Why BBC Scotland should fire its star presenter
Scottish Review, by Kenneth Roy
It is possible that some people reading this have never heard of Tam Cowan. For that happy minority, a brief introduction may be necessary. He is a BBC sports broadcaster, a columnist with the Daily Record, a restaurant critic of sorts, a solo stage entertainer and an after-dinner speaker.
Last week he was suspended from his weekly slot on Radio Scotland for a newspaper column which suggested that Fir Park, the home of Motherwell Football Club, should have been ‘torched’ after a women’s football international. Mr Cowan made plain his disdain for women who play football, describing them as ‘blokes’, and felt that setting fire to the stadium was necessary in order to cleanse it of their presence.
BBC Scotland’s decision, in the immediate wake of the column, to pull him from some Saturday football inanity remains a puzzle. Might it have been an elaborate stunt to boost ratings? Or did the management at Pacific Quay genuinely believe that this was the worst misdemeanour ever committed by Tam Cowan – at last a potentially sackable offence?
It is no good the BBC feigning shock and outrage. It has known for years all about this star turn on its books. He has been constantly tolerated and indulged as the resident ‘man of the people’ and used to pop up in the extensive blogs of Jeff Zycinski, the head of Radio Scotland, who approvingly recorded Mr Cowan’s presence at the same dinner table as Alex Salmond and ‘TV legend Arthur Montford’. Mr Zycinski once confessed in his blog that it might even be necessary to kiss Mr Cowan for his contribution to the ‘award-winning’ station.
Presumably Mr Zycinski had checked out the press cuttings before signing the contract. He would, for example, have read a review in the Scotsman of Mr Cowan’s one-man show, in which the incidence of swearing ‘would make Bernard Manning blush’. According to the reviewer, Mr Cowan invited some members of the audience to join him on the stage. Among the volunteers there was only one woman. He ‘leered over her breasts’ and asked: ‘Is there any possibility of a ride?’ A second woman, who was sitting in the front row, was told by Mr Cowan that she looked ‘like a slag’. No one walked out; on the contrary, the audience appears to have lapped it up.
Mr Cowan is, indeed, so popular with a certain type of Scottish audience that the ‘Ayrshire Festival’, which is supported by South Ayrshire Council, gave him one of its prime slots a couple of Saturdays ago. As a council tax-payer in that neck of the woods (to say nothing of a BBC licence-payer), it seems I am helping in a small way to bankroll this man.
The head of Radio Scotland would also have observed – if he was doing his job properly – the various disobliging notices of Tam Cowan’s after-dinner speeches. As one complained recently: ‘It was a charity fundraiser, probably a 50-50 split male/female and all age groups. In the context of where we were, I found him to be inappropriate and overly blue’. This is one of the more publishable critiques.
Mr Cowan does not deny telling dirty jokes. In his ‘apology’ in the Daily Record for his remarks about women footballers, he calls his style ‘a wee bit old-fashioned’. He likens his patter to ‘a bride on her wedding day – something old, something borrowed and yes, something blue’. The alleged apology includes a denial of ‘the misogynist nonsense’ surrounding him. Mr Cowan informs his readers that he is a married man with a daughter. ‘Do people really think I hate my wife and wean?’
It really isn’t much of an apology. It uses the most disreputable excuse in the book: I am not meant to be taken seriously; I’m just a bit of a lad.
Mr Zycinski would have been aware too that his employee has a reputation as a cutting-edge commentator on international affairs. Mr Cowan’s take on the extensive use of child labour in Thailand was to ask if the ‘Thai Tims stitched any of the boots or jerseys the Celtic players were wearing on Thursday’. The BBC didn’t suspend him for that, either.
Mr Cowan is part of the Scottish macho culture which excuses itself through self-deprecation. I last came across it a couple of years ago when I shared a platform, loosely speaking, with a retired footballer who, over dinner in mixed company, had seemed pleasant enough. But as soon as he stood up, he was unable to finish a sentence without recourse to the f-word. He wasn’t blue; just very, very coarse. I wondered at the time if, in some strange way, this was the language of survival in male working-class Scotland. Mr Zycinksi should commission a programme about the phenomenon (and the BBC’s part in propagating it).
Tam Cowan is no joke. What he represents, what he helps to symbolise and sustain, is a Scottish affliction. He is a strong, though fortunately not compelling, reason for believing that Scotland does not deserve independence; that it is not ready to cope with the responsibilities of statehood, a grown-up world beyond football and blue jokes. Marginalised in the sports pages of the Daily Record, preaching to the converted, he does a limited amount of damage. Legitimised and promoted by the BBC, he does a great deal of damage. That other crumbling pillar of the west of Scotland male establishment, the Herald, believes that in view of his apology Mr Cowan should be reinstated. I fear he will be. That is part of the problem.