Aloowhythaaaurrgh”. That is as close as I can get to the noise Sarah Smith makes when I ask what it’s been like moving back to Scotland in recent weeks. The question was about what it’s been like in a personal capacity, she’s got a much neater – and easier to spell – soundbite about how it feels professionally, which we’ll get to. Personally, I’d say that the sound she made was of ambivalence. And who could blame her?
Coming home is never straightforward. And Smith really has come home – with her husband, Simon – moving in with her mother, Elizabeth (Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill, if we’re being formal) to her childhood home in Morningside as she prepares for the launch of Scotland 2014, BBC Scotland’s new current affairs programme which Smith will present.
“I must be the only person in history who’s moved from London to have a vastly more expensive and much more time consuming commute,” she says wryly, in that instantly recognisable, gravelly voice. “It used to cost me £1.30 to get the bus and about 35 minutes to get across London, now it takes almost two hours if you do it by public transport and costs 20 quid.”
Smith is sitting in a glass box office in the BBC’s Clydeside headquarters, Pacific Quay. Legs folded, iPhone in her hand, she looks younger than I expect and buzzes with a kind of nervous energy. She’s a bit of a fidget – she twiddles with the long chain round her neck and when she laughs it’s a loud, hearty sound. It’s interesting because onscreen – she’s been part of the Channel 4 News team for 15 years – she barely moves, there’s no twiddling, and given her briefs, she’s been Scotland correspondent, Washington correspondent, More4 anchor as well as business correspondent, not a lot of laughing.
It’s an auspicious week in which to meet Smith, 45, – the papers have been full of tributes to her late father, John – many heartfelt, some opportunistic – marking the 20th anniversary of the Labour leader’s death. “Coincidence, but… yeah,” Smith says of the timing of our meeting, running out of words and ending with a shrug. She pauses and I am suddenly reminded that what we’re referring to is the death of her father. It might have been 20 years ago that John Smith died after suffering two massive heart attacks, but he was horribly young at just 55 and, no matter what age he was or what role he had occupied in public life, he was still Smith’s dad. As newspapers have been full of not only kind words, but also wonderings of what might have been, I wonder how it feels for Smith?
John Smith Centre for Public Service at Glasgow University
“Strangely not very different because of course things have come up every so often,” she says. “My mum made use of the anniversary to announce the John Smith Centre for Public Service at Glasgow University, which she’s very excited about, and I think that’s the right thing to do – accept that there’s going to be a degree of interest so what can you do to further a cause that you’re interested in.”
The creation of the centre, which will “promote public service as a noble vocation”, meant that both Smith’s mother and her younger sister, Catherine, were busy doing publicity on the anniversary itself. “Catherine was running in and out of here doing Good Morning Scotland. I was media advisor telling them how to do make-up for television and how to keep their answers short enough and when I said short enough, ‘I mean 20 seconds not 50 seconds, they won’t put 50 seconds on the TV. Get it down’. That kept us busy.” She smiles. The day before was the only day that the family could all get together. “We all had lunch with my dad’s sister, Annie, who lives in Fife. She is an artist. We went round the art gallery in Edinburgh and had lunch so that was our family thing. I guess it’s probably the best way to handle it, keeping busy, doing the John Smith Centre, yeah… professionalised somehow.”
I can’t think of another politician whose death has prompted so much speculation about what might have been as Smith. The what ifs seem just as urgent now, two decades after his death, as they were in the immediate aftermath – where would we be had John Smith become prime minister at the 1997 election as so many expected him to? “I don’t think that there’s any way that you can know,” Smith says simply. But isn’t she interested that it still exercises people so – what about him prompts such soul searching? “It is something that we’ve talked about as a family both in terms of what you say if that question comes up, but even just to satisfy our own curiosity. But I think the answer that we keep on coming back to is how could you possibly know?”
When it was announced in the spring that Smith was to front Scotland 2014, the replacement for Newsnight Scotland, which will be broadcast at 10:30pm Monday to Thursday, Smith was quoted as saying that it was simply too good an opportunity to pass up. It’s all very well being excited about an idea from 400 miles away, and possibly quite different now that the first broadcast is within touching distance.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” she says and lets out a big laugh. “And it feels more real. We’ve been having lots of theoretical discussions about what we could do with this programme and how we’re going to transform broadcasting. Now we actually have to sit and write out a running order – what stories are we going to do and who are we going to interview and which bit of the studio are we going to sit them in. It’s the nitty gritty which makes it much more authentic and that makes it both more exciting because you can see the show starting to take shape and literally see the studio taking shape because we’ve been playing around with it – we’ve been moving the furniture and changing the graphics – but also,” her voice lowers to a whisper, “suddenly it’s really quite real.”
It’s not the first time Smith has launched a news programme – she was the anchor for the inaugural news programme on More4 and she was working at Channel 5 when 5 News launched. “That was a long time ago and a different role,” she says. “I was a brand new reporter rather than the presenter, but yes I’ve been through this bit before and yet somehow I can remember absolutely nothing about either process.” She laughs.
Scotland 2014 is a current affairs programme, not a referendum discussion programme but, of course, the 18 September vote will feature heavily on the new show. In fact, as soon as Smith’s name was announced as anchor, howls of bias could be heard on social media (“inevitable”, is her measured response). Smith is palpably enthusiastic for the debate that’s taking place at the moment and, having just moved up from London, she has a real sense of the issues as they are perceived on both sides of the Border. “I think the problem is until recently there hadn’t been much of a down south perspective,” she says. “Whereas you can’t escape it here – it’s what everyone is talking about, thinking about, even when you’re just having social conversations with people it feeds through all of the time in a way that I don’t think anybody who isn’t in Scotland will ever get a grasp of just how encompassing it is as an issue.
“It’s an amazing debate because it’s completely different to any other election I’ve ever been part of before and that’s because it’s irrevocable. There is not another referendum along in five years time if you don’t like what you got. It’s huge in that respect. And what’s exciting about it is that people are passionately engaged with that – whether they are fervently for it, deeply confused, frustrated by the tone of how some of the debate is being conducted or loving every single second of it. There is a level of engagement I haven’t seen in a British general election for a long time. It’s on people’s consciousness, they’re looking for information, they’re discussing it – it’s quite, I don’t want to sound soppy, but it revives your faith in democracy when you actually see it working like this.”
It’s a sprint to keep up with Smith. She talks fast, says a lot, moves on quickly. It’s the skill of the broadcast journalist – remember 20 seconds, not 50. But there’s also her genuine excitement about the discussion that’s taking place in Scotland at the moment. Her engagement is playing out at town hall meetings and through chairing events, but also around her kitchen table with her English husband who offers yet another point of view. “I overhear things that people say, I see and hear the way that people are engaged in discussion and the way they get p***ed off with too much coverage – there’s something tangible about being here. And something more Scottish. It’s taken me about two weeks to get really frustrated about news programme running orders that hadn’t noticed that everything was about England and Wales and there was nothing about Scotland at all. You just don’t notice that stuff in the same way when you live there. In less than a fortnight I’ve become more prickly and a wee bit chippy about it and then you realise why news programmes get so many complaints from Scotland. They’re quite right.”
The stooshie that kicked off on social media when Smith’s new role was announced went the way of most Twitter storms – it didn’t last long. Smith, for her part, speaks a good game about social media and enjoys the way in which it allows greater engagement between the media and its audience. But since there’s been plenty of coverage of the nastier side of social media, particularly for women, I wonder about her sense of its pitfalls?
“You can’t allow it to drive you away from engaging because it would be quite easy to say I’m just not going to look at any of that. And there will probably be some nasty, personal stuff because there always is on Twitter – women on television attract a huge amount of that. The easy thing is to just not go there and say what I can’t see can’t hurt me but it’s really important to engage with people on Twitter, partly just to keep up with the news but also to be able to engage with the audience, it’s an amazing thing to be able to talk to the audience like that. I remember when you used to come in the following day and you’d have a printed out list of people who’d left messages on the telephone answering machine on the central BBC number. That people can message you on air is a significant step up. You can use it to shape the programme to what the audience actually wants. But it means you’ve got to dive in there. I hope it will be alright.”
Smith reckons being prepared for it probably helps; the people she feels sorry for are the ones who never meant to put their heads above the parapet and then get viciously attacked for their trouble. And, of course, she acknowledges that they’re often women.
“There is a lot of misogyny on social media – is that something that’s doing the rounds because of social media or does social media allow people who thought and said those things to themselves to broadcast them more publicly? Have we discovered that we live in a much more misogynistic culture than we realised? Or is there something about this discourse that is fuelling it? I don’t know. How will we ever know – it’s chicken and egg. But there is a really very unpleasant tone to it. It’s frightening.”
As for the tone of the indyref debate, Smith is unperturbed. “It’s true and there are elements of this which can get nasty and bitter and negative although there is an element of that in all election campaigns inevitably,” she says. “That we’re talking about reconciliation after a really civilised, democratic process of which everyone will recognise the result and has agreed to work together reasonably whatever the result is not usually how countries end up leaving a union like this. This is a model of how to do it right.” She pauses. “Well, we’ll see.” She laughs heartily. “Well let’s just hope no shots are fired.”
Smith’s sense that the next four months will be historic, is clear. She is relishing the prospect even if some of the practical details are still to be ironed out, such as which city the couple will live in when they move out of Morningside (“Chances are we’ll probably stay in Edinburgh, but if I find it all a bit exhausting maybe I’ll try to persuade Simon that he wants to come and live in Glasgow.”) and how she’s going to adjust to presenting a show at 10:30pm four nights a week (“I’m usually asleep by half past ten at night so I’m going to have to shift my whole body clock as though I’ve got jetlag.”) There is a sense, she says, that until the programme begins she’s in a hiatus when nothing is quite real. But it soon will be. “We’re going to start the week before, piloting in real time.” She flicks through some photographs of her in the mocked up studio – it looks good and she’s clearly excited. Was there ever any pause for thought at the prospect of moving back? “Just a little bit I think partly because I knew I was going to go back and stay in my mum’s house. And also BBC Scotland is where I got my first ever job, I was a production trainee here, quite a long time ago,” she whispers. It was in 1989 I say helpfully. She laughs. “How I can still only be 32 is truly remarkable.
“There was a wee bit of, is this a step backwards, but it was a passing thought. The opportunity to launch a new programme is not something to turn down anywhere at any time, to front your own show is not something to ever say no to and to be back here covering the most interesting story that’s ever happened in Scotland in my lifetime is not something that you could say no to either. And if you can get all three in one bundle only an idiot would not come back for it.”
• Scotland 2014 starts on Tuesday at 10:30pm on BBC 2 and is broadcast weeknights, Monday to Thursday before Newsnight.