From the ludicrous mirage known as July, there dimly emerged a silly season story not obviously connected to babies, the weather or sport. It came in the form of a statement from the BBC announcing the forthcoming arrival in Scotland of James Naughtie.
In a series of articles this week we throw the spotlight on the Scottish independence referendum, to be held on 18 September 2014:
According to the statement, Mr Naughtie is to play a key role in the BBC’s referendum coverage and will present Good Morning Scotland (Radio Scotland’s breakfast programme) twice a week from the autumn. There was no hint of self-justification about any of this. On the contrary, BBC Scotland seemed inordinately pleased with itself. The signing-up of Mr Naughtie was presented as something of a coup, for which we should all be duly grateful.
It was Osborne Henry Mavor (James Bridie) who said of Scotsmen who go to work and live in England that they make better Englishmen than Englishmen themselves. I cannot say whether this allegation could justly be levelled at James Naughtie. He has retained a pleasant Scottish burr, but it is true that he has been gone rather a long time.
In my one meeting with him, over a drink in the Langham Hotel, near Broadcasting House in London, I was unable to form a clear impression other than one of general amiability and intelligence. We were interrupted at an early stage in the conversation by a woman who introduced herself as the widow of the comedian Tony Hancock. She was indeed his widow, and full of stories.
Perhaps James Naughtie thought her a bit of a nuisance. I suppose she was. But years later I still remember one or two of her sad, desperate anecdotes about her marriage to an impossible man. She would have made an interesting radio interview and it is possible that she was pitching for Mr Naughtie’s attention. Finally, unencouraged by either of us, she tottered off without a word of farewell, and when I thought about her later, as I do occasionally now, I felt a twinge of guilt. The widow of a genius – an over-used word but not misplaced in Hancock’s case – had crossed our path and we had not shown much interest or even, I’m afraid, much kindness.
I suspect that encounters of that sort are fairly unusual in the lounge of the Langham Hotel. But now that James Naughtie is coming home for a wee while, he had better avoid a certain type of Glasgow pub or he will find himself the object of that city’s many talkative characters, not all of whom are as memorable as Mrs Hancock. Any inconvenience will, however, be temporary. Whatever happens in September next year, Mr Naughtie won’t be sticking around for the chaotic aftermath. There are limits to the length of foreign assignments.
The first presumption behind the appointment or secondment, or whatever it is to be called, is that anyone, even someone of considerable ability and charm, can play a key role in the referendum – “one of the great stories of our time” as Mr Naughtie himself has described it – from this position of professional semi-detachment. Why two days a week? Why not five? One of the great stories of our time surely deserves a full-time commitment to Good Morning Scotland, and to Scotland in general, rather than this wandering in and out of the saga.
The second presumption is that it required a London ‘heavyweight’ – I imagine that was the term used when the appointment was being considered – to be parachuted into Glasgow for the purpose; and that there was no-one on the BBC Scotland staff, or indeed in the Scottish media as a whole, who was considered good enough to lead the coverage of one of the great stories of our time. This presumption is decades old. It is merely finding a new form in the parachuting of Mr Naughtie.
In the 1970s, when Alastair Hetherington was forced on a reluctant director-general as Scottish controller, London took the sensible precaution of providing a parachute for Andrew Boyle, who was sent to Glasgow to spy on the new boy, a role for which Boyle was well-qualified. North Sea oil had just been discovered off Scottish shores, and the BBC decided that it should appoint an ‘energy correspondent’ based in Glasgow. Since none of the existing staff could be trusted with this important responsibility, the job fell to Michael Buerk, who always had the look of a man whose boiler was on the blink. But at least it could be said of that chilly chappie that he was based here seven days a week, until he went off to some larger crusade.
As these examples illustrate, parachuting is nothing new in the dispiriting annals of BBC Scotland. There must be a secret warehouse in west London where all the parachutes are kept, ready to be pressed into service for the great stories of our time. But it is especially depressing in this case.
No doubt, with Mr Naughtie’s presence at the microphone, the listening figures for Good Morning Scotland will improve, but it will be at some cost to Scottish self-esteem. I will not damage their prospects of career enhancement by naming the good people within and outwith BBC Scotland who are more knowledgeable about the political and cultural situation north of the border and who are more obviously committed to the future of Scotland within or outwith the union. Such people exist. Unfortunately for them, we kent their faithers.
The anointed one – the one who will take us to the promised land; or, more likely, not – must have the sheen of metropolitan approval (‘a track record’ as it is otherwise known) and we ought to be jolly glad that our colonial masters have agreed to release him. It is not being insulting to James Naughtie to state that we deserve better. If he had wanted to play a key role in the referendum, he should have suffered first – by actually living here for the last decade.