Jack Irvine - The combative crusader

The Media House founder and red-top veteran tells Matt Cartmell why he is spreading his wings rather than winding down.

Jack Irvine: The Media House founder
Jack Irvine: The Media House founder

Scottish PR stalwart Jack Irvine muses: 'People come to me because I'm combative and aggressive.' He more than lives up to his boast.

The former News International editor is about to celebrate 20 years since the launch of the now international agency Media House, but still retains the beating heart of a tabloid grappler.

Irvine's every conversation is peppered with the language of the red tops. Ending numerous tales from his past with the words 'So I said "fuck you"', the pugnacious Glaswegian is as fearless and indiscreet as one would expect for a man who has represented some of the most controversial clients imaginable.

'I was 17 and a half and I told the editor I thought his page one was shit,' recalls the 62-year old of his first steps into the world of straight-talking tabloid journalism, as he tucks into scrambled eggs on toast in his local haunt, Browns in the City.

Within years he was working for the man he now describes as his idol, Rupert Murdoch, where the bust-ups became the stuff of tabloid legend.

He recalls an incident in which he demanded colour presses from Murdoch. 'I said "we need them because we look shit compared to the Record". I could see people turning white behind him,' he smiles - adding that he got his presses, not to mention a nice bonus and a company car.

He relishes taking on the role of story-teller and is a natural raconteur full of roguish charm and biting humour.

His fearlessness is best evidenced by his client list, which includes Stagecoach founder Brian Souter's 'Keep The Clause' campaign to retain Section 28, banning the 'promotion' of homosexuality by local authorities.

He has also represented Scottish landowners against the RSPB - 'a politically motivated pain in the ass' - and risked the wrath of animal rights activists after representing Huntingdon Life Sciences.

His latest crusade is a multi-billion-dollar Medicare fraud case against the largest US medical laboratory, Quest Diagnostics, as Media House has spread into New York and London.

For all his old-school relish, he remains 'the consummate professional', according to Telegraph Media Group chief executive Murdoch MacLennan. 'For many years, if you were in serious difficulty north of the border, the first thing you would do was call for Jack,' adds MacLennan. 'Now he's spreading his wings, and the competition should watch out, because Jack's skills are second to none. He is a media giant, and should always be the first name on the list if you are in the mire. He's a phenomenon.'

Media House came into being following a phone call from Michael Murphy - now global CEO of Grayling - who wanted Irvine's help handling comms around a hostile takeover of Celtic Football Club. 'That's what we call crisis PR,' Murphy told Irvine. 'You can charge them £100 an hour.'

Within three months Irvine had earned more than he would have in a year at News International.

When PRWeek suggests cash is clearly a big motivation, he bites back: 'I don't know many people who get into PR to make the world a better place.'

Despite his achievements, he is quite comfortable remaining a niche player: 'I was talking to someone who has an agency with 80 to 100 staff. Eight or more girls were off on maternity leave. I thought "for fuck's sake".'

He recalls having a dim view of PR people when he was a journalist. 'I thought that the people I had met didn't understand the media and were failed journalists or fluffy girlies. There's been a profound change in the industry. The intellectual quality of people we employ now embarrasses me.'

There is a lesser-known side to Irvine too. Back in 1967, complete with long hair and kaftan, he resigned from the Glasgow Herald and headed to Bournemouth to take a job at the Western Gazette. But he also had an ulterior motive.

'I was playing in a band. We'd moved down there. My partner was BA Robertson, who had a string of hits in the 60s. I did that for a year, then we had musical differences. It was hippy trippy stuff.'

Irvine continues to rock out in his personal time, owning a huge collection of electric guitars and listening to Biffy Clyro and the Foo Fighters as well as guitar gods Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Hank Marvin.

There is a brood of equally media-savvy operators following in his path. His son is a night editor at The Telegraph, while his daughter recently joined Haygarth. So could the old rogue soon be handing on the media baton and settling down to a life of guitar strumming at home? No chance.

'I love what I do. I see the world. And my wife would kill me if I sat about the house.'

1991 Executive chairman, Media House (now Media House International)
1991 Chief executive, Murray Media
1990 Managing director, News International Scotland
1987 Editor, The Scottish Sun
1971 Various roles, Daily Record
1970 Poole district reporter, Western Gazette
1967 Reporter, Glasgow Herald

JACK IRVINE'S TURNING POINTS - What was your biggest career break?

Meeting Kelvin MacKenzie and launching The Sun in Scotland.

Have you had a notable mentor?

Two (now departed) wise old owls at News International stand out.

Ken Donlan was the managing editor at The Sun and knew every Fleet Street dodge in the book. The other inspirational man was News International's then deputy chairman, Sir Edward Pickering.

He had been Rupert Murdoch's first editor and like Donlan knew where all the bodies were buried. They taught me the A-Z of newspaper survival techniques.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?

Have rich parents. If that fails it's all down to hard work. When you are young it sometimes feels that you are going nowhere in a particular job but if you really graft you'll be noticed eventually. Don't put up with bullies.

What qualities do you prize in new recruits?

Intelligence. Motivation. Ambition. The ability to work in a team but also the ability to think for themselves. Failing that, an ass like Pippa's.

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