Meet the journalist… Gordon Davidson, The Scottish Farmer

From delivering blood samples on the back of a scooter to reporting on some of the most important issues to affect the UK’s agricultural sector, The Scottish Farmer’s News and Online Editor, Gordon Davidson, has not tread a traditional career path in journalism. 

As a new entrant into the world of agri-journalism, Gordon helped to bring such previously neglected issues like climate change, animal welfare and renewable energy to the forefront of the news agenda.

We recently caught up with Gordon, where he told us all about how he fell into his role, his thoughts on the digital news revolution and exactly how many dialects of sheep speech he is fluent in. 

Where do you get your news?

“I read a range of sources, including the BBC’s various news services. I don’t read the Mail, the Express or the Sun but will occasionally pick up the Telegraph or the Scotsman and will read The Guardian online.

“I subscribe to Private Eye and would give a very hard stare to anyone involved in the media who doesn’t. It is often years ahead on some stories and situations, and is staunchly unfair to everyone, without bias or favour. I’d be lost without it.”

Did you always know you wanted to be a journalist?

“I think I was always a writer, from very early on in primary school when I remember proudly writing a ghost story that was turned into a school play at the end of term – I even got the play the ghost.

“By secondary school, my written fiction was terribly literal and prone to over-explanation. I think that was when it became apparent that my writing worked best as real-world factual, rather than imagined-world creative.

“I subsequently did a B.A. Degree in ‘Communications Studies’ which I would not rate overall, however, there were some modules on marketing and basic economics which set me up for business journalism.

“I never consciously thought: ‘My future is in farming journalism.’ When I graduated, there were no appealing jobs in journalism, bar those terrible tabloid junior posts where I’d have been sent out to doorstep the parents of car crash victims or wear a chicken suit and chase minor MPs around shopping precincts, so I took a job as a motorcycle courier instead.

“For two years, I roared about central Scotland delivering legal missives, blood samples and occasionally cash, accruing a fair few points on my licence (and various broken bones) as the job was just a constant flat-out two-wheeled rush in all weathers. This worried my mum so much that she took to cutting job adverts out of the papers and one of them was for The Scottish Farmer. I grudgingly applied and the rest is history.”

Do you have a background in agriculture?

“My grandfather was a gamekeeper in a tied cottage on the Castlemilk Estate at Lockerbie, and that’s where my dad was brought up. But his whole family got moved to Glasgow during WWII and he went to work in heavy engineering. My dad always did wee gamekeepery jobs at the weekend – trapping moles on posh golf courses or catching rats in the courses’ restaurant kitchens.  As soon as he could after marrying my mum and having me and my brother, he moved us back out to the country to an isolated spot near Drymen with a few hectares of ex-MOD moorland. He stocked it with free range chickens, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, peacocks, some ornamental pheasants, ferrets, rabbits, occasional Highland cattle and a long dynasty of Springer Spaniels. 

“It’s an old cultural reference, but my childhood was like a particularly windswept episode of ‘The Good Life’. This all served me well in the interview for The Scottish Farmer where they really didn’t care that I had a degree in Comms Studies, but were impressed that I’d gone out with a farmer’s daughter once and helped with her uncle’s hill sheep gathering on the really steep slopes up beyond Tarbet.”

What have been your career highlights?

“One that sticks in my mind was meeting a Tory politician who turned out to be the grandson of the Laird at Lockerbie who had employed my grandfather and owned that tied cottage. It was at some political drinks reception and there we were, just two guys standing chatting and scoffing free wine and I thought at that moment my grandad would have been pleased to see a Davidson family member allowed into the big house, as it were, and enjoying an equal share of the buffet.

“The thing that really defined my time at TSF was arriving as the non-farming junior reporter into the era that I did. When I started here in 1989 there was an all-male staff (save for one poor beleaguered woman’s page editor) and there was a lot of wide lapels, smoking, drinking, betting on the horses and generally holding onto political and cultural viewpoints leftover from the 1970s.

“As the ‘boy’, with my bad Morrissey haircut, beige cardigan and lefty-leanings, I got handed all the stories that were regarded as being on the lunatic fringe  – environment, conservation, organic farming, animal welfare, local provenance, diversification, renewable energy – all the topics that have since become much more important. 

“I do like to think that my drip-drip-drip coverage of on these topics landing on farm kitchen tables every week for decades has played a small part in their move into mainstream farmers’ consciousness – but I certainly benefitted professionally from being there in time to have the old guard hand me the future that they didn’t want.

“If I have to pick a really ostentatious career highlight, I’d plump for the relaunch of Scotch Beef in Europe after the lengthy export ban arising from the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy scare. To generate positive publicity, the Scottish Minister for Agriculture – Ross Finnie at the time – hosted a grand Scotch Beef dinner for all the big-name European chefs held in a Monaco hotel part-owned by Scottish racing driver David Coulthard. 

“The agri-press corps was invited to attend to record this momentous occasion and for some reason I cannot recall, they flew us out a couple of days earlier than seemed absolutely necessary just to report on a man in a suit giving a speech whilst carving a roast.

“I still have a photo of myself, QMS PR Louise Welsh and big Joe Watson of the Press and Journal lying on recliners next to the hotel pool, sipping gin and tonics, watching the helicopters flying in and out delivering various celebrities, all on a Tuesday afternoon, with nothing more onerous to look forward to than canapes with Mr Coulthard in the evening.” 

Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

“Buy a contact book and fill it with the names and numbers of everyone you encounter, whether they seem important or not. My old news editor told me that on my first day in the office.

“I suppose email programmes and smartphones tend to do that work for you now, but always back them up. Having done this job for so long, I am keenly aware of the phenomenon where some youngster you might have got drunk with at a Young Farmers’ do in the 1990s, and thought nothing more of, re-enters your life 20 years later as an influential industry spokesperson, or a millionaire entrepreneur. So, it’s always good to have a note of their old nickname.”

What’s the best story you’ve worked on?

“’Best’ is perhaps not the appropriate adjective, but the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak was certainly a moment where our bucolic wee life of reporting cattle breed society squabbles and gripes about the price of good hay was put on hold and the whole TSF staff found itself on a war footing, dealing with death and despair and desperation, right at the heart of our readership. 

“That was far from the ‘best’, but it was very immediate, very quick to change and relentless. It is only on looking back at the bound volume of that year’s editions that one is reminded how the outbreak dominated everything that we reported on.

“I suppose Brexit is now sort of the same… a cloud of uncertainty that puts a ‘depending on what happens’ footnote on just about everything I am writing.”

Do you have any funny stories from writing about or working with farm animals?

“Aside from news work, all TSF reporters are required to attend the summer farm shows and write up reports of which cows and sheep won the local honours. Over the years, I’ve grown to quite like that routine, but when I was younger, and inclined to enjoying late nights out in Glasgow, spending Saturday mornings hungover in a field full of sheep, coos and farmers was a chore. Most often, I’d get sent out with a photographer, who was a much more important person to the farmers than I, as they were all very concerned that their animal showed its best side in the paper.

“The photographer would usually be the driver too, so my assigned role was pretty much as helper and dogsbody – and when it came to the moment of an animal’s photo session, that would mean making all manner of noises and gesticulations to get it to stand looking straight ahead with its ears pricked up.

“I’d be throwing hats and notebooks and small dogs into its line of sight, and bleating and baaaing and mooing, depending on the breed. I can now speak three or four different dialects of sheep. Depending on size and breed, they sound quite different, and there’s no point trying to catch a wiry wee Shetland sheep’s attention with a noise like a big fat lowground Texel, y’know?”

What are some advantages of a good journalist/PR relationship?

“The ability to speak off the record, and then agree what will be on the record. In the long run, a reporter will always get more that way than being all stroppy and confrontational. Particularly in our corner of business journalism, the cast of characters is relatively small and it’s better to foster an atmosphere of favours sought and returned, than create conflicts and grudges.”

Worst habit of a PR?

“Adjectives. PRs know we are going to take them out. But the client likes them. Even if they aren’t really ‘unique’, ‘ground-breaking’ or ‘market-leading’.

“Similarly, brand and company names don’t need to be in every paragraph supplied. We know who is paying you.”

How do you prefer PRs get in touch with you? 

“A handwritten note stapled to a basket of fruit. Failing that, e-mail, then phone. But only once. The weekly call-back to see if some tepid press release has somehow got more interesting with time is annoying.”

What advice would you give to new entrants into journalism, especially when considering working in the agricultural sector?

“Start writing stuff now. Do all the writing you can. No-one ever got better at something by not doing it. And don’t mix up your opinion with the facts. If you can’t help that, start marketing yourself as an opinion writer, rather than a reporter, and get yourself a daft pseudonym and a blog.

“With regard to agricultural journalism, there’s a bit of a hole in the really technical science-y side of the job these days, and that could really do with someone smart enough to understand and explain complicated things to a practical audience.”

 What stories or angles are you looking for?

“About 40 a week to fill my print and digital targets. I don’t mind whether they are obtuse, acute or right. A good mix is always best.”

Outside of work, what do you get up to?

“This weekend, I’ll be chainsawing and chopping some trees for firewood out at my folks’ moorland retreat which needs a good fire going in the winter. There’s also a get together of some of my old 80s scooterboy compatriots planned, under the guise of a ‘parts fair’, which means a lot of old boys stood about bickering over the price of old Vespa and Lambretta spares while some old girls do that mysterious Northern Soul slidey dance in a side-room, and everyone drinks cider and Buckfast. 

“The weekend will end with a rehearsal for my current outfit, ‘Rudebeard’, which is the latest in a long line of vaguely ska bands that I’ve played bass for over the last 35 years or so. You’d think after 35 years, I’d not need any more practice, but it’s a good excuse to do something entirely unrelated to tapping at this keyboard.”

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