Bateman: The BBC’s new Scottish news head will have to prove himself quickly

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Derek Bateman on the BBC’s newly-appointed news supremo for Scotland

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. 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.

The BBC issued this picture of Gary Smith, its new Scottish head of news & current affairs, when it announced his appointment today.
The BBC issued this picture of Gary Smith, its new Scottish head of news & current affairs, when it announced his appointment today.

I’m afraid the evidence is that, Scottish or not, 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.

John Boothman: BBC bosses ignored warnings when they appointed the now-disgraced news boss in 2011. He remains in their employment.
John Boothman: BBC bosses ignored warnings when they appointed the now-disgraced news boss in 2011. He remains in their employment.

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 in? 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 have made 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.