Grumpy…me?

Lest some of you think I’ve become a grumpy old man since leaving the BBC, I haven’t. I’ve always been a grumpy old man.

But along the way the BBC has given me some of the best days of my life. It gave me the best job I ever had, presenting Good Morning Scotland four mornings a week for 10 years.

I started in journalism in the heyday of the Scotsman when the newsroom was like a library with chaps puffing pipes and taking two-hour lunches and we faithfully reported the doings of the establishment as if they were the Royal Family. We introduced people with initials…Mr A.D. Crawford has been appointed Chief Librarian at the National Archive

I was headhunted by the more industrial types over at the Glasgow Herald when my barman in the Jinglin’ Geordie sidled up one lunchtime and said: “Fancy a job on the Herald?” One of his other regulars was the Edinburgh news editor who later interviewed me  – in the pub – and I was hired…on £2800 a year. (There is no zero missing there).

But I have to admit my heart leapt when I got a call asking me to go along to the BBC offices in Queen Street to talk about a job and take a screen test. The BBC…and me a boy from Selkirk with two Highers! They say it’s your first by-line in a newspaper, especially on the front page splash that marks your arrival but I never felt more proud and tremulous than walking into Queen Margaret Drive to start life with BBC Scotland.

If you’re thinking…aaaw, that’s nice…forget it. I left 18 months later after they failed to give me the training and work they promised in radio and instead had me poncing about on camera for Reporting Scotland. I did enjoy working on Left Right and Centre and still credit Kirsty Wark as one of the three most influential people in my time in journalism. I also found out what a nest of vipers it was and that a macho cabal led by someone I can only describe as psychotic was traducing my reputation in production meetings, not for any known reason but just because I had come from newspapers and he and his Neanderthals got their kicks from making others’ lives a misery.

I left to become political editor of Scotland on Sunday when it launched and resigned from there too when I’d enough of the editor, a self-promoting individual who was using the role to get back to Fleet Street so drove everybody to exhaustion and was never satisfied no matter what you did. Scotland was too small for him.

When I did return to the BBC it was on my own terms and with a clearer idea of how to handle it and of where my talents lay. In time I was asked to have a go at presenting GMS which was like sitting in aisle 12 when the stewardess leans down and says: We’d like you to fly the plane.

In those days GMS was massive – in staffing, scope, ambition and importance. It was the pinnacle of radio broadcasting in Scotland and it scared me witless.

Not only was the audience large, it was influential. The ABs tuned in because they included the decision makers and it was beamed down specially to Dover House, the Scottish Office, so ministers could hear.

It was there that I developed my own style and method of broadcasting, learning by mistakes. The main thing – one of the key aspects that I first learned from Kirsty – was to train myself to stay calm and in control, always to remain slightly detached from the mayhem and avoid contamination by hysteria, of which there can be quite a lot.  She made a mistake live on air one night and as I watched she visibly pushed on undaunted, mentally forgetting her slip and completed the programme.  When the red light went out as we went off air she dropped her head to the desk and swore in frustration. She had forced herself to hide the embarrassment in the moment, put the error behind her and press on as if it hadn’t happened. She wasn’t flustered. It was a simple thing but it helps to define the best. I never forgot how she did that. To me, the rookie, watching from the neighbouring studio chair, it was a lesson in steely professionalism. Many a time in front of the mike I have recalled that moment and rescued myself.

Keeping calm ain’t always easy when there’s panicked voices on talkback in your ear, a script has disappeared, you’re mid-interview with a sticky MP, your co-presenter is frantically clicking the talkback button and waving windmills at producers through the glass, you’ve been up since 3.30 am, you’re losing your train of thought and Scotland is listening. Not only that but when you left the scene of the debacle at the end of the show, you walked into the newsroom where all the radio journalists gathered to eat you alive. Well, it was called the Debrief to discuss issues of the day but there was little holding back and you had to front up and explain yourself to your peers – and your bosses. All before breakfast.

I think that’s where I learned not shirk criticism but to stand up to it and not be hurt. It’s only someone else’s opinion and guess what – sometimes they’re right.

GMS has steadily eroded in the priorities of the BBC, being pushed to one side while resources are piled into television which is the real focus of the organisation and is one reason why the merging of what used to be two different departments, radio news and telly news, never really worked. There was only ever one winner. In Scotland there has been a particular problem. They never pick a radio person to head the news department. When I was hired the boss was George Sinclair whose only connection to radio was having a wireless on his desk – also father of Paul, adviser to Johann Lamont. He was followed by Ken Cargill (telly), Blair Jenkins (telly), Atholl Duncan (telly) and now John Boothman (telly). All this leads to radio being viewed as the poor relation.

A prime example was the in the pay grades. The editor of RepScot, a Scotland-only news magazine on air for half an hour, was on a higher grade than the editor of GMS with an international agenda, British content and three hours to fill. Sending a camera crew to Larkhall isn’t quite the same as tracking down a correspondent in the Congo and fixing up a useable broadcast link to Glasgow. Nor are the issues as complex as world affairs. Nor does the RepScot editor have to negotiate with stroppy foreign desk people in London for access to reporters.

I haven’t got round to telling you about some of those great days working for the Beeb yet. I’ll get to that another time.  It may be age, but I feel a lot of the fun, the madness and excitement are missing nowadays.

How could I forget Kenny McIntyre, a man with a full mouth of false teeth, dashing into the cubicle before going through to the studio to do a live and saying he’d forgotten to put his teeth in.  Could somebody run down to the newsroom where he’d left them in his jacket pocket, otherwise he couldn’t speak. A woman producer hurtled downstairs and arrived moments later panting with the teeth, silently pushed open the studio door and lobbed the full set over to Kenny who caught them and shoved them quickly into his mouth in the nick of time just as John Milne was saying: “Joining us now our political correspondent Kenny McIntyre…Kenny”

“Well, John, I think Mr Dewar may have got this one wrong….”

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14 thoughts on “Grumpy…me?

  1. Enjoying your blog keeo it up. Listening to GMS this morning I thought hey wait a minute this interview with Labour on energy issues is a bit strong and likewise with the SNP spokesperson – good maybe they are reading Dereks blog I thought- only to be disappointed that before I could turn off Call Kaye she was prompting the Labour spokesperson on what to say!

  2. Thoroughly enjoying your outpourings. A book, a stage and a broadcaster. You should write this stuff down and fill a tent at Wigtown Book Festival. I certainly would be there; the tickets would fly!

  3. Ah, memories, good and not so good, fill each and every life, but there’s always a common denominator in either case and that’s people. From the top class friend to the top crass idiot, we’ve experienced the lot and some of us even survived to tell the tale.

    Derek, your insider revelations are fascinating and it’s just from the ordinariness of it all – we all know of the nests of vipers, the macho cabals, the socially deranged psychotic bullies, the personality demolition stuffers, which is monumentally loathsome to the decent minded and car crash material for any go-ahead aspiring organisation. So, step forward the BBC, nowadays the husk of what was once the envy of the world and all because of rotten apples left to fester for far too long after they dropped.

    I’m sure your blogs are immensely cathartic and what a pick-me-up they are for the rest of us onlooking fellow travelers. Good-oh!

  4. As we have come to expect Derek… Another grand blog….My first reading of the day since you started.

  5. Derek, That was a great read; as others have said, it looks like a set of memoires is in order!

    Keep up the good work.

  6. Another good piece, Derek. The only surprising part is where you praise Kirsty Wark as being one of the three most influential people you knew in your time in journalism. You then go on to describe how you also learned from her example how to carry on regardless of any slip you may have made live on air, and finish your programme. I assume you are NOT referring to the biased interview she held with Alex Salmond, the leader of the new minority SNP Scottish Government in 2007? That was the interview when she pointedly asked him whether the Scottish people should “be afraid” of his new SNP led administration, and then finished the interview with the unforgettable dismissal of, “Well, that’s enough from you…”

    Yes I know I have since that point been biased against Ms Wark, and that was before I than learned that she was a personal friend ot Jack McConnell, the leader of the defeated and ousted Labour led government, and his wife Bridget. No evidence of political sympathies there then, eh?

  7. Brilliant read Derek. And Kenny McIntyre, I found him to be one of the sharpest journalists on the BBC, I was so sad when he passed away. Thank you.

  8. Interesting that you mention the bias against radio in favour of telly, particularly considering the furore about underinvestment in Scottish programming a few years ago – which prompted the ‘solution’ of shifting programmes like Question Time and Waterloo Road to a token desk in PQ. It seems like that hasn’t meant any more money being spent on BBC Scotland (despite the underspend of Scottish licence fee money), but rather radio has been cut to fund it. They really couldn’t get many more things wrong if they tried.

    Great blog, keep having fun.

  9. Interesting stuff, particularly to see the name of George Sinclair, father of Paul.

  10. Slow down, you’re like a geyser about to burst!
    This is continuing to be essential reading.

  11. Every morning, Wings first, you second. Don’t stop, apart from the revelations, you write so well!

  12. Roibert a Briuis

    GOSH how do you manage to keep this up………..well I share most of these events with you…in a Multinational where I was for 25 years and I have 40+ years of stories as well as photographs, sadly digitising all of the photographs is ..well I cant see me living that long and I am not as good a story teller as yourself..

    It is amazing that you can recollect all that you have shared so far and put it into words in such an interesting and appealing way. The good the bad and the ugly, well That’s Life – was that not a BBC program? , The common denominator is simply folk determined to climb the greasy pole and who don’t give a hoot for collateral damage to friends colleagues and associates . Most of us have experienced this lot – the useless climber who somehow ends up as your boss to the brilliant mind that gets left at the bottom because he wont play their games. Some of us even survived to tell the tale.

    Your blogs are interesting and fascinating we all know of the dysfunctional ‘leaders’. Gosh Prudence The Psycho who ended Boom and Bust, AKA the saviour of the world and the banks, even managed to get to what some people might call the very top in the UK and the methods (not son of the manse Ma’Cavity personally himself of course) were vindictive evil cowardly and brutal, but by sneaky proxy. This is surely a more despicable method of operation . Is it a surprise that the BBC, nowadays has degenerated into a western version of Pravda. A broadcaster that was once the envy of the world has sunk into hopefully oblivion when Scotland becomes independent. Mind you there is almost a year to go, lots of time to mend their ways and survive…….BUT are they, is anyone in the (Scottish) organisation got the brains and the balls to turn this around. We are all programmed to survive….maybe those in BBC Ecosse (I see we have revived the Auld Alliance) will see the writing on the wall and repent and change their ways, It would be a big surprise but one can always hope.

  13. I am so glad to have found you, Derek! I was desolated when you announced you were finished with Radio Teuchter, as I had not known you long, and now had nothing to set my alarm for at weekends (apart from the grandchildren). I spotted your name in a wee newspaper piece about BBC bias and agree with every word said (or implied). Now I’ve found you, I shan’t let you go – I do miss your appropriately sardonic, NOT grumpy, craic.

  14. Greatly enjoying your blogs. Any thoughts on the BBC Scotland news editing these days, particularly website and telly?

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