John McTernan: Stop our storytellers being silenced

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STORIES are the foundation of civilisation. They are how we understand the world - from the creation myths that explain where we come from, to the daily gossip that allows us to make sense of our own lives and those of our friends and families.

We are social beings, and storytelling is part of what makes us human.

This is, I think, one of the reasons why there has been such a huge eruption of anger against the BBC's plans to cut by two-thirds the number of new short stories broadcast on Radio 4.

An anodyne press release slipped out in early July announcing the change, and since then authors and readers have been rallying to the defence of the short story. The Society of Authors has a petition signed by more than 5,000 people, including such luminaries as Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Joanna Lumley and Stephen Fry.

The BBC has been taken aback by the backlash against the proposal, but so far seems to be spinning its changes rather than reversing policy.

However, it shouldn't have been surprised: the corporation, like many institutions before it, has been outmanoeuvred by a handful of activists on social media.

Scottish author Susie Maguire saw a message on Twitter from Ian Skillicorn, director of National Short Story Week. She blogged on fellow author Stella Duffy's site, tweeted and contacted the Society of Authors and Equity - their members read the stories out on the BBC. She and Skillicorn discussed a petition and it was launched on ipetitions.com.

Gone are the days when a letter to the papers would express the anger of authors and readers. The BBC was surrounded, and it made that most old-fashioned of concessions: it agreed to a meeting. As this brought no change in policy, the fight goes on and Maguire finds herself trending on Twitter - under her nom de guerre wrathofgod - because of Stephen Fry's support of the cause.

It is no surprise that it was a Scottish writer who turned a crude spending cut into a principled crusade. Literature is the most important of the arts in Scotland. We have a national poet - Robert Burns - whose works were in every working-class home last century, and whose birth is celebrated annually at home and abroad.

Wherever Scots travelled, they took Burns with them. Memorials are found throughout the old British Empire and beyond.The public subscriptions and unveiling of monuments brought hundreds of thousands together in cities across the world.

Back in Edinburgh, Sir Walter Scott, the other great forger of national consciousness, is celebrated in Waverley, the only railway station in the world named after a novel, and in the Scott Monument - the largest monument anywhere to a writer.

The importance of writing persists to this day. The cause of modern Scottish nationalism owes an immense debt to Hugh MacDiarmid, and that of Gaeldom to Sorley MacLean.

The post-war repositioning of Edinburgh as a global capital started with a bold move by the city fathers in 1947: the establishment of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Originally established to "provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit" in the days after the Second World War, the Edinburgh Festival is now the centre of a cultural explosion that refutes Tom Stoppard's quip that Edinburgh is best regarded as the Reykjavik of the South rather than the Athens of the North.

It is copied worldwide by cities and states wishing to rebrand themselves. For example, South Australia now has a festival, a fringe, a film festival and a cabaret festival and styles itself the "Festival State" - a deliberate redefinition away from a rustbucket state.

But worldwide, what is at the core of these festivals? Sure there's performance, and that is what draws in the punters. But every performance has a script, and they are produced by writers. The play's the thing, but someone drafts it.

A few years ago, comedian Griff Rhys Jones made an impassioned plea for the status of the writer. No great television show or film, he argued, could be made without a great script or screenplay. Investment in the future of British film and television, he argued, should start with writers. He was right then, as Maguire is right now.

It is one of the most important roles of the BBC to identify and invest in emerging talent; the new voices that will find it hard to get a start elsewhere.

Commercial television is good at picking people when they start to emerge. The BBC has the ability, and responsibility, to nurture the talent.

That is why there is so much anger about the cuts to short stories on Radio 4. Of course, a lot of listeners find the short-story slot a part of their daily routine. But more are worried not just about the loss of a couple of stories a week, but the threat to that great radio or TV show, or the award-winning drama, because a new author did not get the platform they needed early in their career.

The irony is that the BBC, while cutting spending on stories, is working hard to maintain current affairs coverage. Yet what do we hear again and again in cool-headed analysis of contemporary events? A focus on storytelling. The government, we are told, has no "narrative" on health reform. The opposition needs to break the "frame" on the economy.First Minister Alex Salmond has crafted a "compelling message". It's all about the story. That's how we understand modern politics. It's actually how we are sold goods and services.

The BBC cuts are a false economy.

Let's not forget, as well, that book festivals now provide one of the roles previously supplied by political parties: a forum for political discussion.

Two thousand people saw David Miliband at the Hay Festival, and he didn't have a book to promote. Record crowds are expected at this year's Edinburgh Book Festival, now a vital part of our national conversation. A revolt of the authors has been orchestrated over the internet from a flat in Edinburgh. Writers, not just poets, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

For all our sakes we need Maguire and her fellow authors to succeed.

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