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In the line of fire: Sarah Smith on stepping into the hot seat

Interview: Sarah Smith on returning home to host the high-profile show that will replace Newsnight Scotland

The taxi-driver bound for BBC Scotland's place at Pacific Quay in Glasgow, asked for his thoughts on the independence referendum, glowers in his

rear-view mirror and talks about how he hates 'all those politicians calling each other names'. The debate, he says, is really turning him off.

I glance at the main headline on the front page of The Herald. "Debate on independence now 'steeped in negativity'," it says, authoritatively.

Shortly afterwards, in a small meeting-room in the BBC, I ask Sarah Smith for her thoughts on the campaign. Has she has seen the headline? (She hasn't).

"All election campaigns have some negativity in them, don't they?" she reasons. "I think there's another side to that, though, which is the interest that people are showing in it.

"I find, just going around, talking to people socially, travelling on public transport, that people are interested in the referendum in a way they haven't been by UK politics in a very long time. That's a good and positive thing, that people are taking such an interest.

"Yes, there is some negativity around, but it's probably inevitable, isn't it? Especially when the stakes are so high. It's an irrevocable decision: this isn't something you can change in five years' time if you don't like what you've got."

She's right, of course. Sometimes it helps to see these things from someone else's point of view.

This was the day in which Smith was introduced to the Scottish media as the presenter of a new current affairs series, Scotland 2014, which starts on Tuesday, and will run four nights a week, between May and October. She will host on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with Jonathan Sutherland taking over on Thursdays.

The Beeb says the show, which will replace Newsnight Scotland, will break stories and "take a fresh look at the big issues." The offer to become its presenter was one that Smith, who is 42, says she found impossible to resist.

Her decision to leave Channel 4 News brought to an end a successful, 15-year-long association with a programme on which she had been a presenter, Washington-based US correspondent, and latterly business correspondent. It also brings her back to BBC Scotland, where she was, at the outset of her career, a graduate production trainee. The Beeb is excited to have lured her back. Andrew Neil, host of This Week, has referred to her as the "new BBC super-signing".

What was it about this job that made her become the latest departure (following on from culture editor Matthew Cain and reporter Katie Razzall) from C4 News?

"Mostly the referendum," she says, "and a desire to cover it in a closer way than you can either from London or for a network programme. So the opportunity to be here all the time, to be immersed in the debate, to be dealing with it on a day-to-day basis ...it would just have been too frustrating to be sitting in London.

"I started on the process of trying to argue Scottish stories onto the programme (Channel 4 News), sometimes with success, usually not. You feel at one step removed from what's really, genuinely going on if you're just reading the online coverage. It's not the same as being here and being a part of it.

"I think I would have been tempted back by pretty much anything, but a new show is always an exciting thing to be involved in," she adds. "I've been lucky enough to do it twice before: I was on 5 News when it first started, and then on More 4 News as well.

"So that's always a really exciting project. I mean, the opportunity to host your own show is not something you should ever turn down lightly, wherever or whenever it is. But the combination of those factors of a really exciting broadcast project, at a really exciting time, is a no-brainer."

Scotland 2014 will be "quite flexible" in its format but will "probably cover two or three things a night.

"We want to do some of our own stories and investigations on things that aren't necessarily referendum-related.

"We will inevitably do a fair amount of politics, because that's the big story of the moment; we'll try to find interesting ways of doing that, whether it's talking to young people who will be voting for the first time, and that some of that kind of thing.

"It's not like an election campaign any of us have ever covered before. The coverage has got to reflect that, and do something different that is engaging, and it's talking to voters and opinion-formers as well as politicians.

"But we're also here to hold politicians to account, and to hopefully get a little bit deeper into some of the detail of the debate with them.

"We also hope to be talking about some interesting cultural/arts things that don't necessarily all have to be through a prism of whether you're voting yes or no, but are about Scotland, what's going on at the moment.

"This is throwing up lots of really interesting issues that go beyond yes and no, don't they? About what Scotland is, what it is to be Scottish, Scotland's place in the rest of the world; expats' view of their country; there are all kinds of things going on, which hopefully we will be able to reflect in a broad way that makes it digestible.

"We're hoping it will be fun, have a cheeky, mischievous attitude to it, and just be bright and engaged, and reflect what people are talking about."

That's quite a broad palette, we observe. "Yes," she laughs. "We'll never squeeze it into half-an-hour every night."

In an ideal world, the perfect running-order "probably has us breaking some news of our own, and holding whomever was responsible for that to account; a big-name political interview that we try to get something a bit different out of; and, you know, a Scottish Hollywood star who has just dropped by to give us their thoughts."

At the time of the interview, there were

13 days to go before Scotland 2014 begins. How is it going? It's getting there, she responds.

The previous Sunday had been the first time the team had been in its studio with all the graphics and lighting. Of the set-up, Smith observes: "It's bright and colourful, and is supposed to signal that this is a new way of looking at things.

"We've had endless conversations about what we're trying to achieve in theoretical terms, and now we have to sit down and write some running-orders for the first couple of weeks. I'm sure they won't be what goes on air, but you should at least start with a wish-list of who we want to speak to, and what stories we want to do. That is concentrating minds a great deal."

You can see why the Beeb has made a fuss over Smith's arrival. She is hugely experienced, having covered everything from the Haiti earthquake to the Lockerbie trial. She was particularly good as C4 News' Washington correspondent, where her many assignments included Barack Obama's riveting election campaign in 2008.

Her ex-C4 colleague, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, speaks highly of her. "I've known Sarah since I was at school and she was a student debater," he says in an email. "We were at BBC Youth Programmes and then Newsnight around the same time and came to C4 News in the same cohort too. It is easy to spot as a viewer that Sarah is bright, thoughtful and rigorous. Privately she can be raucous, argumentative and very good fun. Now with her own show I hope viewers will get to see all that - and how funny and sensitive she is too."

Born in Edinburgh, and a graduate of Glasgow University (MA, 1989), Smith began her career at BBC Scotland in Queen Margaret Drive and in Nothern Ireland. She was a researcher and producer at the corporation on programmes such as Newsnight and Public Eye; by 1997 she was an on-screen reporter on 5 News (its then editor described her as "extremely lively with a first-class brain"); in 1998 she was unveiled as C4 News' first Scottish correspondent, where she covered the inaugural elections to the new Parliament, and the early years of Holyrood. In 2005 she was a presenter on More 4 News at its launch.

On YouTube you can find a short piece to camera she did in 2012, on her very first job -delivering evening newspapers at the age of 12. Later, she became "a pretty terrible waitress who dropped quite a lot of dinners on quite a lot of diners." Moved behind the bar, she became a barmaid - "one of the best jobs I've ever had", even if this was the 1980s, when bar staff were in the habit of tossing bottles into the air in the manner of Tom Cruise in Cocktail.

Smith and her husband, Californian-born Simon Conway, have been married since September 2007 (the ceremony took place on Iona, where her father, John, is buried). Conway is an award-winning novelist who has worked for the Halo Trust, clearing land-mines in countries such as Cambodia and Sri Lanka, and who, later, successfully campaigned for an international treaty to ban cluster bombs.

In a 2012 interview Conway said: "She interviewed me in 2006 (when he was co-chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition)and I had met her a couple of times before, just to say hello. She had worked with my sister on Channel 4. I met her and we kind of hit it off pretty quick and got married in 2007."

The day after the interview with Sarah, she appears on Andrew Neil's late-night show, with an astute review of the political week from Scotland. At one point, with the Edinburgh skyline as her backdrop, she said: "It's worth remembering it was 15 years ago this week the Scottish Parliament first opened, and it was 20 years ago this week that my father, the Labour leader John Smith, died.

"So people have been asking me all week, what would he have made of the referendum debate? The truth is, I don't know the answer to that any better than anybody else; but I do know that he was a man who passionately loved Scotland, and he passionately loved politics. So, whatever else, he'd certainly be enjoying every minute of it."

The fact that she is Smith's daughter seemed to antagonise certain 'cybernats' when her new job was announced in early February. They queried her impartiality, and there were also, here and there, sniping references to her being another London-based export who had been despatched to Scotland (ignoring the fact that she is Scottish). Is her skin thick enough to ensure that such comments merely bounce off her?

"So far, yes. We'll see what happens once we go on air, because there's bound to be a whole lot more of it, and we'll probably be accused of equal and opposite things at the same time. As long as there's as many people saying you're biased one way as saying you're biased the other, then you're doing the right thing, and that's been true of all kinds of controversies.

"It's always the case covering Northern Ireland. It's always the case anyone does anything about the Middle East. As long as you've got complaints coming in from both sides, then you've probably hit it down the middle.

"It's difficult," she says, "to be a woman in broadcasting and not already have attracted a degree of personal remarks, so, yes, you thicken your skin a bit. It's probably naive to say you won't care. We'll see."

Another former C4 News colleague, Cathy Newman, has made the case for TV presenters such as Kirsty Wark, Julie Etchingham and Kay Burley to moderate debates between the party leaders at next year's general election. Can female interviewers (as Burley herself has suggested) get more out of male politicians than male interviewers?

"Sometimes," says Smith. "It's difficult to generalise, because women are different. There are some men whose broadcasting is more about them than the questions they're asking. There are fewer women who are like that, so in that regard, yes ... You can take one ego off the stage sometimes and then get more out of the people who are there. So, yes, I think that would be interesting.

"Scottish politics is fascinating in terms of women in public life. When we've been putting together our wish-lists of who we want to speak to, usually you'd go through a project like that and then go, oh, Christ, but there aren't any women on that list. Then you'd redo it, and try to get some women in.

"You don't have to here. I mean, whatever it is that Scotland has done, there does appear to have been most of the glass ceilings cracked by female politicians."

She commutes from Edinburgh, but enjoys being back in Glasgow, which she describes as "a fascinating place." The most fun she has had in ages was on the elevated walkway that leads to the Hydro venue, when she came across hordes of teenage Miley Cyrus fans, in eyeball-searing dayglo colours: "Glasgow in its finery is quite a sight."

What are her own enthusiasms? Does she have time for any?

"I like getting out and about. That's going to be a great bonus, being back in Scotland - a bit of hillwalking and Munro-climbing.

"We would spend every second weekend - more, if we could manage - driving out of London to go and stay with people somewhere. We won't have to do that any more. I'm hoping we will be entertaining a fair amount, which we did a lot of in London, but it's much easier, there's a lot more space in Edinburgh to do that, so we won't be squeezing three people around a tiny table any more.

"That's what I'm really looking forward to: a fun and varied social life, catching up with lots of people, making new friends."

She brings up her mobile phone, and shows me a photograph. "There you go," she says. "Sarah's enthusiasms in one. A sunny day on Harris. Husband and dog."

It's a really nice picture, we say. "It doesn't get much better than that, does it, when you get a day like that on the Western Isles?"

Scotland 2014 starts on BBC Two Scotland on Tuesday, at 10.30pm.

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