Hugh Reilly: Radio phone-ins assist democracy

Footballer turned radio man Derek Johnstone sent the author a T-shirt. Picture: SNS
Footballer turned radio man Derek Johnstone sent the author a T-shirt. Picture: SNS
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ALEX SALMOND’S input to a broadcast about councils pursuing poll tax defaulters brought airwave memories flooding back for Hugh Reilly.

It makes me cross when I hear that “voting won’t change anything – it never has”, the depressing chorus of indolent citizenry. These anti-democracy dolts don’t seem to be aware that Scotland has been transformed by dint of the majority performing their civic responsibility.

In the unlikely event that I should choose to have my expansive chest hair transplanted on to my bald pate, my Brillo-pad-like mane would not reek of tobacco on a return from the local pub, thanks to the no-smoking legislation. I’m grateful that elected representatives ensured that I no longer need pay a sick-tax to access pills that control my chronic stomach problem. With the Zimmer frames of the grey army parked on its lawn, it was no surprise that Holyrood legislated for free personal care for the elderly.

History shows that the goal of revolutionising society can be achieved by a variety of methods. While admitting that Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot had their supporters, I tend to side with those who prefer the ballot box to the bullet.

For this pacifistic reason, I was greatly encouraged that 97 per cent of eligible adults – 4,285,323 – registered to vote in the recent referendum, the largest electorate the country has ever known.

I dreamed a dream that, one day, Scotland’s people would embrace democracy in such numbers. It should have been a source of much joy and pride that Scots stampeded to sign up. Sadly, Cosla, the umbrella group for the nation’s 32 councils, perceived it to be a heaven-sent opportunity to rain on the parade. Shockingly, Les local authority Miserables declared they would use the engorged electoral roll to pursue poll tax dodgers. Jim Gifford, councillor and leader of Aberdeenshire Council, reprised the role of a vengeful Javert hunting down fugitive Valjeans hiding in Rosehearty, Fettercairn and all pairts in between.

When Radio Scotland’s Kaye Adams gave Mr Gifford the nitrous oxide of publicity, I laughed aloud when Alex Salmond called to confront the councillor with cold facts.

The First Minister’s intervention brought back memories of my experiences of Radio Scotland phone-ins. Back in June 2004, I heard that my headteacher, Rod O’Donnell, would be appearing on Radio Scotland’s Lesley Riddoch lunchtime show to extol his streaming policy at St Paul’s (streaming – the herding of children into classes based on alleged level of ability – had been ditched in the mid-Sixties). One prominent right-wing commentator had demanded Mr O’Donnell be knighted in the next honours list. After a few minutes of listening to my headmaster’s spin, it was clear there would be no balance; streaming was working perfectly. I impetuously decided to contribute to the conversation.

“Rod,” said Lesley, “I have someone on the line wishing to put some points to you. It’s Hugh Reilly, a teacher at your school.”

“Hi Rod,” I began, my heart thumping with anxiety. “One of the reasons streaming was abandoned was because bottom classes became dumping grounds for kids with bad behaviour, usually boys. In St Paul’s, there are twice as many boys as girls in the bottom group. This class is responsible for 40 per cent of discipline referrals for that year group. Of the 60 kids who had been identified as top performers, ten have since been transferred to lower classes, thus there is a clear problem in the process used to identify gifted pupils.”

Miss Riddoch purred: “Hmmm. Twice as many boys in the lowest class, a class that accounts for a hugely disproportionate number of discipline issues?”

“I didn’t know that,” replied a flummoxed O’Donnell. Wrong answer! Riddoch jumped on this reply.

“You’re the headteacher – shouldn’t you know that?” she said.

Streaming, a greater audience now knew, was not without its drawbacks.

In the aftermath of this Radio Ga-Ga Armageddon, rather than probe the validity of my claim that the school was failing students, the priority for Glasgow council’s education department was to investigate if I’d used a school telephone.

I have to say that particular phone-in gave me a buzz and somewhat helped erase the memory of calling Radio Clyde on the subject of Oleg Kuznetsov, a Rangers player who’d refused to play a reserve match. When phoning a radio station, the caller is asked a few brief questions regarding content. I spoke fluently off-air to the production assistant, but when it was my turn to blab live, I hit the stutter button. “K-K-K-Kuznetsov is a paid employee and should do his job,” I stammered, subliminally implanting the idea that the Russian with three newly acquired syllables to his surname was a member of an American white supremacist group (he wasn’t/isn’t).

Derek Johnstone, the show’s host, sent me a T-shirt: not so much a prize, more of a sympathy gift.

Years ago, I was invited by Gary Roberston to avail myself of BBC hospitality and visit his studio to share the details of my vasectomy operation with the wider Scottish public. Successfully neutered some six years earlier at the earnest behest of the mother of my four children, I spoke squeamishly of being spayed by a Dr Mengele lookalike assisted by two nurses wearing medical yashmaks (these items are worn not, as one might expect, on account of hygiene, but to prevent the soon-to-be-gelded male catching sight of their broad smiles).

A Canadian vasectomy surgeon called to say he’d invented a new way of doing things that didn’t involve cauterising tubes. This grabbed my attention as I still suffered horrific flashbacks of eerie wisps of smoke arising from my naked nether regions. The pioneering method was placing a paperclip-type device to the tube; this would be less painful and more easily reversible.

Where had he been when I needed him most?

Although often derided by the chattering classes, I think a phone-in is a wonderful way to engage the public in important matters. Unlike careerist politicians, the hoi polloi don’t dodge difficult questions or spout politically correct answers. I regularly disagree with what’s being said, but at least there is genuine debate instead of parliament’s ya-boo, Punch and Judy show.

It’s a tough call whether to phone a radio station or not; for one thing, you bravely have to identify yourself. I sincerely pity cowardly keyboard inadequates who hide online behind invented silly names in order to hurl abuse at others – it appears the notion of participating in a discussion for grown-ups frightens these saddos.

For me, it would be marvellous if fewer people had hang-ups about phone-ins.