I haven’t been up to blogging this weekend. I was out at the rugby for dinner and drinks on Friday night. Then it was a birthday bash on Saturday and I got home at 5am…I’ve been taking it slowly and was so wasted on the sofa, I actually watched the Sunday Politics without switching off through boredom which is my usual routine.
So what did I learn about Grangemouth? Well I think we can truthfully say that BBC Scotland covered the issues, as you would expect. Whether it did so in the depth and quality we expect is a more open question.
I actually started with Radio Scotland on Sunday morning when I was still hallucinating in bed after four hours sleep – and grateful for that extra hour. Headlines gave the impression – confirmed on reading the blatts for myself – that the Herald again rose to the occasion and SoS fell – again – into the trap of running the Unionist line on the front when it actually added nothing of importance to the story.
Alistair Carmichael suggesting it was the Union Wot Won It was a petty and mean Better Together tactic that should have either been relegated to an inside page or used prominently to deride him as a carpetbagger. It is a sleekit manoeuvre to claim copyright on an initiative that was jointly conducted, a classic case of stab-in-the-back. Wasn’t it good enough for Alistair that the plant was saved and the jobs rescued and let the people make their judgement of the politicians’ efforts? It rang discordant to me that he immediately turned it into a campaigning tool for his own side.
As ever, when I have such a thought, I imagine what would happen if the roles were reversed. Suppose Salmond went to the papers and bragged how this supported independence and then wrote the British side out of the story. Like you, I suspect, I can hear the howls of protest about the man you cannot trust etc.
SoS does need to take care about its cheerleading role, however inadvertent this is. It looks very often as if it has a hole on the front page awaiting a call from the Unionist Front. Was the Herald’s more detailed and insightful material on the behind-the-scenes game not available to SoS? Or was it just that they called the right people? As it turned out, Salmond and the SNP got their more constructive and positive story out without the sour preening of the Carmichael approach. The Herald created an impression, backed up with detail, of Scottish politicians pulling every string they had including putting in place contingencies – all in the face of a party conference and a tricky by-election – meanwhile leaving Labour’s winning candidate sounding off- message and off-colour with her silly and long-prepared trope about Salmond’s obsession with the constitution. Cara Hilton’s “Use the powers you have now to make a difference, not just argue for more in the future,” would have had Malcolm Tucker eating his mobile phone. Using his powers was exactly what he was doing to save 800 jobs at the very moment she was speaking. But good luck to Cara. She can’t be any worse than her predecessor. I just hope she doesn’t disappear into the background and is never heard of again which seems to the backbencher’s fate in Holyrood.
Labour’s win at Dunfermline brings me to the Sunday Politics which I watched accompanied by a glass of Andrews Liver Salts. There was Johann in the studio looking sunny which means there must be good news because she has developed the Gordon Brown trick of becoming invisible when the barometer points to Stormy. For example where was she when the original Falkirk selection controversy broke? The answer is that we don’t know because she was invisible rather showing any sign of ownership or leadership. Could that be connected to her own membership of Unite, do you think?
She had been invited on of course to talk about Dunfermline, which is all fair and good but the overriding requirement in the newsroom is…erm…news. Therefore she was rightly asked about Grangemouth imbroglio and her own links to Unite. I think the problem here is not that the questions are somehow wrong in themselves but they need to be put in a penetrating and challenging way as if the interviewer knows what he is talking about and, however politely, is metaphorically prodding her in the chest for a clear answer.
“The union at Grangemouth lost sight of its responsibilities both to its own members and to Scotland, Ms Lamont. That’s your union. They allowed incestuous Labour politics to infect an industrial relations dispute giving an open goal to a cynical management. That’s your union. Their failure meant that the workers got a worse deal than they might have –that’s your union. Yet Labour has supported them throughout, you haven’t spoken out against them, neither has your industry spokesman Iain Gray. You’re both members of that union. What do you say to your union today?”
The follow up clearly is: “How can anybody in Scotland trust an administration run by you when you appear to put the interests of your union – one of your party’s main funders – ahead of the national interest?”
Of course Johann says she would never do such a thing. But what do her actions show? Did she offer to intervene by meeting her Unite colleagues so she is shown to be working behind the scenes? Did she contact Salmond to offer her services as an intermediary? Has she made clear to you what the relationship is between Falkirk constituency party, Unite and Ineos? Or didn’t she in fact do the opposite by remaining a bystander in the industrial dispute and saying the party affair will all be looked at by the UK party and/or the police? Surely she needs to be challenged on what being a leader means. What has she actually done throughout the entire Grangemouth affair? Or was she doing what Cara blamed on Salmond – fixating on one issue, the by election, leaving Grangemouth to the Big Boys?
Given the mess at Grangemouth and her own poor showing, what does it tell us about BBC Scotland’s coverage that she sailed through her interview, effortlessly batting away questions until the agreed line of questioning – the by election – loomed safely into view? I’m all for polite and civil interviews but I always thought it was part of the job of journalism to put the questions the public want answers to. We know there is heartfelt relief, cold fury and disbelief about what happened at Grangemouth – and what didn’t – so it is legitimate to reflect that in a studio. Put it this way, if the plant had been lost you wouldn’t have been able to stop Johann talking about it and how it showed Salmond was obsessed with the constitution when jobs were at stake.
Maybe it was my hangover but I thought her softly softly interview contrasted poorly with the collar-grabbing interrogations earlier by Andrew Neil whose politics I despise but who’s demanding style gets the best out of interviewees and reveals so much to the viewer.
Back on the wireless Business Scotland gave itself over to a full examination of Grangemouth and produced a much more incisive and rounded perspective under the guidance of Douglas Fraser, every nationalist’s favourite economy editor. The only area I didn’t hear is one I think is emerging strongly and that is how the public needs representation on the governing bodies of key strategic industries. It is true that infrastructure is the new pet investment for the private equity pirates so the corollary is where does that leave the taxpayer?
I was just about ready to face a late breakfast when it occurred to me that BBC Scotland could have done something a bit radical this weekend. We had just flirted with a major economic and – for the workers and their suppliers and communities – a personal tragedy and perhaps it would have been appropriate to rip up the schedules for the day. Why not a one hour special on radio covering the whole story followed by discussion with a public involvement via internet and call-in? You could set aside Ken MacDonald’s hour and Douglas Fraser’s hour and combine them – use the same presenters – and let rip with the full story. You have three or four contributors in studio, prepared packages on each aspect of the story and call-out interviews with everyone from the parties and the unions, business, oil experts and move on to asking the public their view. You take it into referendum territory too. With some advertising on telly, you could have really dominated the agenda and performed a coordinated service for the Scots. It might have won a Sony. Is that too creative for PQ these days? Is there still a Head of Radio, a Head of News? Is there an Editor of Radio News? Isn’t there a Referendum Unit? Who’s thinking in there?
Maybe I’m hallucinating on sauvignon blanc…
By the way…I read about BBC Scotland filming in Scandinavia to tell us how everything works up there so we can compare before next September. All I can say is: About time. It’s exactly what is needed. What a pity we had to wait until there are less than 12 months to go. They’ve put their best documentary filmmaker on it so it should be good…could be a game-changer.
I’m feeling much better now, thank you.