Culture and Broadcasting

Published: 9 September 2013

Ken MacLeod blogs from the Festival of Politics 2013

Opening this session, Sir John Arbuthnot of the Royal Society of Edinburgh remarked that the date was the anniversary of the Battle of Largs. As he went on to point out, these days we settle political disputes in more civilised ways. One of these is heated debate, and that's what followed.

Like its chair Magnus Linklater, the panel was well qualified to discuss culture and broadcasting, consisting of: James Boyle, Chairman of the National Library of Scotland, Chairman of the British Council in Scotland and formerly Director of BBC Scotland and Radio 4; Ruth Wishart, journalist, commentator, and board member of Creative Scotland; Brian Wilson, former Labour MP and Minister, founding editor of the West Highland Free Press, journalist and director; and Dr David Elstein, Chair of openDemocracy and the Broadcasting Policy Group.

James Boyle opened by emphasising the class stratification of cultural participation in Scotland: while up to 80% of people engage with culture in the broadest sense (reading, going to the cinema and so on), only 2-3% make use of the national institutions of high culture and the performing arts. Meanwhile 20% of Scottish adults are functionally illiterate, and this rate reaches 40% in some areas. Tackling this, and the improvement of education in and through the arts at every level, is more urgent than setting up a new broadcasting channel 'about Scotland, for Scotland'. If there's money for broadcasting, it would be better spent on developing new talent.

David Elstein argued that a new channel 'by, for and about Scots' is overdue, and that the coming year should be used to extract the maximum concessions from the BBC, using the possibility of a fully independent state with its own broadcasting system to win fully  devolved broadcasting.

Ruth Wishart pointed to the explosion of new and confident voices in Scottish literature, and said that the most thoughtful contributions to the independence debate had come from writers and artists, citing Bella Caledonia and National Collective as venues for 'passionate flytings'. She urged us to grasp the opportunity for independence. Experiences such as the Curriculum for Excellence and the success in Scotland of El Sistema, the Venezualan method for training young people in music, indicated the amount of untapped potential in the population. 'Talent is not a postcode lottery, but opportunity too often is.'

Brian Wilson countered by saying that he took Ruth Wishart's and James Boyle's concerns on board as a socialist, not as a nationalist: high ambitions for education and cultural enrichment needed to be extended not just to other deprived communities in Scotland, but in the whole of the UK. None of Scotland's cultural flourishing in recent years, nor the Festival nor the national galleries and companies, were inhibited by the union. Breaking up the BBC would, he said, be an act of wanton vandalism.

The chair, Magnus Linklater, then drew out further points from the speakers and from the audience, in a discussion that ranged from the importance of teaching in local dialects and accents to whether the production in Glasgow of Mrs Brown's Boys represented a triumph for Scottish creative industry or the equivalent of assembling cars without having designed them. In the end, my own abiding impression was that the constitutional issue and the national question have become inseparable from cultural and social issues, but in ways that complicate and cut across arguments that might otherwise be polarised along different lines.

Ken MacLeod was born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, in 1954. He has Honours and Masters degrees in biological subjects and worked for some years in the IT industry. He has written fourteen novels, from The Star Fraction (1995) to Descent (2014), and many articles and short stories. In 2009 he was Writer in Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum at the University of Edinburgh. He is now Writer in Residence at the MA Creative Writing course, Edinburgh Napier University. He blogs at and tweets as @amendlocke

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