Brian Ferguson: New culture strategy must be open to scrutiny

Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop spoke at the Glasgow Womens Library. Picture: TSPL
Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop spoke at the Glasgow Womens Library. Picture: TSPL
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‘Top secret’ launch of new cultural plan unacceptable, writes Brian Ferguson

I’ve love to have had a decent insight into the “collaborative gathering” staged by the Scottish Government as it raised the curtain on a new national culture strategy, even though the arts sector has been awash with strategies, plans and blueprints since the inception of Creative Scotland in 2010. Unfortunately Ms Hyslop and her staff did not want any pesky journalists around to be actually recording what was said or, heaven forbid, ask questions. Not only that, but the event was held behind firmly closely doors, with participants only there because their attendance had been specifically sanctioned by the government. If you weren’t on the list, you weren’t getting in.

So much for being open, accessible, inclusive, diverse, open, outward-looking and welcoming. Attendees had been told in advance that the event was “private”. I was therefore rather surprised to see a keynote speech by Ms Hyslop appear on the government’s social media channels, along with photographs from the secret gathering.

The process she kick-started is apparently aimed at producing a “dynamic innovative statement around which the sector and the people of Scotland can galvanise”. But unless you were on the closely-guarded invite list, you probably would not have known about the event or the creation of a new cultural strategy.

Over the weekend I searched in vain for any publicly-available information about the strategy, why it has been instigated, its aims and ambitions, how it is being driven, and any future events – either open or closed. How can an initiative be inclusive, outward-looking, welcoming and accessible when it is virtually impossible to find out anything about it?

Does the government really want to confine discussions to hand-picked audiences, restrict reporting to the scripted words of ministers and keep commentators, critics and correspondents firmly at arm’s length? And will the culture sector play along with it?

Alarm bells were rightly ringing on social media when it became clear that the event had happened under a veil of secrecy. Questions were being asked on why access was restricted, who chose the invitees, what was discussed, the lack of diversity apparent in the gathering, and what form the process is going to take in future.

If there is any real interest in having an open, honest discussion about the Scottish cultural landscape then it seems pretty essential to have this out in the open – and not behind closed doors. A launch event could easily have been held in a big enough venue to allow anyone to engage with the chosen few, with at least some of the event streamed live. This should have been accompanied by the launch of a full online resource clearly setting out the aims of the new culture strategy and how to contribute to it from any corner of Scotland. But the way the event was handled, and the messages that this sent out, were from the dark ages.

It may only be the start of a process, but it was a false one, from which serious lessons should be learned. If they are not, the new cultural blueprint risks being developed against a backdrop of acrimony, suspicion and discontent.