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….”