SHOUTING and pointing, demands for apologies, bullying of the weakest, and increasingly hysterical cries of shame, shame, shame. Who needs The Jeremy Kyle Show when you have the STV Leaders’ Debate?

Tuesday night’s encounter was not an exact replacement for Kyle’s late and unlamented three ring circus. No-one, as far as I recall, demanded a lie detector test, but had the programme run on past the hour there is no telling where it would have ended up. A brawl in the car park at Pacific Quay perhaps?

Still, the debate was well worth having, if only to produce a sight so rare it is up there with baby pandas and Richard Leonard having a good day on the campaign trail. To wit: Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, being held to account and feeling the heat.

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Earlier that day, the results of the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey had been published, and they did not make welcome reading for Scotland’s pupils. Scotland’s educational performance, on which the country has always prided itself – rightly or wrongly – was revealed to be a dangerously leaning tower. Reading levels were up, but performances in maths and science were falling and at record lows. Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, described Scotland’s overall performance as “stagnating in mediocrity”.

As well as being taken to task on education, the subject on which she has asked to be judged first and foremost, the First Minister was asked about the state of Scotland’s hospitals.

This was not the first time she had been tackled on the subject on television. There was Andrew Neil’s now famous question to her on November 25 in his BBC1 show.

After stating that only two of eight waiting time targets had been hit, Neil went on: “Children are dying in a new Glasgow hospital because the water is contaminated, perhaps by pigeon droppings. A new multi-million pound Edinburgh hospital, should have opened in 2012, is still unfit to open. You can’t even get the ventilation system to work. You’ve got the worst drug addiction problem in Europe but you cut drug treatment budgets by £15 million. You clung on to your last health minister, you are under pressure to sack her successor. You’ve called for legislation to protect the NHS from Donald Trump. Maybe the NHS needs legislation to protect it from Nicola Sturgeon?”

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It was a blistering inquiry. To be fair to Ms Sturgeon, she had responses for both Neil last week and her interrogators on Tuesday. To Neil, she pointed out, among other things, the £850 million being put into meeting waiting time targets, the public inquiry into the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh, and the “extremely high” public satisfaction ratings for the NHS in Scotland. In the STV debate she highlighted the improvement in reading.

The question here is not how she performed in both instances. She is an impressive politician, on the national and international stage. But why does it take a General Election for her to be challenged so robustly? Why are there not more such encounters?

For all Andrew Neil’s talents, he did not fall out of a magic interviewer tree. He is smart, fast, has a certain dogged style and command of facts and puts them to good use. Similarly, there was nothing radically different about the STV debate, other than the participants were allowed to cross examine each other, an innovation all other televised debates should adopt.

There is no doubt that the First Minister regularly puts her record forward for scrutiny. She does it every week at FMQs for starters. It should be noted, too, that like the other party leaders, but not Boris Johnson, she went into the Neil den. He has been frit; she was not. Over the past few weeks she has appeared in countless debates and phone-ins.

Yet as far as television grillings go, it is only in the Neil interview and the STV debate that she has been robustly held to account.

Granted, the notion that Scotland’s First Minister is somehow given an easy ride will be laughable to some. Of the near dozen national daily newspapers in Scotland only one, our sister paper The National, openly backs independence and, by implication, the main party supporting it.

Of the rest, as any visit to the newsagents will show, no-one would suspect them of being cheerleaders for the FM, and some are ferocious in their criticism.

As for the BBC in Scotland, it comes under frequent attack for alleged bias, a charge it denies.

This is not solely about the media, however. It is about a political culture that has become too settled and not questioning enough.

In part the failure to hold the FM and her Ministers to account can be put down to the calibre of opposition politicians. A fair number, not all, are simply not good enough. Nor is the Scottish Parliament always sitting when problems arise.

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I do not believe that the First Minister is given an easier time of it because she is a woman. If anything, the opposite is true.

The trouble goes wider than any branch of the media, or individual politician. A few months ago there was a dust up on Twitter between Muriel Gray and Val McDermid. The row flared over a tweet by the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg and whether or not it showed bias against the FM. Ms McDermid said: “I used to respect you @bbclaurak. Insulting a politician for doing their job, however, reduces that respect to shreds.”

To which Ms Gray replied: “Mocking politicians of all and every party instead of beatifying them used to be the norm in Scotland. We were rather good at it. The bedrock of Scots humour. Not sure I even recognise this ‘worship the great leader or else’ thing. It’s so not ...Scottish.” And so it went on.

Did Gray have a point? Is there enough distance in Scotland between the government and the governed, or after so long with one party in power has the situation become cosier than is good for us?

Every government makes mistakes. All governments can do better. There have to be ways of pointing that out that don’t meet with accusations of bias or unfairness. Criticising a Scottish Government – of whatever stripe – is not criticising Scotland. We forget that at our peril.