Night vision: Scotland Tonight celebrates a year on air

Scotland Tonight anchors John Mackay and Rona Dougall
Scotland Tonight anchors John Mackay and Rona Dougall
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SCOTLAND Tonight, STV’s nightly current affairs show, is one year old today. Alice Wyllie meets its two presenters and finds they have plenty to celebrate after being lauded by viewers and critics from the start.

IT’S ONLY been on our TV screens for a year, but in the 12 months since the very first Scotland Tonight went live on 24 October 2011 it’s begun to feel like a bit of an institution. The intention from the start, says presenter John MacKay , was never to compete with the same-but-different Newsnight Scotland, but rather to “complement” it.

However, viewing figures suggest that if it were a competition, Scotland Tonight would be winning – it regularly pulls in twice the number of viewers as its BBC counterpart – and MacKay and his fellow presenter Rona Dougall are rightly proud of the programme’s achievements.

“It’s been a great year for us,” says MacKay , who takes the helm on Monday and Tuesday nights, with Dougall hosting on Wednesdays and Thursdays. “I don’t think we could have predicted how well the programme would be received and that’s been a big thrill.”

We meet in the STV studios on the eve of the first anniversary of the show. MacKay has just come off the air while Dougall has popped in for a chat, taking the opportunity to give her children their first tour of the set at the same time.

They may not
 appear together on screen, but the two presenters banter and tease as if they’ve been sharing a sofa for a decade.

Dougall is “very untidy,” MacKay confides conspiratorially.

She shoots back quickly: “I borrowed a coathanger from him the other day and you’d think I’d stolen his first-born child the way he carried on…”

He adopts an expression of faux outrage: “I have one hanger in the dressing room that says, ‘John’s: please leave.’ She took it.” Their interactions mirror the format of the programme to an extent: serious much of the time, lighter when the mood takes them.

Their very first broadcast, for example, included both an interview with Alex Salmond and a segment on Miss World. In addition to addressing the big news stories of the day, the 30-minute programme, which goes out live at 10:30pm, tackles sports, politics, business, art and entertainment.

Scotland Tonight has been well received by viewers and critics from the beginning. After the first programme, The Scotsman carried a glowing review by Pete Martin of PR firm The Gate Worldwide: “The format is slick and fast-moving with topics and Tweets chosen for resonance with Joe McPublic, as well as relevance to the political classes.”

Viewers are up by 18 per cent since it started, and it now pulls in 100,000 each night. The biggest criticism they’ve had of the show, they say, is that it’s not long enough, which the team takes as a bit of a compliment.

“We’ve got a slightly different style from Newsnight Scotland,” says MacKay . “There was a gap that needed to be filled and we’ve done it, in a more relaxed style.”

That “relaxed style” extends from the set (bright, shiny, informal) to the approach of the presenters, who take a non-confrontational approach to interviewing their guests.

“We allow people to say what they want to say but we don’t let them take us down different tangents,” says MacKay. “The audience knows whether they buy into it or not. Sometimes I think ‘maybe I should have pushed that a bit harder’ but then I see the feedback on the social networks and by and large people have made up their own minds anyway.”

Dougall adds: “I think you get more out of people that way, if you don’t hector them. Unless it’s a politician who just won’t answer the question and you have to go at them a bit. Otherwise I think you learn so much more when they relax and talk more freely, when you don’t harangue them.”

Either that, or they lull their guests into a false sense of security with what I’m assured are disarmingly comfortable sofas. “There was a Bond theme when we started the whole thing,” jokes MacKay. “I had ambitions of buttons in the seat. If guests weren’t that interesting you could just press a button and off they go…”

Another possible factor in the programme’s success is the fact that it doesn’t always lead with the most obvious news story of the day. It’s not predictable and is unafraid to lead with something a little lighter or more quirky than the usual current affairs fare. It’s an approach that keeps its presenters interested too.

“I like it when we lead the programme with something that’s just not on the news agenda at all,” says Dougall. “It’s very varied, really eclectic. I remember switching on one night to watch John and I had expected it to be one thing because it was on the news and he led with something else. It was brilliant, it was really unexpected, it was interesting and that’s what I like about this programme.”

Dougall came to Scotland Tonight after spending 15 years as the Scotland correspondent for Sky News and had no presenting experience, but wowed STV bosses in her screen test, while MacKay, who has been the STV news at six anchor since 1994, is something of a veteran, who has helped to show his colleague the ropes over the last year.

Asked about memorable guests, MacKay goes for the cyclist Graeme Obree while Dougall picks out the former hostage Terry Waite: “He was so interesting and I’d always really wanted to meet him. In the green room afterwards, he was hysterical. We had Nick Nairn on doing a piece about food and I came in as Terry was talking about how to roast vegetables, so I turned my back on Nick Nairn and said to Terry, ‘and how do you do roast potatoes?’ Nick Nairn’s going ‘Hellooo!’”

As the programme has progressed and the team who put it out have become more confident with their format, it has become increasingly flexible. When it started it consisted of three segments, but as time has gone on, some programmes will often feature just two, or even one topic. Dougall and MacKay have also hosted a number of hour-long special programme covering subjects ranging from the crisis at Rangers to the Edinburgh Agreement.

Moving forward, the two presenters see Scotland Tonight as “the home of the referendum”. “It’s great that people have this platform to come on and talk about it,” says Dougall. “Not just politicians, but lots of different groups can come on and talk about it. I think MPs and MSPs like that as well.”

She insists also that the programme is watch by a broad range of people: “I was never recognised when I was on Sky but I go into Tesco now and someone will say, ‘What’s on the programme tonight Rona?’ MPs watch it as well. It’s great that a cross-section of people watch it.”

As we speak, the Scotland Tonight team are in a meeting discussing what’s on the agenda for that night’s programme. We head back down to the studio so that MacKay , who will be presenting, can be filled in on the details and Dougall can round up her kids and head home. After we say our goodbyes I take a quick peek at the set, which does indeed have a touch of the Bond villain’s lair about it, all sparkly reds and slick leather sofas. It looks like an exceedingly glamorous interrogation room, which is sort of what it is, really.