Is tonight the night? Is it true that this evening BBC Scotland’s new, classy and (allegedly) controversial replacement for Newsnicht will air for the first time and change the political landscape? Well, let’s hope so.
It isn’t just the BBC that needs a good show, it’s Scotland. We have been dismally served by the national broadcaster in our hour of referendum need and this is the last hope that something can be saved from the wreckage of Kenny McQuarrie and John Boothman’s uninspired handling of this key role in our society.
I’m optimistic, although I said that about the £500,000 of extra money forced into McQuarrie’s pocket by a new Director General desperate to save the corporation’s reputation and look what that gave us…Sanjeev ‘blethering’ and dated bollocks about how today’s players are connected through personal links – I kent his faither for the digital age.
In all this time the only shows that impressed me on television and met what to my eye is an appropriate professional standard in content and style were Allan Little’s exploration of Scandinavia and the James Cook presented Question Time format touring the country – neither made by the referendum unit. Nothing in all this time has been unmissable. No programme on BBC or Scottish has lit a fire and become the talk of the steamie, a sad reflection on complacent and tired broadcasting in Scotland.
And, as we prepare to wave off Paxo from big Newsnight, it is a startling fact that not one of our front line of interviewers has come close to ripping up the politicians and exposing them. No one has earned the crown of King, or Queen, Tormentor. Even Andrew Neil did a job on Salmond and lately, on Douglas Alexander, in a way we rarely see here. The closest we have come is the now-disappeared Gordon Brewer playing innocent daft laddie and letting Johann Lamont blast craters in both feet with a toe-curling explanation of her devolution plans, and the general performance of Bernard Ponsonby whose thundering theatricality always threatens to explode if he gets a wrong answer. I suffer from interaction reflex which means I know exactly where the interviewer should intervene to challenge and shout at the screen to tell them – the practical application of airwave transmission technology not being my strong point.
Everywhere I go in this debate, the same questions come up…what’s wrong with the BBC? Why aren’t the interviewers any good? They’re not informing us…
Well tonight is the BBC’s last chance and there are sound reasons to think it may work. The first is simple: It has to. The coverage has been so peely wally and the Beeb’s journalistic reputation so shredded, that it is imperative that it ends this campaign on a high. I truly hope so. The criticism is not going away after the vote in September – dissatisfaction is high and change demanded. I think Yes will carry on and there could well be a coordinated campaign of non-payment of the licence fee. 100,000 should do it.
Then there is the key person – the presenter. From what I know Sarah Smith is a real pro. She exudes the charisma of a media heavyweight, seems at ease with the exposure and remains grounded. She is a publicity trigger – note the space devoted to her so far in the Press saying absolutely nothing but it’s nice to be back in Scotland! How the managers at PQ love all that stuff. To them, if she appears in the Scotsman mag, their job is done. The people like her, so that’ll do. Sadly the management forget that what counts isn’t appearances but content, a lesson they forgot many years ago.
I don’t buy all this Daughter of John stuff either. It’s insulting to any intelligent person to suggest they will think or vote like daddy. I didn’t. I don’t think I agreed with a single political point my dad every made. The trick in broadcasting is to make sure the audience doesn’t know your own view however they like to think they do. I have letters of complaint from Lib Dems, Tories, Nats and Labour and got a reputation for being pro independence because I understood the subject and asked the questions that blew away or challenged the Unionist orthodoxy- that’s all. But in tribal Scotland, you’re either in our gang or you’re in somebody else’s and frankly, Labour couldn’t operate any other way. When I came out for Yes all the clever dicks said: Told you so. Then a few weeks later a senior Labour person told me he’d had a conversation with a BBC executive and told him he was convinced from listening to me that I was a Tory!
I don’t fear for her impartiality for a moment and it’s important she doesn’t let that get to her either. She must be herself and allow her own style and approach to come out. I have one concern though and it’s beyond her ability to change it. I know from experience how important it is to have enough background knowledge and detail to pick up the contradictions and hypocrisies as they spew out live before you and judge which is worth pursuing and which isn’t. A generalised understanding of modern Scottish politics may not be enough to achieve this and the fact is that Sarah has lived outside Scotland throughout the devolution years leaves her at a disadvantage. Be sure – her politician adversaries will know that.
Therefore what she needs is informed back-up at the pre-programme briefing stage and in her ear while on air and that will be up to the output producer. I don’t know who that will be but I understand the two key producers from Newsnight, both political experts, are reassigned to Reporting Scotland instead.
The bigger issue with this programme is its leadership. Marcus Ryder is the editor and that should send shockwaves through the team as to my knowledge he has no interest in Scottish politics and has never expressed any. He was editor of the investigations section where a major role was to sell programmes to the network so his focus was always on what London wanted. His understanding of Scotland is, by repute, scant. One producer tells of him watching a clip of Nicola Sturgeon circa 2008 and saying: If that’s what the SNP are claiming, we’d better get a reaction from the Scottish government – only to be quietly told the SNP WERE the government…
There is also a big difference between looking after a programme which transmits weekly, or only sporadically and handling the pressure of nightly transmission. Even four nights a week generates a relentless weight of effort to get the story, keep it fresh and make it controversial – which seems to be one of the aims. With a reporter as good as Lucy Adams they may be expecting to break news not just follow up the morning papers…we’ll see. That needs proper production back up, planning and prep time as well as camera crews available and editing access. It is also many times harder to generate controversy when you are tied to the strict rules on balance which apply from Sunday.
Any new show is exciting but I do question why they are only starting a new format less than four moths from voting. All programmes need time to establish and bed down, win over an audience, earn trust and become authoritative. I argued that this is what should have been done soon after the SNP won in 2011 and it would have been the broadcasting focus of the whole debate. And, glad as I am about both Smith and Adams, was there really nobody already in the BBC who had earned the right to join a new programme? One of the great strengths of the BBC was that it trained the broadcasters of the future. That a new show at a vital time is dependent on hiring in new staff is hardly an advert for the nurturing of talent at PQ, just as the hiring of Jim Naughtie gave a message that London was sending someone north to help the Scots cope with a tricky story. Anyway, good luck to them all.
By the way, who’s replacing Gary Robertson, unceremoniously banjoed from GMS?
(You may have noticed the conventional media is beavering away for someone to ‘blame’ for the UKIP election. Call me old fashioned but I blame the voters – the ones who voted UKIP, no? That’s how it works. Who knows why a few thousand more went for them and a few thousand didn’t back the SNP but it’s a bit contrived to blame Salmond for someone else getting elected. It may have been the wrong thing to make the sixth seat a Them or Us choice but that’s only in retrospect. Like most of the mainstream commentators, they’re smart after the event. I think only Macwhirter got close to calling that in advance. It’s as likely that Tasmina’s Tory past turned off enough, that the collapse of the Lib Dems diverted a few to UKIP, that the Tory and Labour appeasement of anti immigrant sentiment pushed some over or that the effect of a small turn out was all that was needed. The triumphalism of Adam Tomkins, Margaret Curran and sundry others pretending to be progressives will be remembered as one of the nauseating highlights of what for them has been a despicable campaign.
How the Times today in a leader could suggest that momentum behind Yes had stalled because the SNP didn’t add to their total compared to last time looks like a search for another twig to flay the dug. Is there a paper or a commentator who has recently pointed out the extraordinary achievement of the SNP in remaining not only in power but ahead of their rivals in every measure of opinion seven years after entering power? Has Cameron done that? The pro Union bias is to assert that the Euro elections backfired on Yes because they relied on UKIP being shut out. I would have deeply preferred that. But surely they miss the obvious – that the odious Coburn, a man who doesn’t fit the stereotype of UKIP nasty because he’s gay, according to David Torrance in this week’s twisted logic category, is now an outspoken and about-to-be frequent interviewee on behalf of Better Together. Johann Lamont is now holding hands with the Tories on one side and the UKIP on the other. How is this a win for No? Or is just the case that they are, as usual, utterly devoid of political instinct and manically self-congratulatory in their ignorance?
The same media – hello BBC – which projected UKIP as the election story and helped get them elected will now regularly seek out a willing Mr Coburn for his delicious capacity to produce droplets of Unionist balm which turn into suicide pills.)