quite the same when you’re standing there in front of a camera and you’re having to explain in 30 seconds to the people of the south of Scotland what’s been going on that day.”
He said that condensing the information within that 30 second bulletin is a difficult task, but a very useful one. One of the difficulties he pointed to were staying within the confines of impartiality and balance, something that has become all the more central to our society with the growth of social media and the seemingly never ending tide of ‘Fake News’. To Mr MacMahon, it’s a fine line but one that doesn’t take away an individual journalist’s ability to make a point.
“Being impartial and having balance doesn’t mean you can’t hold politicians accountable. Explain context – it’s not the same as having an opinion”.
As @JohnSwinney faces defeat over 'standardised assessment' of P1 pupils @ITVBorderRB went to @MoffatAcademy to see what teachers, the headteacher and pupils thought. They find them useful, and stress free. Report here:https://t.co/W9K0VK2lqR
Others disagree including @EISUnion
— Peter MacMahon (@petermacmahon) September 19, 2018
The conversation then moved in a more reflective direction, touching upon some other areas of his career and his time at St Andrews.
Mr MacMahon had spent a stint as the business editor of The Scotsman, something seemingly far removed from his political work. When asked about it, a wry smile came across his face and he extolled the virtues of doing something different for a change and how that stint both fascinated him and has benefitted him since.
“I loved it. It was at the time RBS was at its peak and began to decline in the financial crisis. I really enjoyed going to things like the RBS AGM and seeing Fred Goodwin in his pomp. I then saw the decline. The financial crash happened and RBS had to be bailed out all whilst I was business editor.”
He added, “It also gave me an insight into something I knew very little about and broadened my horizons. It also taught me things that are still useful to this day – take for example the independence referendum. Standard Life said some things about an independent Scotland.
“It helped that I’d done some business so I had some understanding of the figures. If I was ever giving advice to journalists, it’d be try new things when you can.”
That comment inevitably provoked a question about advice, and a response that should prove useful.
“There’s absolutely no substitute for getting out there and doing some basic journalism. Local papers now have very few reporters but if you can get a chance to get on a local paper or a local radio station, grab it with both hands.
“I would say this to anyone, to you, to anybody else. Try and do a bit of everything. Do sport, although I was hopeless at it, some court reporting, some council reporting, some politics reporting.”
He recounted his experiences at a local paper with a rather fierce news editor, someone whose attitude and desire for accuracy has stuck with him to this day.
“Without wishing to sound too old, that was a learning process and it was a good learning process. I still check everyone’s names and ages, so it obviously stuck.”
When asked to summarise his advice it was fairly simple: “Learn your trade, learn to walk before you can run. I know it sounds cliché but it’s true.”
As the interview wound up, we touched upon his time at St Andrews. Mr MacMahon recalled fond memories of making friends, meeting his wife, drinking in the Criterion, debates in the SRC and seeing bands like The Police and The Jam in the Union.
Whilst he lamented that he perhaps should have spent a bit more time studying and a bit less time on student politics and playing sport, it was clear his time in the Auld Grey Toon meant an awful lot to him.
Most of all he said, the fond memories stemmed from the friendships he made, some that are still going to this day. That’s a sentiment I’m sure we can all agree with.