THERE have been a lot of kind – and a few unkind – words said about STV journalist Bernard Ponsonby on his retirement after 34 years at the station.

It is rare these days for a television journalist – who am I kidding, any political journalist – to garner accolades and well wishes when they hang up their microphone or word processor. The usual response is somewhere between “good riddance” and “****!”

So what makes Ponsonby so different?

First a declaration. I’ve known Bernard over the years on a personal as well as a professional basis. His on-screen persona – genuinely inquisitive, intelligent and always informed, more concerned with getting at the actual facts than taking hostage the person being interviewed, above all willing to listen – is the same as he is in real life. What you see is what you get – a genuine journalist rather than an entertainer. Ponsonby has interviewed nine prime ministers and every single first minister, starting with Donald Dewar.

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And I mean interview, not crucify or cosy up, depending on the mood or the interviewee.

Ponsonby is a tough interviewer precisely because he wants the politician in front of the camera to present their case and let the public make of it what they will. His style is relentlessly forensic rather than accusatory or fawning. That sounds easy but it is quite the reverse. What’s more, it makes for compelling television because the interviewee can’t hide or dissemble.

There are several reasons that explain the Ponsonby style and its effectiveness. For starters, there was a time when STV was a leading force in television journalism at a British – nay international – level.

When Scottish Television hit the airwaves in August 1957 it was the brainchild of Roy Thomson, a newspaperman to his inky fingertips. Thomson was a pirate and a ruthless businessman.

Famously he bought the Scotsman group then sold its building for the same price as he paid for the entire organisation – effectively getting the paper for nothing. He called having the Scottish Television franchise “a licence to print money” and he was right.

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But here’s the thing. Thomson (above) was a Scots-Canadian with an egalitarian bent rather than the BBC establishment cringe. He treated Scottish Television as grown-up broadcasting for a Scottish audience, not as a regional afterthought.

He spent money on serious news because he was a serious newspaperman. His journalist were real journalists, not pretty faces. Under the legendary Russell Galbraith, a former print journalist and the station’s crusty news boss, Scottish actually broke stories.

And they were delivered in a Scottish vernacular accent, not BBC strangled English.

Scottish Television proved there was an audience for news without being condescending – local, British and international. Scottish Television journalists such as expat American Bob Cuddihy brought a touch of the Walter Cronkites to broadcasting.

Bernard Ponsonby inherited that grand tradition – a tradition now sadly lost as STV became a pale shadow of its former self when ITV effectively abandoned regionalism in favour of cost cutting, and (later) the internet and multiple channels destroyed the station’s business model.

Bernard inherited a tradition of treating television as a serious news platform, not entertainment headlined by the day’s latest road accident or axe murder.

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But Bernard had something else going for him. He was a poacher turned gamekeeper. He had had a life in politics before he became a journalist. He was a member of Roy Jenkins’s short-lived Social Democratic Party, then a Liberal Democrat after the merger with the old Liberal Party.

Ponsonby was the LibDem candidate in the famous 1988 Govan by-election won by Jim Sillars for the SNP. His miserly 4.1% of the vote may have contributed to his swerve into professional journalism. But Bernard had seen the inside of politics and knew where the bodies were buried. It allowed him to interview politicians with an insider’s eye.

Bernard has taken some stick for saying, in his valedictory broadcast, that contemporary Scottish politics suffers from “a real dearth of thinkers”. His crime, it seems, is not to berate Labour, Tory and SNP heavyweights of the past – Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Alex Salmond, Malcolm Rifkind, George Younger et al – for ruining the nation.

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Let me make a modest defence of Ponsonby’s claim. I knew most of the generation of Scottish politicians in the pre-Holyrood era.

For starters, like them or loathe them, they were characters. Remember Robin Cook resigning over the Iraq invasion and the withering speech he made?

Can you really call Alex Salmond colourless? I disagree with Gordon Brown on most things but he writes books, for God’s sake. George Younger ran Margaret Thatcher’s Tory leadership campaign but he also quietly throttled a lot of Thatcherite policies north of the border – a befitted a Scottish grandee.

Labour's George Robertson went on to run Nato. John Smith and the Donald Dewar manoeuvred devolution through a very recalcitrant Labour machine.

If there is a test of this generation, it is not their ideological stance per se – they were mostly dyed-in-the-wool Unionists. Rather one has to ask if they were effective.

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On that score, the pre-1997 troop wins hands down. Dewar and Salmon worked together to deliver the devolution referendum. I knew Dewar. He was a patrician Scottish lawyer. But he knew how to work Labour in Scotland and outwit Tony Blair’s Cabinet, which saw Scotland as a secondary issue.

Salmond’s handling of the 2007 terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport was masterly. And he won an outright majority for the SNP in 2011 at Holyrood – something the system was deliberately designed to prevent.

And can you really say that Labour big beasts such as Alistair Darling, Helen Liddell (“Stalin’s Granny”), communist Dr John Reid (his PhD was about the slave trade), or Brian Wilson (founder of the Highland Free Press) lacked hinterlands?

One of Ponsonby’s critics berates him for including former SNP leader Gordon Wilson in his list of Scottish greats. But Gordon was proud of running a pirate radio station supporting independence – can you imagine the Holyrood front bench doing anything illegal for the indy cause? And Gordon – a wily Scottish solicitor – kept the SNP together during its most factious days. Yes he was something of a Scots Poujadist but he made a mark.

The difference between then and now is that class politics sharpened minds and hardened attitudes. There was something at stake beyond personal ambition. Scottish politics in essence was about ideas, not personalities.

And that made for genuine personalities. Teddy Taylor, for instance, was a Thatcherite through and through but he held on to some of the working-class vote in Scotland through a mixture of charm, earthiness, good humour and a genuine populist touch, not faux, nasty Eton braggadocio.

Today, I hate to say, a vague, apple-pie liberalism has come to dominate Scottish politics in all parties. The ideas and concerns of a comfortable professional class dominate political discourse.

Politics is about managing expectations not getting things done. The ferries never sail but there is always a good excuse – and no-one ever resigns. And the media are complicit. Television journalism has become a branch of entertainment. Bernard, you will be missed.