There was standing room only at Honor Oak Crematorium in south east London as former Mirror journalist Don Mackay was given a remarkable funeral send off.
It began with former Daily Mirror political editor turned political spin doctor Alastair Campbell playing the bagpipes as the coffin was carried in.
Actors Stephen Tompkinson, Timothy West and Julian Glover were among those to do readings and pay tribute to Mackay.
Former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan read Mackay’s copy filed from Islamabad that helped save the life of Mirza Tahir Hussain, a Briton who was on death row in Pakistan. Tahir himself was there and received an ovation when he stood up.
QC Baroness Kennedy was also among the speakers and recalled some of Mackay’s courtroom exploits.
Another former Daily Mirror editor, Roy Greenslade, led a traditional – and rowdy – “banging out” as the coffin was lowered into the well of the crematorium.
Mackay’s wife, actress and singer Nichola McAuliffe reportedly joined in, moving from the pews to slap the coffin.
Friend and journalist Alastair McQueen read the eulogy, which he has shared with Press Gazette:
“So just who was Don Mackay? As you’ve already heard today there appear to have been several – ranging from the barking, snarling Scrapyard Alsatian to the guy who would gladly give you his last tenner, the Good Samaritan ready to give the humblest and most unfortunate reader a shoulder to cry on and on whose behalf he would fight unto death.
“In truth there were several Don Mackays – each of them combining to produce this complex character to whom we say a fond farewell today.
“To do the legend that is Don Mackay – ‘I’m just a wee boy down here from the Highlands of Scotland’ – justice would take much longer.
“The guy was unique. If he hadn’t existed we’d have had to make him up. He could have stepped straight from a scene in Hot Metal or Hold The Front Page.
“Maybe he should have been an actor? On the other hand the Scrapyard Alsatian was certainly no pretend reporter or deskman.
“The beginning of Don’s newspaper career is the stuff of a fairy tale.
“Back in the day The Scottish Daily Express was a monster of a newspaper, with 69 reporters in Scotland alone. That’s right – 69 reporters. And every man and woman was engaged in a vicious all-out circulation war with the Express’s main rival the Daily Record, owned by the Mirror Group.
“Stories abounded about pitched battles fought over stories, pictures and buy-ups. There were stories of newspapers hiring groups of heavies to ‘protect the investment’. It was the stuff of make-believe, of Hollywood, but it was true.
“And sitting in the Edinburgh office lapping it all up was a young copy boy called Don Mackay who was to become the first graduate of the BFS…the Bullet Finishing School. The Bullet is a certain Stuart McCartney who was then the chief reporter of the Scottish Daily Express and the man who launched Don on his career…and on to the rest of us!
“In the early 1970s he was sent across to Embra [Edinburgh] to bang some heads together and to run the newsdesk.
“At lunchtime all the news staff disappeared to various hostelries without telling him where they were. The only other person left in the newsroom was Don.
“The Bullet, asked him to do a round of telephone calls – polis, fire brigade, ambulance etc. – and the fresh-faced lad came back and had hand-written the results of his efforts. He was told to type them up as amended by the Bullet and phone them to Glasgow under the byline ‘Staff Reporter’. The stories appeared in the next day’s paper, as filed.
“Shortly afterwards, the Bullet got a call from Don asking if he could recommend him for a job as a trainee reporter. The Bullet phoned an old contact – Col. Smail, owner of Tweeddale Press in the Scottish Borders – and told him of a young improver called Donald Mackay, a Heilan’ laddie with some promise.
“And so Teuchter Mackay was launched on the career of his dreams. Like many he worked his way through the provincial press burning with ambition to get himself to Fleet Street where many Scots had blazed a trail before him.
“But once he got there Don had a problem……called expenses! It was all well and good going to the cashiers and drawing bundles of tenners to go out and spend on stories and lashing up contacts.
“You had, as soon as possible, to justify them. Not just with the story but on an expenses sheet to keep the cashiers happy. When it came to expenses Don developed word blindness. He simply couldn’t do them.
“The situation was so bad at one time – Don owed the cashiers thousands – that Struan Couper the Express Group managing editor sent him home for a week to do nothing but expenses under pain of being sacked.
“Being banned from advances was a regular feature of his life on the Star. So he’d borrow a tenner here and a tenner there until he squared his account at the cashiers.
“Shortly after he met Nichola he was crossing Fleet Street with Ramsay Smith and another Daily Star scoundrel when he announced: ‘I’m going out with a new bird. She’s an actress. She’s in a play in the West End’.
“‘Oh aye,’ said the other Star man, ‘what’s she in? Lend me a tenner – or should that be tenor?’
“Don’s abrupt departure from the Daily Star happened as I was installed as news editor of The Sunday Mirror. On my first day the phone goes – it’s Mackay.
“‘Work. Work, I need work. Gie is a job.’
“Don Mackay had decided he was going to work for the Sunday Mirror and nothing was going to stop him. He simply walked into the office, sat at a reporters’ desk and that was that. He became one of my mainstay freelances working five days a week.
“A few months later I was fired and sent back to the Daily Mirror newsdesk with my tail between my legs. I appeared on my first Monday back and sat quietly at the newsdesk and began reading in.
“I then heard the news editor say to his deputy: ‘What’s HE doing here?’ I carried on reading. The No2 said: ‘I’ve no idea.’ Then both said to me: ‘What’s Mackay doing here?’ And there he was in his best suit, clean shirt, polished shoes, big cheesy grin…
“I said to the news editor: ‘He’s probably on his way through to the Sunday Mirror to do their Monday standby shift.’
“But he wasn’t…In the couple of weeks between me being booted out and returning to the Daily Mirror Don had been declared persona non grata round the corner.
“‘What the hell are you doing here?’ I asked. ‘Ay, well, I need some work. When you went I told a couple of those folk round there the truth aboot themselves and they didnae appreciate it…’
“Anyway Don then became a permanent freelance shifter on the Daily Mirror, worked a lot of nights and had to endure – very skilfully – the late night rantings and ravings of a Certain Cap’n Bob…….our late and unlamented bossman Robert Maxwell.
“As well as expenses Don had another problem – boredom. He had a very low boredom threshold. And when boredom kicked in – look out! He needed to be working, to be on stories and if he wasn’t he would seethe, simmer and then sink those renowned Scrapyard Alsatian fangs into the nearest newsdesk body he could find……
“Richard Stott moved round the corner to The People as Maxwell had promised him he could lead a management buyout of it and Roy Greenslade was installed as editor of the Daily Mirror.
“Their relationship had not had the easiest of beginnings when both were on the Daily Star…..newly-arrived Don was in The Old Bell having a slurp and there was Roy, a features exec, with a couple of staff having a chat. Mackay overheard, butted in, there was an argument and then: ‘Let’s go outside and sort this.’
“Says Roy: ‘That seemed like a good idea so we stumbled into the street and squared up to each other. No punches were thrown because we simultaneously fell about laughing. We went back into the pub with arms around each other.
“‘When I joined the Daily Mirror he was one of the first people I hired. His Blackie the Donkey triumph on the Daily Star confirmed his determination to get the story whatever the odds. I knew Don would add something extra to the Daily Mirror reporting team.
“’Reporting wasn’t a job for him – it was his life.’”
“And as a staffman on the Mirror Don flourished. He was reborn. Yes, there were the inevitable rows and upsets and calamities…but he travelled to many parts of the world filing first class copy and often leaving the opposition trailing in his wake.
“He was part of the Daily Mirror team which won Reporting Team Of The Year at the Newspaper Press Awards dinner at a posh West End hotel.
“Ramsay Smith was there, too. He remembers: ‘After the presentations I headed to the bar. I had my back to the main room. then I heard an almighty crash and I knew, I just knew, it had to be Mackay. I didn’t need to turn round to see if it was. I just knew instinctively it was.’
“‘And when I turned round there he was, holding out his hands and looking at them with the look Why Me all over his face.’”
“There, on the floor, shattered in thousands of pieces was the prestigious award which should rightly have sat in pride of place in the editor’s office.
“There are others more qualified than me to talk about him – the reporters he worked with and mentored and those from other newspapers he worked against. Here’s what they said on hearing of his death:
“Frank Thorne – An abrasive character, difficult at times, but a terrific writer and I’m proud to have worked alongside him at the Mirror and even shared a few joint by-lines with him without coming to blows.
“Anna Smith former chief reporter of The Daily Record: He was the most cantankerous bugger on earth but could see a story the moment he arrived. I remember being sent straight from a job in Belfast to Uganda to cover a massacre. I was to go via London to get a visa and the only clothes I had was a wax jacket, boots and winter clothes.
“Mackay, who was also going, went shopping and bought me T-shirts and stuff I needed. He griped and fought with everyone all the way there, while we were there and all the way back. But we still loved him. I am sure you guys will give him the send-off he deserves……he’ll be cursing that he’s missed it.”
“Jamie Pyatt of the Sun: We had a punch up once in a pub but next time we met it was all forgotten. Not the easiest of men to get on with but you always knew where you stood. He came to my leaving do and was very good to see him. He was part of the fabric of Fleet Street as we knew it…..Hopefully when he knocks on the Pearly Gates there on the other side will be Blackie the Donkey waiting to give him a ride to the nearest hostelry.
“Charlie Rae of The Sun: Don Mackay was a friend, colleague and a foe in Fleet Street, the roughest of diamonds and a great reporter.
“Charlie Catchpole: Despite his fearsome image and reputation he was a big softie, a lovely bloke and, it goes without saying, a pro to his fingertips. I raise a glass to you Don wherever you are.
“The legendary and thirsty Paul Callan: There were many hair-raising escapades involving Don…he was a wonderful colleague, a fine professional when working…and a great companion to go on the lash with.
“Former Mirror news editor David Leigh: It was impossible to have worked at the Mirror and not been finger jabbed by Don. He wasn’t always easy but, deep down, he did have a heart of gold. Truly one of a kind and a great operator, even after an afternoon in Davy’s
“Brian McCartney of the Daily Record Not sure, Don, you can do peace, but if you can RIP, my friend.
“Emily Stott: I will miss Don and his piss taking enormously. He and my dad used to trade insults over dinner and it was impossible to tell who enjoyed it more.
“But the quote which summed him up perfectly was the one from his former editor Piers Morgan in UK Press Gazette: One of the greatest Fleet Street reporters of them all. Brave, bold, hilarious, abrasive, hard-drinking and ferociously loyal.
“There has only every been – and only ever will be – one Don Mackay.
“Raise hip flask full of malt and say:
“Here’s tea us
Wha’s like us
And they’re aw deid.”