Here's my latest column for the Caledonian Mercury - further meditations on the BBC Scotland documentary series, The Scheme. What if the cameras began to be held by those at the other end? And how do we carve out space from a "Scottish Digital Network" to give voice to those too often spoken on behalf of? All comments welcome.
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It was when the junkie son, coming up from his kitchen-sink fix, planted a wet, smeary kiss on the camera lens filming him, that I began to relent a little in my rage and disdain for BBC Scotland's controversial series The Scheme.
Purely as a piece of dramaturgy - with his mother shuddering and sobbing in the raggedy garden, his brother scowling on the couch, suddenly realising the nihilism and destructiveness of his brother's addiction - this was as effective a sequence as you'd find in Zola, Orwell or Kelman, sensitively measuring the emotional cost of poverty.
But the lens-kiss was the perfect closing moment. In one blissful act of boundary-less excess, breaking every "documentary" or fly-on-the-wall convention, he reminded us that this is only one narrative construction of poverty in Scotland, among many possible others.
When I launched myself at The Scheme's first outing last year, calling it "poverty porn" (on the basis of two episodes, before a court case stopped us seeing the rest), I found myself at the middle of an interesting storm of communication. Residents and ex-residents of the area mailed me with tales of how many of the more positive stories from the Kilmarnock scheme had been solicited and recorded, but clearly hadn't made it to the final cut.
I found myself on that bare escarpment of serious Scottish public-interest telly, Newsnight Scotland, arguing toe-to-toe with Channel Four's Stuart Cosgrove. Stuart accused me of denying the poor of Onthank the right to knowingly "perform their lives" for reality television, under financial and legal conditions entered into with full awareness and consent. Wasn't I once a similar working-class boy, making a name for myself (and money) out of acting it up on stage?
My answer was that I was trying to perform and display my competence, my skills, my aspirations - and I got nothing but positive reinforcement and self-esteem from that kind of stardom. But to surrender yourself to an editing process that seemed patronising and prurient - at least from the first two episodes, with Marvin (another junkie) tottering around his house with a mop, to the soundtrack of the Sorcerers' Apprentice - so that your incompetence and brokenness was what the world would always remember about you, in the eternal return of YouTube? Surely not comparable, Stuart.
As is the way of these things, we thrashed it out via online forums, and then got back to our busy media agendas. When I saw that the show was back in the schedules - and hey, with its own special week in the Daily Record! - I wanted to ignore it.
But the episode I managed to catch this time round was a signal improvement on the opening. Apart from the tragic scene already mentioned, the Bree family - already on the road to re-opening a local community centre, and having raised £5000 to do so - were impressively barrelling their way through bureaucrats, while also coping with a family bereavement.
And amidst the coming and going of hingy girls, superego-less boys and despairing parents, choosing between greater or lesser intoxications as pregnancies and relationships were continued or terminated, one house-proud couple were at least allowed to show their feature garden - and the pride and craft embodied in it.
Here, the art of the effective documentary maker - hanging around to get that one telling moment, and being sensitive enough to let it make the final cut - was deployed extremely well: capturing the determination and grief of the Brees, the attractive, quiet integrity of Onthank's best gardener.
But still, we're in the land of broadcast tv - where considerable budgets go towards careful selection of real-life "dramatic characters"; where we expect the high audio-visual fidelity that only expensive cameras and sound can deliver; where only the choicest, most illustrative quote or incident from the thousands of hours recorded makes the final cut of a "watchable" television episode.
I'm so tired of, and resistant to, this kind of televisual authority. There was a brilliant series in the very early days of Channel Four in the 80's, called Open The Box, which applied the critical techniques of media studies to the process of television-making. I'll never forget a sequence in which a RP-accented tv producer was filmed recording a documentary piece in the front room of an evidently working-class, and not very articulate, couple.
Open The Box carefully watched the production crew prod them this way and that, urging them to "blend in the question with the answer", moving them like dress mannequins around their own home. The piece ended with the director's aside to those he evidently thought were fellow media professionals - but who had at least the ethical integrity to keep this "illustrative quote" in: "You know what they say... never work with children. Or animals."
Am I accusing The Scheme's makers of a similar kind of media cynicism? Not directly, no. But in the age of what Manuel Castells calls "mass self-communication", I am suggesting that we take an iron railing and tap a few gaping cracks into the enchanted glass of broadcast television in Scotland. A "Scottish Digital Network" (SDN) is actually quite an interesting general concept, if expanded from the "BBC2/BBC4 with McArchive" proposal that's come out of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission.
Instead of presuming that such a channel, wrested from the Union's maw, will be mostly about givng more documentary commissions to doubtless well-meaning but inescapably objectifying media-types, might we also try something a bit different? How about encouraging and training those in communities like Onthank to do their own mediating of their life-conditions - giving them the power of recording, editing and dissemination, letting them evolve their own norms of quality, topic and relevance?
We're happy to benchmark ourselves against small European nations - and we could do worse than to copy Finland's extensive and historic commitment to media-production literacy throughout their population. There is a latent community of artists and activists in Scotland - New Media Scotland and the CCA in Glasgow are the main hubs - who would be only too willing to fan out into Scotland's hard-bitten areas and set up media labs, bringing what the Scottish conceptual artist Simon Yuill calls "distributive practice" to the people. (A great benchmark for this is actually the Knowle West Media Centre in Bristol, well worth the investigation. And our own Lesley Riddoch has been something of a pioneer of community media).
Some of the broadcast hours of an SDN - and not just the dead hours of the early morning either - should be devoted to nurturing, curating and re-presenting the experiences of struggling communities in Scotland, building up their powers of mass self-communication. Will this media be raw, unfinished, static, gauche, partisan, pawky, hedonistic, sentimental, nostalgic, angry, obsessive, trainspottery, specialist? All of the preceding, and better, and worse.
But is this rough emergence worth clearing some space for, at the heart of Scotland's evolving media representation of itself - and at precisely this moment where "self-determination" and "independence" (at all levels, and in all ways) are the buzzwords of the Scottish Spring? I would argue, yes. Let there be a "democratic interact" - or as Salmond once put it in a speech in 2007, an "architecture of participation" that reaches to every corner of the country.
So, less desperate kisses on the lens of a Corporation camera - and more eager hands fingering the "record" (and "upload") button of a democratic media in Scotland.