Scotland is bristling with a will to experiment. It’s shrugging off an older, staler incarnation of itself and tentatively seeking out new possibilities. This process began long before next year’s referendum and will continue regardless of its result.
The looming vote does provide a focus for those in the business of seeking alternatives. Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the opportunity we have been afforded is that; of all the potential outcomes of this phase in our history; the prospect of Scotland nestling back into obscurity as North Britain is the most ludicrous by far.
Yet ours is a deeply stratified society. In Scotland we have never been good at talking to each other. Protestant and Catholic, Edinburgh and Glasgow, Lallans and Gaelic, Morningside and Muirhouse may grudgingly share their “wee bit hill and glen” but are not always on speaking terms. This is why Scotland presents such a puzzling case to foreign observers: for internal struggle is perhaps our most pervasive trait and the present is no exception. As folk singer Davy Steele put it: “could strangers be the only eyes/to see us all as yin?”
Our most vigorously pro-London newspaper is called “The Scotsman” not “The North Briton”. Our “national” news often consists of local content. BBC Radio Scotland’s on-going identity crisis has taken it from award winning status to often surreal obscurity in the space of a decade.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. There isn’t one conversation taking place in Scotland: there are numerous, talking over each other and refusing to listen to those outwith strict sectorial and professional castes. This country, fragmented in every direction, is a peculiar backdrop for a “national” “conversation”. It is the last place that interesting developments in politics or culture should ever have happened. But happen they did.
Listen to the language of BBC Scotland and you hear a daily negotiation of this predicament. I suspect that Kaye Adams and Gordon Brewer have very little in common: but they share an increasingly definitive habit of seeming to lose all interest in their jobs while on air. Internal memos may not be circulated around Pacific Quay promoting the use of dismissive sighing as appropriate segue, though you’d be forgiven for thinking it. All too often we’re left with the impression that Scottish broadcasters are unable to cope with a political and cultural landscape that is rapidly shifting.
A recent example of was Newnight Scotland’s special on ‘the future of art and culture in a post-referendum Scotland.’ Not a single artist with any profile appeared. Bizarrely a “branding consultant” whose main qualification seemed to consist of a Tweed waistcoat, did. Why this scarcity of artistic talent in a land famed for it? Because to feature top artists working in Scotland would make the programme inherently interesting, drastically increase its scope and not meet the requirement of presenting Scotland as a regional society fragmented along the lines mentioned above.
Andrew Kerr’s introduction to the debate, welcoming viewers to Pacific Quay, that hotbed of creativity where Mrs Brown’s Boys and Waterloo Road are made, was very illustrative. Nothing interesting here: only a regional broadcaster grateful for its slice of the pie. Just as the Scottish Parliament was supposed to revel in the gift of legislative control over air-guns.
The dearth of decent broadcasting in Scotland is the key reason why the independence debate is consistently characterised as uninteresting and petty. Too few staff are pressured by too many spin-doctors into creating bad coverage. Taking its cues from a crisis-ridden, emasculated press corp, Newsnight Scotland, despite glimmers of promise, seems unable to inhabit the role of a flagship current affairs programme. On the other hand it does excel at providing Professor John Curtice with a means to wind down after a hard day of number crunching.
Let’s remember, as Derek Bateman has been candidly revealing, just how fraught life at BBC Scotland is. The corporation in Scotland has a long history, not simply of drab patriarchal provincialism, but of marginalising those that want change. Perhaps the quiet exit of the only Newsnight Scotland presenter who seemed to relish the job, Isobel Fraser, was just another symptom of this. The lesson to all the other faces of current affairs in Scotland? Get too good and you’ll be accused of being a “nat”. It was this same narrow mindset that saw Iain McWhirter’s even handed Road to Referendum branded SNP propaganda.
The state of broadcasting in Scotland provides one of the best illustrations of the need for independence. If we want a better media: something that I think we’re well placed to achieve as an English speaking country in the digital age, we need to vote Yes. Since 2007 the task of making Scotland – its creativity, its public life, and its people – engaging to audiences is far too politicised. Last week I found myself talking to staff from Denmark’s famed state broadcaster DR, a country with almost exactly the same population as Scotland making some of the best television in the world. The hardest thing to explain to them was the true bareness of Scotland’s media desert and why such a state of affairs should have come about.
In 1997 Labour placed the issue of broadcasting to one side. Whether this oversight was calculated to limit the scope of devolved Scottish politics is hard to fathom. What we do know is that when the SNP sought to address this anomaly by setting up The Scottish Broadcasting Commission, it was branded an “SNP vanity project” by former Labour MP Brian Wilson and derided by then Labour leader Wendy Alexander.
In 2011, responding to a call from leading Scottish artists on the need for a Scottish digital channel UK minsters ruled out the possibility of such a service until 2018 at the earliest.
However pressing that need is, the need to preserve the union must come first. Though it will often be couched in terms of budgets and whether or not we still get to watch Eastenders and use the iplayer, the real motivation for scorning the concept of an emboldened Scottish broadcasting culture is the obvious political threat that it poses. Scottish politics was never supposed to be interesting after 1997, it was supposed to have settled into a sub-national comfort zone.
As has so often been the case, our historic love of internal conflict obscures an obvious vacuum in Scotland. It’s therefore no surprise that one of the most impassioned arguments on this subject comes from David Elstein, broadcasting expert and chair of Open Democracy, who asserted:
…a channel run by Scots, for Scots and funded by Scots is anyway overwhelmingly overdue, both as part of that process of devolving editorial authority, and – just as importantly – as an expression of the Scots nation.
With very limited amounts of airtime and a printed press in crisis there has been an inevitable flowering of new media, which has come to play an increasingly important role in the debate. Though hardly a substitute for public service broadcasting, it is largely there that the interesting conversations about Scotland take place. Despite lots of Labour spin this network of homegrown voices cannot be silenced or marginalised simply by deploying the word “nat”.
With Jack Foster I recently devised a film on Scottish politics: The Fear Factor. It rubbishes the idea of a mainstream media conspiracy against independence. Instead it shows that we simply lack the tools, the resources, the mandate, the producers and the political bravery to talk constructively as a nation.
Our next project, Scotland Yet, will present a positive, engaging, vision of Scotland over the coming year. It will consist of a vast array of opinions all united by the empowering potential of a Yes vote. As is so often forgotten the creation of new media is driven by necessity. Someone has to document this coming year outside of the strict parameters that plague major broadcasters. As in so many other areas, the prospect of independence, with its thirst for alternatives, may just be sending up a few small green shoots into the media desert.
If this most argumentative of countries learns one thing from the coming year, I sincerely hope it’s that we start listening to each other by trying to work out how best to see Scotland reflected back at us. For, whatever next year’s poll reveals: a vibrant, innovative and experimental Scottish media will be needed more than ever.
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