Our Media Our Democracy

This maybe isn’t the best time to be asking BBC Scotland if we could borrow some of its gear – they’ve got enough on their plate (as it happens) what with this and that… mostly that (now then, now then).

Fact is, we’ve a lot to discuss – the BBC doesn’t seem inclined to facilitate such discussion, but time is of the essence, so we need to press on, with or without it.

Wouldn’t we be doing it a favour anyway? They haven’t been handling it terribly well thus far. The portentously presented Big Debate discussions have been universally panned, and show no sign whatever of even pretending to consider the role of the BBC itself in unfolding realities.

BBC veteran (and participant in the first Big Debate), Lesley Riddoch was visibly annoyed by the antics of co-panellists Jim Wallace and Johann Lamont, at one point exhorting them to ‘raise their game’. Wallace (a former Deputy First Minister, no less) seemed overwhelmed by the whole experience, responding to simple questions from Nicola Sturgeon with a passable impersonation of the Straw Man realising that his arms are on fire. At one stage Riddoch commandeered control of the debate, overriding host Glenn Campbell to ask Lamont and Wallace basic questions which may otherwise have remained unaired. Riddoch revealed frustration in a recent Newsnet Scotland article:

‘Of course, self-appointed gatekeepers of ideological purity are present on all sides of the constitutional divide, but some nationalists are spring-loaded to hurl themselves into virtual print at the slightest hint of disloyalty. In many ways that’s not surprising, nationalists were unquestionably denied equal treatment on old platforms like BBC TV and radio and therefore migrated quickly to control new platforms online.

I worked in BBC Scotland for 20 years (leaving in 2004) and found a general tendency to super-serve the Scottish establishment in the selection of guests and callers. Apart from a few memos suggesting preference for Tory speakers in Radio Scotland debates when that party had one MP north of the border (memos I ignored), there was relatively little direct interference from London. There didn’t have to be. The BBC struggles against a near automatic suspicion of anything beyond the mainstream – wherever that mainstream flows. A London-based BBC chief said to me once: “We’re all for diversity as long as people agree with us.” He wasn’t joking.’

One voice which has never – so far as this writer is aware – been heard live on any media outlet in Scotland belongs to one of her most critically-acclaimed authors. James Kelman.
Interviewed by the Scottish Review of Books, he explained his decision to withdraw from this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival Writers Conference:

‘…The British Council is the British State. I stopped being involved with them years ago. It means I don’t get many invitations abroad because they do most of the foreign funding. It turns my stomach to see them listed as co-organisers. I don’t think it bears scrutiny for long. It reminds me of 1979, when people were pushed into Scotland to take on positions of power, as in the BBC, preparing for the independence referendum, in case the Thatcher government failed to stem the tide. It reminds you of the old Russian aristocracy towards the end of the nineteenth century, pushing family members into positions of power with the radicals in case the revolution succeeds, or the defence industry and major financiers during times of war, backing both sides.
…There are all these different areas up for discussion, among people who share a basic feeling or sensibility, writers who have entirely different political positions from me, people on the right, unionists – who cares, just to see things debated properly, as an autonomous thing, where we know at the outset that it’s not being hijacked. How can we enter into such a thing, and having all these writers coming from other cultures, foreign writers – they don’t know what they’re walking into here. They think they’re walking into a debate grounded in contemporary Scotland, but are they. I don’t think so, they’ll be attending an event co-organised by a body subservient to the British State’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, at an international book festival in North Britain, at least that’s how I see it.’

Kelman refers to a specific area of interest – literature. The Orwell Prize-winning rangerstaxcase blogger was referring to another specific – financial shenanigans in football. Professor David Miller, interviewed by Scottish Independent Podcast cuts to the heart of what the BBC really is, why it does what it does.

The three are not exclusive of each another. Any one of them could provide mainstream media outlets with many topics for discussion. Permutations of the three could provide many more. Throw in the concerns of citizens whose expertise spans every facet of life in contemporary Scotland? The possibilities become limitless.

We are assured, by people who claim to be expert in such matters, that: we will see an explosion of all media; they will be produced locally, consumed locally; be relevant, informed and accessible.

Fair enough.

But we still want and need to hear at least some of the same voices we grew up with, that we’re familiar with – the people we’ve come to trust. For that to be possible, those familiar voices and faces must at least be given the opportunity to tell us their ‘truth’, so we can work out for ourselves whether or not we want to trust them anymore. (Some are cynical about Ruth Wishart’s sudden conversion – perhaps now is a good time for certain commentators on both ‘sides’ of the Glasgow City of Culture 1990 stushies to consider past statements, find common-cause with those they’ve traduced.)

In the meantime, the debates must happen. If the mainstream cannot or will not address their responsibility to make sure that those discussions are broad, truthful and innovative, the flight to online alternatives will continue to accelerate. Sadly, for broadcasters and print media, it’s pretty clear which media are now best suited to convey the messages we all need to share in order to make informed decisions, even when those messages may not be those we’d prefer to hear. If the mainstream in general, and the BBC in particular, cannot fulfil their obligation to inform and serve the public, they could at least offer some assistance to those who are ready – and have proven themselves able – to do so.

As an act of noblesse oblige, the BBC could allow – in what may prove to be its final couple of years’ residency in Scotland – meaningful debate. It needn’t be expensive. No CGI required. Stick a few cameras in public places, get them all connected up, and let representatives of real communities lead the discussions. No need to go to all that trouble of bussing people into studios – the technology exists to allow all with an interest to be interlinked, globally. Let these people speak, and be heard. Celebrity guests or presenters are not required – we’ve seen/heard them all before, know where they stand.

We need to hear from those figures who are important – to us – but haven’t, for whatever reason, passed muster with BBC hierarchy over recent decades. It would be interesting to hear what Joy Hendry, James Kelman, Irvine Welsh, Janice Galloway, Bobby Gillespie, think/feel about what’s happening, to witness these people in ‘normal’ conversation with others working in different genres. Ask anyone, in any walk of life in this country right now, who they’d forward for a place in such open debate – they’ll provide names of those they admire, whose views they’d be keen to promote, want us all to share, find out more about.

How can it be done? Petition the Scottish Parliament to press BBC Scotland to undertake such a project? No chance – ‘Broadcasting’ is not a devolved issue. Even to ask the Scottish Parliament to consider such a request seems impossible. (Is it really impossible? Would online collaborative simultaneous broadcasts fall under such exclusion? – legal boffins, please consider…)

One thing’s for sure – there can be very few, in Scotland or elsewhere, who are going to waste any more minutes of their lives watching BBC Scotland’s Big Debate. If the ‘national broadcaster’ won’t facilitate real debate? We’ll just have to keep chatting amongst ourselves, in pubs, clubs, at bus-stops, in waiting-rooms, and hope, that by some timely osmosis, we all get a grip on what’s really going on before the day itself arrives – when we face that private, quiet moment, when, like it or not, the swithering and dithering comes to an end.

In that quiet moment, one at a time, with our backs to the world, with only a slip of paper between us and the future of this country, we will, hungover or not, reify not what we think we know, or what we think we trust, but, ultimately, what we feel right there and then. We cannot do that with any confidence unless we’ve talked it through beforehand.

The BBC, in its role as ‘public service provider’, should be helping us talk it through. Right now, it isn’t.

That’s why we’re entitled to ask the BBC, and the Scottish Government, to allow us access to and/or use of whatever equipment we need to make ‘full-spectrum’ debate a reality.
The BBC is always busy – very very busy, with this and that – but it must accept that the inhabitants of this ‘Region’ are having a discussion. We’ll have that discussion despite any effort to belittle or minimise its importance. It would be ‘nice‘ if they helped us make that discussion as broad, as inclusive as possible.
Anyone have any ideas on how to ask them?

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  1. vronsky says:

    “Anyone have any ideas on how to ask them?”

  2. Great article and I think the BBC would get there…if it was allowed to. I remember a few months ago the Unionist firing accusation of bias at the beeb-I see that as warning shot from them. Hell is going to be a rough 2 years, but the gig is still there to be won. I would also like to see more ordinary peoples involvement, not just the convinced on both sides.

    1. bigedd74 says:

      that is the nail on the head right there, the “ordinary” people are ultimately the ones who will decide the fate of Scotland, those are the people we need to hear from, while it is good to hear our idols/heroes/trusted faces give their commitment and reason, that won’t fill a ballot box, will it?

      1. Gary says:

        …and though it’s painful to admit, Hendry, Kelman, Galloway etc are only household names to about 10% of the population.

  3. Gary: exactly – it would be interesting to know if any of those people have ever appeared live via any BBC outlet in the past three decades. Kelman has certainly appeared on radio and TV, but only in pre-recorded packages, heavily edited. There seems no logical reason to suppose that it’s going to change anytime soon – if there isn’t an actual ‘blacklist’ of certain folk, their exclusion is so blatant that the editorial ‘attitude’ must be remarkably consistent. Hendry, in particular, is an important figure, a direct link to the legacy of McDiarmid, the ‘old’ Independence movement etc – it’s shameful that such figures have been so ignored.

  4. It might be true that James Kelman has not been heard on Scottish media for a while, but it is paranoid nonsense to think this is conspiratorial. He has had dramas produced on radio, was on (admittedly BRITISH or ENGLISH bit of) BBC Front Row recently, and has turned down and/or avoided being on other media outlets. The only time I know of his work being cut out from broadcast in any censorious manner was when he was set up to live-broadcast a reading from Kieron Smith, Boy, as a BBC-led celebration of 40 years of the Booker prize, in collaboration with the Cheltenham Festival. The producers wanted to see (or “vet”) what he intended to read out – probably on the hunt for “sweary-words”. Kelman told them to fuck off (by his account).

    1. Given what’s happening at the BBC right now, I’m not sure that ‘conspiratorial nonsense’ is a helpful expression.
      Let’s not get bogged-down in the issue of ‘sweary-words’. Is it your position that the BBC is unaware of who is/isn’t considered ‘safe’ politically?

      1. Apologies – ‘paranoid nonsense to think this is conspiratorial’ was your original phrasing, but the tin-foil-hat-wearing innuendo remains intact.

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