A few nights ago, on what used to be called Newsnight Scotland – it's something else now, though basically the same – the wondrously-named Anton Muscatelli was captioned 'Principle of Glasgow University'. The last I heard, a principle was the basis for some fundamental belief, as in 'principles of democracy'.
Whatever else he is, I doubt that Anton Muscatelli is a principle of democracy. He is more likely to be a vastly overpaid principal of a Scottish university, the type who pops up on late-night telly to pontificate about this and that. We should not be surprised that the caption writer at Pacific Quay is unaware of the difference between a principle and a principal. It's a common howler among people who have had the benefit of a university education. You can get a 2:1 at Glasgow and still be ignorant of the fact that your principal isn't a principle.
I mention this anecdote as a symptom of the case against the so-called Scottish Six, the hour-long news programme soon to be piloted by BBC Scotland as a possible replacement for the Six O'Clock News and Reporting Scotland. If the young people employed by Beebus Scotticus have failed to master the rudiments of spelling, can we really trust them to report the entire world from Parkheid to Pakistan in 60 precious minutes of primetime television every weekday evening?
Yet – if not actually nevertheless – I am about to set such misgivings aside and support the Scottish Six: a complete opt-out from London.
When the proposal for a Scottish parliament resurfaced in the 1970s, opponents of the scheme led by the Scottish Daily Express (then something of a power in the land) argued that a legislature in Edinburgh would be full of ignorant people like Wee Willie McTaggart, who could neither spell nor speak. What did Wee Willie McTaggart know about running a country?, thundered the Express. There was an obvious answer. It was the answer we went for eventually. If Wee Willie McTaggart had no idea how to run a country, it was high bloody time he found out.
I have a broadly similar view of the Scottish Six. Maybe it's high bloody time we grew up and learned how to present a window on the world from Scotland. The Danes do it from Copenhagen, the Finns from Helsinki, the Swedes from Stockholm. All these national broadcasters – and, of course, many others around the world – seem routinely capable of stitching together a peaktime bulletin which combines news from their own country with news from the world at large. Why not the Scots? Are we uniquely incompetent?
As I understand it, there are three principal – I repeat principal – objections. David Torrance, echoing little Michael Gove, calls it an analogue solution for a digital age and ponders the implausibility of the whole nation sitting down in the early evening to watch an hour of news. True. We will dip in and out – just as we do in the morning with the Today programme on Radio 4 or in the evening with the hour-long Channel 4 News. Would Mr Torrance describe Channel 4 News as an analogue solution for a digital age? It is a programme for all seasons: it survives because it is bold and challenging and has a presenter of exceptional quality in Jon Snow.
The second objection is that a Scottish Six would become a propaganda arm of the ruling party. The abuse of that annoying individual, Nick Robinson, for giving Eck a bit of a grilling in the last stages of the referendum campaign, and the subsequent demos outside the studios by a crowd ludicrously brandishing copies of the Sunday Herald as an examplar of impartial journalism, were a chilling reminder that media freedom in a nationalist Scotland can never be taken for granted. But there are obnoxious bullies in all parties. Presenting the weekly politics show on BBC Scotland in the 1980s, I was at the receiving end of Labour Gauleiters who clearly thought they were going to be around forever (a popular illusion which the present lot also exhibit signs of believing). The bullies have to be stood up to and – I'm in the mood for bad language today – told to bugger off. (For even worse language, see Walter Humes elsewhere in this edition.) I'm fairly hopeful – though only if someone in the Jon Snow league can be found to present the show and conduct the major interviews. The ideal choice would be Laura Kuenssberg, who is smart and politically savvy.
Objection number 3 – articulated with his customary zeal by Alan Cochrane in the Daily Torygraph – is that we're not up to it. Cochrane visualises an hour of stairheid rammies, road crashes, and fitba highlights – the stuff of Reporting Scotland since broadcasting time began. Back in the dark ages (almost literally true: we were in black and white at the time), I presented this programme. At first, until production was centralised, it was a three studio job (Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen), my own berth a ghostly ballroom in Queen Street, Edinburgh, where I was routinely distracted by subversive messages in my earpiece from the local director.
'Look at that', he would whisper. 'Another fire in Maryhill Road. Ho, ho. Wait and see. Next it'll be an OAP falling off a bus in Partick'. He was an Edinburgh man (of course). But his lugubrious running commentary on the parochial nature of the material was not much exaggerated; and I have to admit that the Glasgow-centric content was matched by an extreme superficiality. Is it any better now? A bit. But the obsession with trivia remains impressive. There are fine journalists on the payroll, people with a track record in inquiring journalism, who waste their days turning PR guff into serviceable prose.
But I think Mr Cochrane is up to his old mischief. As he well knows, the Scottish Six would not be Reporting Scotland. It would be an entirely new programme with an entirely new approach and an entirely new set of values. It would be able to draw on the BBC's unrivalled corps of correspondents across the world – and, for Scottish material of substance, utilise the under-employed skills on its own doorstep. The junk – including all those shameless puffs for commercial events – could be deposited on some web page for the prurient and the juvenile, liberating airtime for the stuff that matters.
The Daily Mail reported yesterday that only 36% of Scots support the proposal for a Scottish Six. So we can take it that even some SNP supporters don't fancy it. How shaming a finding is this – that we have so little confidence in our ability to create something of value in Scotland. For all our grand pretensions, the spectre of Wee Willie McTaggart hangs over the land as grimly as ever.
'Free the Scottish Six', say I. It is a slogan – and an idea – whose time has come.