Addressing the Celtic Media Festival in Inverness on Thursday, which he founded 35 years ago, Argyll and Bute MSP Michael Russell is calling for BBC Alba to embrace changes in the media landscape in post-referendum Scotland.
Highlighting the resurgence of community activism and grassroots campaigns, combined with increasingly sophisticated digital technologies, Mr Russell will argue that widening the existing remit of BBC Alba, to include community-produced content and information programming, could revolutionise Gaelic broadcasting and nurture creative talent in Scotland.
Drawing on his experiences as the Director of Cinema Sgire [Community Cinema], a community film and audio-visual project which ran in the Western Isles in the late 1970s, Mr Russell says: ‘Scotland’s renewed democracy, and the thirst for information and radical perspectives, creates a good chance of an even more successful repositioning for BBC Alba, if it chose to take it.
‘It would create a new platform for those who may never be mainstream broadcasters but who are experimenting in the visual media. I am sure all of those who spent hours in dark, analogue edit suites in the 80s are astonished, but excited in equal measure, by the ease by which broadcast quality video can be put together today on a laptop, with the aid of a mobile phone camera.
‘That material dominates the Internet, and the fusion of a conventional channel, with community produced material of such provenance that is driven by social and community imperatives, could create an exciting new dynamic in broadcasting for Scotland. It would be a fulfilment, in a sense, of the Cinema Sgire dream.
‘It would also build and nurture talent that arises out of our traditions, but which can go truly global.
‘For that potential is also one of the big changes of the past three decades. In 1980 we were looking to fulfil what we believed were the unfulfilled demands of domestic Celtic language audiences, which were being denied contemporary media in their own languages. That was a human rights issue as well as a broadcasting one.
‘Now, the challenge is different. We have the chance of serving, and being paid to serve, a worldwide audience to whom language need not be a barrier. Our modern creators can also do so with a fraction of the investment that would have been required in the early days of this technology, and can supply content without even leaving their homes.
‘All they need is talent. And that is what many of them have – and moreover talent developed, informed and sustained by living between two cultures, something that is commonplace outside these islands and which produces just the mix and the vision that appeals to a vast number of our fellow global citizens furth of these shores.
‘We have the training courses for them, we have the market for what they do. What we need is a domestic channel that can champion them by creating a creative place where they can cut their teeth, build their skills, debate with their audience and in the by-and-by change their own communities and country.
‘A channel not only of language, but fully engaged with community and country.’
The underlying agenda and the risk to Gaelic
Alongside Mr Russell’s creative energy is an underlying strategy – which here is very much aligned nationalism and with former First Minister, Alex Salmond’s repeated interest in state control of the media.
BBC ALBA is state subsidised. Were it to be become more aligned to the only grassroots activism that exists in Scotland today, the question would have to arise about the propriety of the use of public funds to further the political interests of what is on the fast track to becoming a one-party-state.
This level of planned support and control is one of the evidences of the type of state the SNP Scottish Government is creating.
Today many – possibly the majority – will celebrate that, The wise will be concerned.
What has been refreshing about much of BBC ALBA’s programming in its early years has been the absence of the ghettoisation of Gaelic and the absence of hard wiring a language to a single political cause.
This has freed Gaelic into a much wider ‘ownership’ than it has previously had.
It would be very much against the interests of Gaelic were it to be deployed again as a cultural shibboleth and welded to the narrowness of nationalism.
So far, BBC ALBA has been wonderfully catholic and wide ranging in its interests and in the subjects which it has explored. It would be a real loss to many of us who are neither Gaelic speakers nor nationalists if BBC ALBA went native, so to speak.
The fact that it has spoken through the medium of Gaelic on an elevating eclecticism of topics, has been, so far, the unique signature of BBC ALBA, which we have welcomed.