Death of media mogul

Freddy Johnston, newspaper veteran, dies aged 86

Freddy Johnston, former head of the Johnston Press media business, has died. He was the fourth generation of his family on the board of the company, one of the oldest and once one of the largest newspaper groups in Britain and, until recently, owner of The Scotsman titles.

The company was founded in Falkirk in 1767 and Mr Johnston was a proud owner of the Falkirk Herald which it acquired in 1846.

He became chairman of the family business in 1973 and it floated on the stock market in 1988. At one point it owned more than 200 daily and weekly titles. He was determined to retain the group’s distinction as the owner of local papers but was not afraid to raise the stakes. In 1996, he masterminded a transformational £111 million deal for EMAP Newspapers including the 300 year-old Stamford Mercury, Britain’s oldest title. In 2002, the publisher bought Regional Independent Media for £560 million.

However, in 2006 there were raised eyebrows when the company moved into the national sector, buying The Scotsman from the Barclay brothers for £160 million.

Mr Johnston had stepped down as chairman in 2001 and he left the board four years later, after which the company’s fortunes went into reverse. Its debt-fuelled acquisition strategy led to its downfall and in 2018 it put itself up for sale, eventually being bought out of administration later that year by a group of US-backed bond holders.

Mr Johnston was born in Edinburgh in 1935 and the family home in Falkirk was requisitioned during the war by the Canadian army. They moved to Dunblane and later Crieff, where he was educated at Morrison’s Academy.

He boarded at Lancing College, West Sussex, and did National Service, initially joining the Perthshire regiment, the Black Watch, before being sent for officer training with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. He served in east Africa with 4th (Uganda) Battalion, Kings African Rifles, where his regimental sergeant major was Idi Amin, the country’s future leader. 

After working on the Falkirk Herald he read modern history at New College, Oxford, and in 1959 became a trainee journalist at the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

He spent a couple of years as assistant company secretary at The Times, joining the family business in 1962. His family was latterly settled in the south of England.

He was made a CBE and also served as president of the Newspaper Society, now the News Media Association, (1989-90). He died on 1 May aged 86  in a Wimbledon hospital.

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