Scandalising the Scotia Nostra

She has been called one of the most talented journalists of her generation, but is Kirsty Wark set to fall from grace? Tim Luckhurst investigates
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The Independent Online

Kirsty Wark has a triple identity. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, she is principally known as a long-serving and impressive presenter of Newsnight and the successful co-founder of Wark Clements, the independent production company she launched in 1990 with her husband, Alan Clements. Both roles are acknowledged in her native Scotland, the latter rather more than the former, but they are only elements of her personality. To Scots, Wark is the "uncrowned Queen of Scotland", an icon of the Scotia Nostra (as the local power élite is wryly known) and the closest thing the devolved nation has to a living superwoman.

Scots know that Wark is rich. Asked by The Scotsman about her company's £3m contract with the BBC, she revealed, "It is best to bring things out in the open, even if that attracts a whole lot of flak." Scotland knows about her 16-hour days and weekly 1,000-mile commutes between Glasgow and London. It knows that her children, Caitlin and James, attend state schools, although Wark did not, and it is familiar with her broadly "soft left" political instincts.

Wark is also, as Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of news, asserts, "among the best journalists of her generation". The corporation has repeatedly insisted that it is content to hire her from Wark Clements for a lot more than it cost to employ her as a member of staff. But Wark has run into trouble, and it stems from her close relationship with the Scottish Establishment.

The story is this. Until he died, Wark was a loyal friend to Scotland's first First Minister, Donald Dewar. They lived near each other and shared many a conversation on the commuter run to London. In early 1998, when Dewar decided that devolved government required a brand-new "signature building" as its national parliament, he invited Wark to join the panel of judges he appointed to select the winning design.

Wark agreed. She is fascinated by architecture and knowledgeable about it, as her performances on Newsnight Review confirm. So far, so good, but in December 1998 it emerged that Wark Clements had been chosen by BBC Scotland to make a documentary series about the Holyrood parliament project. There were murmurings about conflict of interest. How could Wark Clements be objective about a project that Kirsty Wark had helped to choose?

The fuss soon died down. Dewar was popular, and the new parliament looked like a good idea. At least, it did while his estimate that it would cost £40m and be completed by 2001 was still credible. Four years and £400m later, the parliament is still not complete. The cost over-run has become the most contentious issue in Scotland. The current First Minister, Jack McConnell, recognises it as having contributed more than any other factor to the disappointment that Scots express about the performance of devolved institutions.

In June 2003, McConnell commissioned a full-blown inquiry into the project. It began sitting last month and is Scotland's equivalent of Hutton. Every sitting is scrutinised by political correspondents and sketch-writers and summarised on television. Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, the chairman, began proceedings by asking BBC Scotland for access to taped interviews recorded by Wark Clements. He is particularly anxious to see interviews granted by Donald Dewar and Enric Miralles, the avant-garde Catalan architect hired for the project. Both men are dead, and the views they expressed to the Wark Clements team provide the best opportunity to hear from beyond the grave what they really thought about the publicly cited completion costs and schedules.

BBC Scotland refused, citing the corporation's traditional reluctance to release untransmitted footage, and claiming that it was protecting sources. Its arguments have been angrily dismissed by proponents of every shade of political opinion, from the former SNP leader Alex Salmond to the Scottish Conservative leader, David McLetchie. What is the problem for Wark? Salmond summed it up in a letter to The Scotsman: "The real problem is that the documentary being produced for the BBC by the Wark Clements company is part and parcel of the Holyrood project itself, rather than an objective piece of journalism."

That is hard to dismiss, because BBC Scotland's claim to be protecting sources does not make sense. Every contributor to the documentary series The Gathering Place was interviewed on camera and for the record. The issue of anonymity does not arise. To make matters worse, many of the contributors have come forward to insist that they want their interviews made available to Lord Fraser. Miralles's widow, Benedetta Tagliabue, has no objection to his testimony being released. "I am not against anything being viewed," she says. "I have been open. It was a very normal process."

Against this consensus stand BBC Scotland and, according to McCormick, Wark Clements as well. He told last week's edition of the Sunday Herald newspaper: "Wark Clements was opposed to untransmitted material being made available, very clearly and unequivocally." That version has been thrown into question by Alan Clements. Writing in The Scotsman last Saturday, he stated: "Our company's view is clear. We were commissioned by the BBC to make the documentary, and the final decision on the release or otherwise of these [tapes] rests with them."

Scotland is bemused, and a serious question has been raised. In the words of a leader column in The Scotsman: "What of the involvement of one of the programme's makers, the BBC presenter Kirsty Wark, in the design competition for the parliament? Has this fatally compromised the impartiality of the documentary? Is this what Mr McCormick is unwilling to expose?"

BBC Scotland denies it, but the suspicion is growing that it is fighting a rearguard action to defend Wark against accusations that she is caught in a very obvious conflict of interest. Clements says that is untrue. In his Scotsman article, he wrote: "Of course Kirsty and I were concerned that there could be a possible conflict of interest and that accepting an invitation to join the panel [to choose the architect] would rule both Wark Clements out of pitching for the documentary and Kirsty out of reporting on it as a BBC journalist." Clements explains that Wark spoke to the Scottish Office, McCormick and the editor of Newsnight about her concerns, but that the conclusion was that "the fact that Kirsty was not presenting news programmes for BBC Scotland meant that there was no such conflict. In the case of Newsnight, it was acknowledged that if the matter of the Scottish Parliament became a story for the programme, Kirsty would not be involved."

Clements acknowledges: "The sustained assault on my family, company and integrity this week has been extraordinary." Is that the end of the story? At the weekend, it emerged that BBC Scotland is contemplating a compromise whereby Lord Fraser may be permitted to view the recordings in private. That may be the least that is required to restore public faith in BBC Scotland and to protect the reputation of the talented woman from Newsnight.

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