Sands, clans and ill-thought plans

Kirsty Wark's 'Villagate' shows just how close the ties are between Scotland's media and politicians

Tim Luckhust Reports
Monday 10 January 2005 01:00

The revelation that Scotland's First Minister Jack McConnell and his family enjoyed a New Year holiday with Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark at Wark's villa in Majorca provoked concern in Scotland first. The Scottish Daily Mail reported the holiday plans before Christmas. The rest of the Scottish press followed up when the presence of both families on the island was confirmed by pictures of Wark and her husband Alan Clements enjoying a walk with McConnell and his wife Bridget.

Christened "Villagate", the scandal appears almost familiar in a country where close connections between political and media personalities are common. But inside the BBC Wark's conduct is regarded as more than a new example of what one executive calls "small country syndrome". A senior BBC source says: "People are very cross indeed." Another insider compares Wark's friendship with Scotland's Labour leader with the standards set by John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman. "These guys might have a cup of tea with a minister, or a meal at party conference, but they would not invite a serving minister to join them on holiday even if they did happen to enjoy his company. That is out of the question."

A senior BBC editor explains: "I set a rule for myself that I share with all my presenters. I will enjoy a meal or a drink with a politician but only in a restaurant. Inviting people into your home sends the wrong message.

"There is nobody in BBC who does not understand that it is wrong for Kirsty Wark to go on holiday with the First Minister."

That may be true, but Wark has so far escaped any serious consequences. She will not be permitted to interview Jack McConnell on Newsnight and the BBC will be bring in another presenter if he is scheduled to appear, but there has been no threat to her long-term prospects. A source says: "If we were ever in the position of putting together a panel of broadcasters to conduct a debate between Tony Blair and Michael Howard, Kirsty would have to be on it. Britain is not overburdened with top-rank female political interviewers. She is pretty unchallenged."

Wark told The Scotsman: "Our families have been friendly for more than 16 years. At no point has that friendship or any other interfered with my ability to do my job in a fair and objective manner. It is ludicrous to suggest that because you are friendly with someone you automatically share their political views."

The weakness of that position is that this is not the first time Wark's involvement with political decision-making has caused controversy. She was a member of the panel that chose the design for the Scottish Parliament and later a witness at the Fraser inquiry into its delayed completion and £431m price tag. Some critics in London see her conduct as part of a uniquely Scottish pattern. A senior journalist at BBC Television Centre explains: "Scotland is a different country. They do things differently there. There is a tendency to leave it to the Gaelic Mafia."

There is some evidence to support that view. BBC Scotland employs a senior political producer, John Boothman, whose partner Susan Deacon is a Labour MSP. Another political reporter, Elizabeth Quigley, was moved to general news duties last year when she married John Swinney, then the leader of the Scottish National Party. Later Scottish Parliament reporter Kirsten Campbell was also moved to general duties because she is having a relationship with Liberal Democrat Minister Tavish Scott.

A radio news producer, Pat Stevenson, is the wife of Scottish Conservative MEP Struan Stevenson. One insider jokes that the corporation's Glasgow headquarters needs only "the boyfriend of a Green MSP and a Scottish Socialist's significant other to complete the set".

In the senior echelons of BBC News and Current Affairs, BBC Scotland has traditionally been regarded with scepticism bordering on hostility. The Scottish desire to twin political devolution with a broadcast variety by launching a devolved Six O'Clock News was stymied by opponents in London long before Scottish licence payers made it plain that they did not want to see the world covered from Glasgow. Network executives say that BBC Scotland's reputation has always been plagued by excessively close relations between Scotland's political and media establishments. They are content to see the Wark story in that context.

It is a complacent view. A BBC Scotland insider points out that Kirsty Wark has no regular presenting role in Scottish news and current affairs. Her next purely Scottish job is expected to be as presenter of an election night special. No decision has been taken as to whether the present controversy renders her ineligible for that, though press speculation in Scotland centres on the possibility that she may be replaced by Newsnight Scotland star Anne Mackenzie. BBC Scotland insiders admit that they are "fully aware of why Kirsty presenting that coverage could create a problem of perception".

In Scotland there is no general clamour to have Wark punished. BBC Scotland did not mention her holiday with the First Minister until press coverage of the controversy forced it on to their news agenda. The Scottish Daily Mail, which broke the story that toppled McConnell's predecessor Henry McLeish, has focused its reporting on the First Minister's conduct, raising important questions about whether he should have declared Wark's hospitality in the Scottish Parliament's register of members' interests. He has been her guest on more than one occasion. That theme has been taken up by McConnell's political rivals.

But Wark is vulnerable. From her first days in broadcasting she was a protégée of the former BBC Scotland controller John McCormick, who retired last year. Insiders say she no longer enjoys the same degree of protection from his successor. If she were to lose her role in Scottish political coverage, her main employers at Newsnight would have to reconsider their tolerance. The BBC may soon be obliged to acknowledge that conduct it has overlooked for far too long in the tiny pool of Scottish public life is intolerable in the less incestuous environment of UK current affairs broadcasting.

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