AT the end of my interview with Stuart Cosgrove yesterday, he said this: “I’ll probably get f****** sacked from Off The Ball now.” The prospect of him being removed from the longest-running football show on UK radio for some reasonably-expressed criticism about BBC Scotland is a remote one. And there was a twinkle in his voice as he expressed his fear.

And besides; the longevity of Off The Ball is because it doesn’t treat its core audience with the condescension and contempt it gets from Scotland’s state political and media Duma.

In Scotland, the nation’s privileged and state-funded broadcaster gets a bit prickly when anyone seeks to criticise it. In 2022, I was effectively cancelled from a forthcoming appearance on Seven Days for having offered some mild criticism of the BBC’s absurdly over-the-top coverage of the late Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. “My colleagues can’t be expected to overlook your criticism of them,” I was told.

Prior to this, the weekly media show which Mr Cosgrove presented with Eamon O’Neill was abruptly axed by bosses at Pacific Quay, despite it being universally acclaimed for its authoritative and grown-up approach to analysing the previous week’s major news stories.

The show aired each Thursday around lunchtime and was everything that you’d expect from Scotland’s national broadcaster: it sought to explain the reasons why various media outlets covered these stories in the way they did; it provided intense and detailed analysis of ongoing international stories and it didn’t spare the print and broadcast media trenchant criticism if they felt it necessary. This occasionally included BBC Scotland.

I’ve since been told by a well-placed source from within Pacific Quay that one or two senior executives were ‘furious’ at such criticism and had been targeting this show for a while. It was never adequately replaced and now exists as a weekly podcast (with guests) which easily outstrips any of what passes for BBC Scotland’s political coverage.

The Herald: Fiona Stalker and Martin Geissler Fiona Stalker and Martin Geissler (Image: free)

My interview with Mr Cosgrove occurred in the same week that BBC Scotland announced it was axing the three programmes which were expected to form the political and cultural backbone of the new Scotland channel when it was launched five years ago. Very few people could have been surprised when time was finally called on The Nine, Seven Days and The Edit. The viewing figures alone were so low that they ought to have considered inviting in a studio as a means of significantly increasing them. Pleasingly, the much higher quality Debate Night has survived and thrived.

It’s not that the presenters lacked talent; just that the format seemed to reflect a troubling air of condescension by the supercilious broadcast media elites about the attention span of the punters. “Let’s break the big complicated stories into bite-sized portions and make like the cast of Friends in Central Perk.”

BBC Scotland’s head of news and current affairs was brought in to paint some lipstick on the situation. In any other business he’d be getting his jotters for such prolonged and manifest failure on his watch. BBC Scotland though, is a swollen and unaccountable organisation where the senior executives swan through its massive (and scandalously under-utilised) aircraft hangar headquarters knowing they never have to face any consequences.

Such is the gilded life of a senior public servant in Scotland. And as Mr Cosgrove pointed out in our interview, the timing of The Nine did it few favours within the dynamics of mid-late evening viewing habits. He also expressed some mild astonishment that no cuts to staffing levels accompanied the announcement of the demise of these programmes. He wasn’t channelling disdain for people’s livelihoods; merely that old patterns of employment which have been ditched in other media organisations not supported by the tax-payer still reign in this bloated corporation.

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This effectively acted as a bar to innovation, risk and genuine creativity. He used the publisher/broadcaster model which was key to Channel Four’s success and which drives Netflix and the other streaming platforms. Even the Scottish Government’s recently-published paper on broadcasting in an independent Scotland was glazed with caution. There was no consideration of radically altering the existing model.

In Ireland, the state broadcaster, RTE has both a licence fee and can sell commercials. In Denmark there isn’t the equivalent of a Danish Six but rather a suite of five-minute regional bulletins that go out every hour on the hour.

It speaks of a reluctance to change because, well … you don’t need to change if your status, funding and employment packages are guaranteed for life. As Cosgrove said: “At the BBC there’s always someone in the room saying “you can’t really do that because of ‘x’ or ‘y’. So, why not just remove ‘x’ and ‘y’?”

If we’re talking about a new broadcasting model for a new Scotland then perhaps we should be talking about a radical approach to commissioning. This would proceed with a significantly stripped-back core staff for sport and news with everything else being outsourced. It would encourage talent-spotters to comb Scotland in its entirety looking for fresh talent whose ideas are not then repackaged and offered in a begging bowl at a monthly meeting in London.

BBC Scotland uses millions in public money to gain a monopoly in football coverage by edging out all competition. It wouldn’t matter so much if it was any good. But Radio Clyde and the other regional independents are far better with a fraction of the budget. All of its football coverage could be outsourced or co-produced.

The Herald: The set of the ill-fated The NineThe set of the ill-fated The Nine (Image: free)

The possibilities of co-productions with independent film-makers funded by all of the regions, is evident in the current three-part series, Pitch Invasion: How the Scottish and Irish Changed Football. This was made by a small Northern Ireland television production company called DoubleBand who received core funding from BBC Northern Ireland, BBC Scotland and at least one other independent funding stream. This model could underpin BBC Scotland’s entire drama and documentary output.

The brave face which BBC Scotland contrived to produce as it zeroed its three main news and culture programmes will include “a new topical current affairs series which will be published as a podcast on BBC Sounds”. Really? Is that it? How many months of bashing heads together and return tickets to London did it take to produce that one? The whole world is doing podcasts and will always do them better than BBC Scotland.

This has echoes of the corporation using its state-funded muscle to hire print journalists to produce regional blogs. This is low-grade, anodyne, bloodless journalism which has undercut Scotland’s one-vibrant local newspaper sector. Nothing in BBC Scotland’s new plans suggests it won’t be anodyne and bloodless either.