TV review: Labour’s circular firing squad holds forth


By Derek Bateman

BBC Scotland is like the family dug – there to be kicked and shouted at one day, embraced with treats the next – when we remember how we really liked it all along.

BBC_Scotland_corporate_logo.svgSo humdrum has much of its journalism become, quite apart from the ever-present undercurrent of bias, that when a normal competent production airs, it surprises us.

I thought they did well with two recent Panoramas. One was a get-to-know-you on Nicola Sturgeon for UK viewers presented by her one-time neighbour Shelley Joffre (the sub text here was just what a village Scotland is). The other was a Full Bhuna multi-destination telly doc by Mark Daly on drugs in athletics which is still reverberating. Top marks to both.

There’s been some dubious fluff as well and I wasn’t holding my breath for the Fall of Labour programme which aired last night. I was wrong. It was tight, lent perspective, had strong interview hits and was smartly presented. It sustained an hour. It did its job.

In fact it was pretty much everything we should expect to come from the world’s oldest and best-regarded, as well as resourced, news organisation and showed what Pacific Quay could be turning out regularly if it had the budgets, the vision and the will. If only…

It isn’t easy to make a good programme unless you have the right people together in the right atmosphere, the time and direction and the support to get the job done. It all sounds simple but the BBC has constructed its own barriers to programme-making through corridor-creeping management sychophants who either never could make a programme or have forgotten how to years ago.

The penny-pinching is killer. They could have had some interviews done by a stand-in whom you never see on camera so that Jackie doesn’t need to spend money travelling to, say, London for interviews. As far as I could tell she was there for each or at least most,  and we saw her reaction which in itself is a visual viewer guide to what is being said and its significance. The constant querying of expenses is morale-sapping when you’re trying to get a job completed. I’ve had to stay in a hotel miles away from the news venue – and often the other journalists – because the bean counters put me in a Premier Inn to save £40. (That’s then more than covered by additional taxi fares but that’s not their concern). One colleague hired a car because it was the cheapest and was later upbraided by the accounts manager because the BBC had a deal with Europcar even though it cost more.

The programme had the look of high production values and a script that knew what it was talking about. I spotted the name of Douglas Fraser in the credits so maybe that’s one reason for the quality of content.

Jackie Bird: masterstroke
Jackie Bird: masterstroke

Using La Bird was a wee masterstroke and a reminder of what a pro she is, bringing polish and a relaxed accessibility to what could have been an anorak’s video. I don’t get the impression she’s exactly a politics nerd but time again she shows her range when working with a good script and given rein to be herself. She’s a comfortable fit for this type of production and because we’re used to her teatime smiley face, her questioning scowl has real impact. An arched eyebrow on top of that would wordlessly destroy any dissembling victim.

The content of the interviews – and the real reason anybody was actually watching – was absorbing in that we were listening to those who once seemed invincible – the Untouchables – appearing all too human.

Consumed some were with personal bitterness, long held and slow to fade – Davidson and Whitton. Analytical and sensible – McConnell. Cool and aloof – Lamont. Disarming honest – Falconer. It became clear though as we crept past the 45 minute mark that whatever insights our cohort were prepared to offer, culpability would not be among them.

The programme could have been sub-titled It Wisnae Me such was the airy distance inserted between individual and outcome. Everybody else to blame with a touch of a collective ‘we’ by way of contrition but none admitted they were responsible for the fall of Labour.

Ian Davidson settled a few scores in this BBC analysis
Ian Davidson settled a few scores in this BBC analysis

Seven years McConnell was First Minister – if the party didn’t get devolution or evolve into a changing country’s mould, who could possibly be responsible for that? I believe the failure of the McConnell administration to stand up to London knocked away several props of Scottish support which had thought a separate decision-making platform had been built within Holyrood. Westminster ministers heading north to put him in his place told a story of branch office years before Lamont’s resignation…Susan Deacon’s retreat on tobacco advertising showed they were cowed by London.

She, of course, now says the Labour group was thinking small and seeking a weekly coup against the Nats instead of imagining a better Scotland but, frankly, isn’t that she was there to do – to speak out? If you don’t agree, why not go public and risk all if your objective isn’t personal advancement but public good? If Scotland’s the branch office, why wait till your departure to nail it?

(I firmly believe too that the failure to demand Devo Max on the ballot paper while Labour took two years to devise its precise mechanics produced the toxic effect we now see. Lamont should have defied London and struck out alone with her Scottish party championing what we know the majority wanted leaving the Lib Dems to join in as makeweights and the Tories isolated as Ulster-style naysayers. Salmond would have lost and his ‘consolation prize’ would instead be Lamont’s.)

It doesn’t help either that some of those anxious about the working class now plonk their bums on the benches of the Lords’ chamber.

These outpourings sounded like a swally at the bar after a funeral when home truths are unveiled about family feuds but somehow none of it was anyone’s fault. It just was. But until someone admits to the awful deed and humbles themselves, the resentments will remain. The family will fester.

Brian Wilson: From some perspectives, he may have been right all along
Brian Wilson: From some perspectives, he may have been right all along

My own conclusion is that the people Labour had were not good enough. They really weren’t up to running a devolved parliament because, with honourable exceptions, their heart wasn’t in it. Scotland’s was and remains so, but as committed Unionists, Labour never understood the beast they created because collectively they lacked the vision and talent to make it work for both themselves and the country.

In that regard they retrospectively made Brian Wilson right in saying a parliament was a bad thing. It was – for those not up to the job of running it properly. The Parliament and the Scots have moved on together and left Labour far behind. Like the old dug, it’s time to put it down.