Smoke Signals

It took long enough. The BBC indicated it wanted a quick move to replace disgraced John Boothman as head of news but the weeks have dragged on and on. The final interviews were held last Friday morning and yet it took until late morning on Tuesday for the email to go round staff that their new boss was Gary Smith. Good luck, I say.

He can’t be unaware that he is leaving the relative security and obscurity – in public awareness terms – of the London newsroom where he has been editor of UK (as opposed to foreign) news for fully eight years. Before that he was in the Westminster bubble at the BBC’s Millbank offices – all adding up to 20 years in London. Or, to put it another way, 20 years when he wasn’t in Scotland breathing in the cordite air and hearing the furious whispers of our political Babylon.

I’m afraid the evidence is that, Scottish or not, and I think Gary is from Argyll, time spent wallowing in Westminster is no preparation for the nuances and tribal subtleties of a completely different culture. Just think of the journey the SNP has taken over those last 20 years or so through the creation of Holyrood, emergence as all-consuming national party and the implosion of once-powerful Labour. Of course you follow all that from afar but even political animals like Jim Naughtie are caught out on detail in the heat of debate. Naughtie sounded lost at times on Good Morning Scotland, clinging to concepts he learned 30 years previously before leaving for the Guardian and as a result infusing the GMS output with the kind of casual Unionist assumption that is normal in London.

Another fine journalist, Sarah Smith, never had the killer line that comes from deep immersion in a subject while I was watching her late night programme (whose name I forget).

So I suggest that Gary Smith will be very dependent indeed on his lieutenants for the kind of guidance that will avoid pitfalls. The trouble is that BBC Scotland didn’t do much of a job in dodging debris before he was appointed. What chance the experienced ones in the know will be much help to their new boss when they performed with mediocrity before? It isn’t as if he is inheriting a strong product with widespread audience support, is it? Time was when BBC Scotland was pretty much unassailable in terms of broadcast journalism and had a range of programming that was distinctive, if not unique and hit the artistic and intellectual buttons of Scotland on radio with Jimmy McGregor, Colin Bell, Ruth Wishart, Neville Garden or Eddie Mair. Good Morning Scotland hammered its Radio Four equivalent in absolute terms of numbers listening but also captured the AB decision-makers to a greater extent than Today did in England. On television there were weekly current affairs shows, Friday night politics and even, in the early nineties our own Question Time later rebranded Words with Wark. What loyalty does BBC news command today? Which news programmes are must-sees?

The new head will have to convince staff that he is more than a placeman for London. The head of news there is James Harding who came from the Times and seen as one of the high ranking rebels who forced the abandonment of BBC Scotland’s quite daring plan for its own dedicated TV station, a greatly enhanced budget and a federal-style autonomy, a plan actually approved and then ditched. Harding would see part of his empire evaporate under the scheme. The suspicion is that, as direct boss and close colleague of Smith, he sees him as a trusted appointee who will remain loyal to London and ensure the interests of the metropolitan powerbase are respected. This was underlined when it became clear that the decision on which candidates would go forward was decided by Harding sitting with Kenny McQuarrie, the Scotland Director.

Gary Smith has the professional attributes needed for a news-based role but at Pacific Quay the demands are much greater than that. Building credibility with the audience while containing and trimming budgets may be insurmountable. Rebuilding staff morale will take time. Restoring an air of gravitas to radio would be a bonus. (As far as I know he has no experience of radio making him one in a long line of news heads with a one-dimensional outlook (telly) in a multi-platform age).

One disturbing snippet delivered from his colleagues in London was his reluctance to move to Scotland. Yes, you should read that again…

He is established with family down there and it’s normal to meet resistance to moving home. It’s just that normally such family decisions are agreed before going for a job. Was he prompted, partly against his will, to throw his hat it? The worrying aspect has to be that anyone who honestly believed this job could be done in a weekly commute simply hasn’t understood what the job is.

This is an appointment at the heart of public life demanding a profile and networking and the establishment of working relationships across society. It would have helped if his own boss, Kenny McQuarrie had used his years to build those relationships and that public profile which would have cleared a path for a new man coming in. To stay in London while running Scottish news would make a laughing stock of the job and the BBC.

There will be no excuse if Smith isn’t the right man. BBC management made a mistake they were endlessly warned against when they appointed John Boothman. That lesson must be learned. Also this time there was a fine a field of candidates as they could have hoped for which effectively kills off any claim they were limited for choice.

At least one of those failed candidates won’t be pleased this morning. She is an experienced, talented and grounded Scottish broadcaster who was personally encouraged by McQuarrie to go for the job against her own instincts. Told she had the abilities sought, she followed his lead and applied, no doubt convinced she had a green light. To be rejected despite his approach won’t enamour her to the Director.

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25 thoughts on “Smoke Signals

  1. It will just be the same old narrow Unionist output.

    I don’t watch nor listen to BBC Scotland simply because all trust has been well and truly lost.
    And that’s the point…..
    How do you regain the trust of people who have just (literally) switched off?

    It’s actually going to be an easy job for the new guy because the boundaries have already been set.

    BBC output in Scotland is essentially off the shelf content;

    Attack the SNP
    Bum up the Labour Party
    Bum up the Union.
    Throw in some stuff about football.
    Get Eleanor Bradshaw to attack the SNP via the NHS.
    Job done.

    That was worth the move from London.

  2. Like you Derek, I wonder whether he was pushed to go for the job or whether it was Hobson’s choice. Not much of a choice if it was apply or out the door you go, is it?

    I can understand a reluctance to move to Scotland if your family is established elsewhere but if he does choose to commute then I can’t see how he can do the job properly either-Scotland is a completely different world to London & the South East.

    Good luck to him-I think he’s going to need it if BBC Scotland is to improve.

  3. He won’t have his troubles to seek that’s for sure. Dwindling viewer/listener numbers. Public trust at an all time low, headline faces openly mocked by the public and a workplace whose collective morale has fallen off a cliff.

    And on the subject of the Beeb’s front benches:

    http://wingsoverscotland.com/the-sides-line-up/

    Ooft.

  4. I think of the London based outposts here in Scotland as a bit like the Wild West,where they live in fortifications designed to protect them from the natives and allow the odd foray into Indian territory to administer retribution and exact taxes.
    It doesn’t matter who the fort commander is,so long as he/she does London’s bidding.
    If they go off message,they will be replaced by someone who won’t.
    So,to quote a famous ex Scottish Labour MP, “Who cares”.

  5. Gary Smith will almost certainly be on trial until the Holyrood elections next May. The failure of the Unionist vote will see him back in London – or maybe in the Falklands. Let’s see him commute from Stanley.

  6. “Which news programmes are must-sees?”

    They ALL are, but not for news, only for their cringe factor and spotting the propaganda (overt or by obfuscation).

    I don’t hold out hope of any improvement in jockland news from the british state broadcaster and consequently am not going to start paying the propaganda tax anytime soon.

  7. I had seen BBC Scotland become as bad as it could possibly be. But then I made the mistake of listening to GMS this morning at about ten past eight.

    It was the most bizarre and shoddy piece of radio journalism I have heard in a long time from the supposedly super journalist Gary Robertson.

    He tried to turn a discussion on the House of Lords attempt to delay Tory tax changes that will affect the most vulnerable in society into an SNP BAD “exposure” that the SNP were hypocrites for welcoming this move by the HoL!

    Honestly you couldn’t make it up. Utterly cringe worthy and totally bereft of any true journalistic integrity.

    If you want to spend a few minutes banging your head off the nearest wall you can have a listen here (from 2 hrs 10 mins):

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06jwsmp

    Have fun.

    • Steve – I clicked on the link but as soon as I saw the picture of Gary Robertson I couldn’t face it, not even to sneer. I have always loved radio. But now I feel I’m living in an occupied country having someone else’s culture beamed into my house daily. Some of the output from BBC London is high quality. We have opera, concerts, drama, stories and all sorts of nature programmes. But they’re not our programmes. They don’t reflect our lives, history and interests.

      Mr Smith may well be coning to Glasgow. But he has a mammoth task in restoring any interest in the output of BBC Scotland for much of the Scottish people.

      And I wonder who the local candidate might have been? Perhaps TOO local?

  8. “..James Harding who came from the Times and seen as one of the high ranking rebels who forced the abandonment of BBC Scotland’s quite daring plan for its own dedicated TV station, a greatly enhanced budget and a federal-style autonomy..”

    If we are ever to get a real BBC Scotland TV channel, then I suppose the Scottish Government will have to offer to partly fund it themselves, similar to BBC Alba.

    Lack of funds is used as the reason, rather than the political reality. Although Scottish licence fees are quite handy for subsidising network programming. It would be interesting to see what the excuse would be then.

  9. Aye – it is a real shame that Jackie Bird never got the job.

    Better luck next time.

  10. For as long it is called BBC in Scotland I will have a TV license nor listen to BBC radio. A waste of precious time.

    Buddha – You may not have the time you think you have. Or something to that effect.

  11. Shit! ,,, I will not have a TV license.Grrr. Canna even blame my wife.

  12. Unusually for me I’ll go with the Scottish Labour guy-

    Who cares?

  13. Things would have to change a) fast and b) completely for me to watch again. I was so hyper-critical of the progs I used to watch that unsurprisingly I lost the thread of any discussions!

    When comments were closed on site for Scottish bloggers, that was it.

  14. A couple of weeks ago, I watched the ‘ news’ from where I am , to see ‘ the country’ ( their words not mine) thrown into chaos. Forget your terrorism , forget your financial meltdown , 5p charges on poly bags was introduced !
    This week in the news where I am, I was warned – no longer would my GP give me an antibiotic for a cold unless they used this handy gadget to test my blood. Well funny enough , in the bit where I live , that’s been the policy for quite sometime now.

    So Gary Smith might be pleasantly surprised that while he’s probably seen the pictures of the woad painted separatists and read the integrity filled columns of the Daily Mail , Telegraph et al, given half a chance there is a progressive heart beating at the centre of this little ( well it is on the BBC weather map ) corner.

    In fact, he might be pleasantly surprised that one of the main reasons those pesky Yes voters won’t disappear back in their box is because they’ve looked round about them and realised what’s being served up to them , ain’t good enough .

    Whether that be Westminster Governance, bin collection or how the news is presented .

    What a challenge ! Keeping progressive Yes voters who are into social media, live streaming and accessing the World to adapt ideas to suit us here in Scotland or keeping the door shut on the mushrooms and hoping by talking about a cake competition , a bit of ballroom dancing and churnalism will suffice, not that the BBC is into advertising their own stuff , oh no…

    Of course before a listener panel is selected, the first thing Mr Smith should ask to K Mcquarrie is” what exactly is it you do again Ken ?”

    • But an antibiotic would not be prescribed for the common cold anyway. It’s a virus. Something else BBC doesn’t know?

  15. The Pacific Quay entity is a national production centre for the Scottish cringe. A place where the Kailyard meets Unionism and embraces.

    I never watch nor record live TV on any device so live Licence Free. I just wish more and more Scots would do the same and show the presumed consent by which these people operate is a myth.

  16. Another parachute job. At least it isn’t Naughtie, whom I had become convinced would become Propagander-in-chief.
    But it isn’t going news is it? The BBC is in reality an English broadcaster as far as news and current affairs is concerned. News24, news at 6 and 10PM output for news, politics, sport, history, NHS, education—-all English.
    BBC Scotland is shallow, politically biased, with no ambition for its audience. Its no longer possible to recognise Radio Scotland by ear—-its content, guests, experts consulted are normally non-Scottish. Colonial broadcasting at its most cringeworthy.

  17. I have not listened to Radio Scotland since about November 2013.

    I don’t have TV – haven’t had it since 1991. I listen a little bit to Radio 4 – not for news but to find out what the latest Westminster Government propaganda is.

    Given the above, I really could not care less who is head of what at Pacific Quay. They are of no interest to me whatsoever. I am one of the thousands who have stopped listening.we ain’t coming back any time soon.

    • No I’m afraid you are an amazing old dinosaur. Most people care about the BBC and give no hoots for misconceived news grievances. If you don’t understand what the BBC does and how the BBC works you cannot expect to be taken seriously

  18. Gary Robertson on GMS this morning claimed that Radio Scotland had 80,000 new listeners. He didn’t say since when.

  19. How can he tell? How do the BBC know? No evidence means he probably made it up. Although, in fairness, there are ever more elderly people these day, but 80,000 sounds a bit rich.

    • Gary Robertson, happy that Scotland’s only National radio station has managed to claw it’s way to getting 1.6% of the population to listen to it.
      Probably most of them can’t get any other service.
      What a complete non journalist he has become.
      Also Derek what pastiche were you on.
      Sarah Smith described as a honest, honourable, just misguided presenter.
      She wouldn’t get a job with any real TV company but for whose daughter she is.
      Parachuted in failed miserably same as condecending Naughtie, then sent back to their adopted country’s.

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