Channeling The Nation’s Chunterers
Rob Brown looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the new Scottish flagship news programme, The Nine. If you missed it you can take a look at it right here.
Having declared on this site that I didn’t hold out much hope for The Nine, I decided to hold back on critiquing BBC Scotland’s new flagship news show until its eager editorial team had a fair chance to launch it down the Pacific Quay slipway. My fingers were crossed that their leaky vessel might float at least across the Clyde to Finnieston.
And the good news is that the PQ flagship hasn’t sunk instantly without trace. The opening episodes even produced a few mild ripples of promise in river city. Most importantly, The Nine has more punter appeal than Reporting Scotland (which has, admittedly, shed some of its pomposity of late). That’s clear from the countdown, with the new programme’s ident made up of an ethnically diverse sequence of Scots’ smiling mugshots.
How refreshing to see BBC cameras being pointed at so many ordinary folk for a change. And no surprise such a strategy was adopted by The Nine’s editor since she was previously a producer on Question Time. Hayley Valentine certainly loves a vox pop and getting Angus and Senga on the sofa.
Hearing from the peepul can be insightful – unless it’s the now notorious Billy Mitchell yet again – but there is a severe danger of this approach to news gathering descending into shallow populism. Or looking suspiciously like sedation of the nation, a PQ PR offensive to love-bomb Scottish license-payers rather than stir the political pot.
Let me give just one example of what I’m getting at. A lead item on one of the debut editions was a lengthy video package about South Lanarkshire council threatening legal action against local taxi drivers if they don’t dress smartly. The reporter climbed in to listen to a cabbie girning on about not being not being able to wear his jeans on the road.
As if being trapped in that taxi for what seemed like two hours wasn’t enough, the young reporter then drove back to the studio for a three-way discussion about this seismic development with the presenters. Talk about dragging out a journalistic journey to hike up the fare. A Scottish council slapping a legally enforceable dress code on cabbies would have made a fine And Finally…but nothing more.
By putting such a parochial story so high up the running order, the producers make it well nigh impossible for the presenters to make smooth transitions. When you cut from greetin’-faced cabbies in South Lanarkshire to nuclear sabre-rattling over Kashmir, you leave viewers wondering what next – ‘Dog Killed in Dumbarton Road’?
As well as being clunky, The Nine is also already showing severe stretch marks.
The worst example of padding out the programme was when the station’s Scottish business and economics editor Douglas Fraser was invited on to the sofa to explain the background to some turbulence in our alternative energy sector. Dougie knows everything there is to know about economic downturns and dynamic entrepreneurs, but he could have done with some jazzy graphics as he was crunching the numbers and seeking to string together a sequence of related events.
BBC Scotland’s launch slogan was Channeling the Nation, but The Nine seems committed to Channelling the Nation’s Chunterers. Even its highly experienced chief correspondent James Cook is a bit of chunterer, and a chitterer. In his first two live pieces-to-camera he was less than lucid and apparently more concerned about keeping his gloved hands warm than directing a laser-like spotlight on the subjects he was reporting. (Maybe too long in ever sunny Los Angeles?)
In Rejkavik he could have emphasised that the whole of Iceland has a population less than Edinburgh to put this country in context. And in Madrid he might have compared Catalan separatists being hauled before Spain’s Supreme Court with the apparently less draconian approach adopted here towards Scottish separatists.
Then they could have cut back to the studio and had a really riveting debate on this risqué topic: is Great Britain a beacon of political tolerance and civility or are the black arts of the British State just more clandestine than those of the Spaniards? Of course, no one would ever be employed on The Nine if there was any danger they might utter anything so subversive – or incisive – on air. You need to be a right-wing Unionist like Andrew Neil to flout the impartiality rules…every week for decades.
Laura Bicker wouldn’t risk a P45 either with such pointed political analysis, I imagine, but it is a real shame she wasn’t lured back from Seoul to Scotland. Having previously reported from Washington and elsewhere before becoming the corporation’s Korea correspondent, her dissection of complex geopolitical developments is always both authoritative and accessible to ordinary viewers – an extremely rare combination among roving reporters.
Laura also has a lovely Scottish accent, which is more than can be said for the programme’s Brussels and Westminster reporters. Jean MacKenzie sounds as Scottish as Flora MacDonald…until she opens her mouth. I’ve absolutely nothing against Anglo accents, by the way. My sons were raised in Cheshire and sound very English. But wasn’t this new news show meant to be bringing us “the world through Scottish eyes”?
That’s certainly not the perspective it’s providing on the political world, except when Laura Kuenssberg graces the show with her presence. The BBC’s political editor did pop up on the second night to provide some authoritative punditry on the Brexit bourach, but I suspect her goodwill towards the guys and gals up in Glasgow will melt like sno’ aff a dyke when the novelty of this new news show fades and its low ratings roll in.
The reality is that most of the BBC’s star correspondents are obscenely over-paid divas who would not lower themselves to contribute regularly to any programme not produced in the corporation’s imperial headquarters during peak viewing times.
Personally, I don’t regard that as any great loss. The Nine does needs to get some gravitas from somewhere, though, if it is to hook the nation’s policy-makers and opinion-formers along with the punters.
Maybe the BBC’s London overlords are quite content to leave the Jocks’ new news flagship float placidly doon the water without causing too many waves in Whitehall or Holyrood? The fact that it had months to store up a steady stream of hard-hitting scoops – but signally failed to deliver that – suggests it is going for modest impact.
As does the blandness of its two anchors. I almost forgot to mention Martin Geissler and Rachel Curran, whose observations were often anodyne or over-acted. There was a particularly absurd point in the opening programme when a colleague who had just reported on the opioid epidemic across the country handed them a wee plastic poke of white-coloured painkillers and they each stared at it as if it was a sample of soil from Mars.
Further Memo to Ed: Get Geissler, a good on-screen reporter, back on the road with a flak jacket. Between them, he and Laura Bicker could give the programme real international reporting edge.
Even after strapping that intrepid duo to mobile satellite transmitters, BBC Scotland’s dedicated digital channel probably won’t really set the heather alight until The Nine is replaced by the Scottish Six. And with that, it’s back to you in the New Broadcasting House boardroom, Lord Hall of Birkenhead…