By Derek Bateman
Did I get this right? I turn on the telly on late Sunday morning and see Gary Robertson presenting Sunday Politics. I turn over to Radio Scotland on Monday morning to hear Gary Robertson presenting Good Morning Scotland.
I tune into Newsnight on Monday night and there is…Gary Robertson. A mere six hours later I listen to the news on GMS and there he is – again – Gary bloody Robertson.
Three programme strands, two different platforms, one presenter. That’s not a schedule – it’s an overdose!
Is it a trick for Children in Need, I ask myself. Are they waiting for the complaints before he appears again to say: “Only joking…send your cheques to Pudsey Bear” But of course, this is BBC Scotland where the news operation is steadily disintegrating before our eyes so this is the latest manifestation of a management which has forgotten, if it ever knew in the first place, what an audience wants and how to show it respect.
What does the overloading of output on television and radio with one presenter tell us? Well, that the concept they used to teach us – those mighty managers who know so much – that each programme has its own identity, has been jettisoned.
They told us for years to take ownership of our programmes so that we felt committed to the output, so that we cared about our individual show and would give it everything we had. How the hell do you do that when they bounce the same person from show to show, sometimes within the same day? It’s bad enough for production staff but for presenters, the voice and face of the output, it makes a joke of the entire station.
I couldn’t have been alone is saying: “Is that all they’ve got? The same guy on a specialist politics programme, then on a current affairs programme AND a three-hour general news programme?”
It makes the national broadcaster look like a one-horse station that simply doesn’t have the talent to staff all the programmes it’s committed to. I don’t know if you remember Border Television based in Carlisle which for 30 years had a front man, the indefatigable and irrepressible Eric Wallace. He was Mr Border to generations and was fondly remembered when he died in 2004. But, with respect, Border is a one-horse station by comparison with the mighty BBC. Is Robertson the new Eric Wallace?
I think of each programme, radio and television, as a door you enter into a different world with new surroundings, contrasting voices and faces with new things to learn or to be informed about. Simply slotting in the same presenter as the programme before is the easiest and most dramatic way to dilute its individuality. It says: “We can’t be bothered, so why should you?”
It also raises a problem for presenters who all – believe it or not – devise their own on-air persona, a slightly turbo-charged version of themselves which is needed in order to make broadcasting work. Merely “being oneself” doesn’t cut it on air.
So, in the case of Gary Robertson, a totally professional, clear-spoken exponent of the art, in my opinion, is Hyper Gary on radio. He mimics the excitable tone you hear on Radio Five where everything is racing to a conclusion, even when there isn’t one. That’s why he was brought in, because in 2006 the Head of Radio, our old friend Jeff Zycinski, wanted that sound to replace old farts like me…makes it sound less Old BBC and therefore likely to attract a younger audience. No sign of it happening yet.
The trouble with the Five Live approach is that it doesn’t translate well to television. You can’t be hyper on autocue. Everything is slower and staged and less spontaneous than radio so you need a different, or at least, an adjusted persona to carry it off.
In the fleeting notice I’ve taken so far, it looks like this transition is taking time to appear. Gary, relaxed and involved while on radio, hasn’t shed the look of the Rabbit in Headlights in the telly studio. It’s a curious thing because it’s evident even in people whom I don’t like as presenters – the casual ease with which they command the studio, constantly relating to the audience, and making you feel that something is right about what you’re watching.
You should never be distracted by the presence of the presenter – because he’s ill at ease in some way – but you should be led by him. That transformation into the consummate communicator, if it ever comes at all, is developed over time learning to “wear” the programme like a coat so he becomes integral to it, accepted by production team and audience alike. The presenter should become the embodiment of the programme, a very difficult proposition if he is parachuted in and the pushed into different output doing different things.
A version of this can be made to work successfully, I think. Andrew Marr combines a Sunday telly show with Start the Week on radio. And you can swap genres so John Humphrys doubles as Today presenter and Mastermind host.
But I think BBC Scotland is taking it too far. First, it is asking a lot of the audience to overlook the flooding of their programmes by an individual and I’m not convinced that Gary Robertson, however strong a pillar of the output, can truly be said to be popular on the scale necessary to carry this off. There is for example a deep affection for Jackie Bird and Sally Magnusson that transcends the programmes they present, a status I doubt anybody would attribute to Robertson.
Secondly, it actually makes the news operation look threadbare, shorn of enough top pros to do justice to the schedule. That lacks respect for the audience.
And to what I believe is the main point – this isn’t a decision made for the right editorial reasons – because it suits the talents of the presenter and meets the demands of the audience – but because it’s a knock-on effect of something else. London, the Director General, I believe, wanted another woman’s voice on the Today programme. Hear, hear. That meant losing one of the existing team.
Naughtie was nominated to surrender a couple of his slots. What to do with him then? Why, send him to Scotland to fill in there on GMS. But there weren’t slots until Gary Robertson was freed up, at his request, I would imagine. After all he has been touted by the Head of Radio as not only the voice of the station but as the face as well so he wouldn’t want to be upstaged by a bigger “star” like Naughtie.
In other words, the absurd phenomenon of Gary Robertson becoming unavoidable on our radios and screens isn’t a strategic manoeuvre by executives, it’s the spatchcock impact of uncoordinated management decision-making.
And those poor management decisions are beginning to pile up, it seems. Why else would senior staff be leaving in this, the biggest 12 months in BBC Scotland’s history? I hear of three departures, one of them an internal promotion away from the news department and two straight out the door, all of them with years of experience. Two of them are editors only appointed in the last round of changes.
Why can’t Scotland hold on to staff in what should be the best place to work in Scottish journalism? Could it be a morale issue? Are people so sick of the management regime, described by the NUJ organiser Paul Holleran as the worst he’s known in 20 years, that they’re jumping ship?
So many staff have been weeded out and ejected – some of us gladly – in the brutal redundancy process that even the day-to-day functioning of the department is becoming a headache as we head into 2014. New staff? Well, most of the new intake are unqualified newcomers who will be “trained on the job” so we shouldn’t look there for the kind of top level knowledge and management skills needed.
Maybe they should follow the Naughtie precedent and get London to run the Scottish newsroom. They could integrate GMS and Today and eventually do away with a separate broadcasting centre in Scotland so we could all be better together.
Courtesy of Derek Bateman