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  7. Orkney, the BBC and why local newspapers are vital
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall
St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

I wrote this article for The Orcadian after a visit to the Northern Isles last week:

Institution is a funny word; conjuring up images of an ancient and benevolent organisations or at its extreme an unchallengeable authority. To be institutionalised means having individualism and initiative driven out and at its worst it infers madness.

Institutions themselves come in all shapes and sizes; mostly good, some bad and a fair few somewhere in between. And government functions apart if there is one British institution which dominates all our lives it is the BBC.

It’s part of the national DNA; BBC One is by far the most watched TV channel, Radio Two the most listened-to radio station, Radio Times one of the best-read magazines, its news websites crush all before them in digital communications.

Thanks to the licence fee it funds services which would struggle in a purely commercial world, if they were able to exist at all. Its orchestras are a good example. Classical music might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a mark of a cultured and creative society that high arts with smaller audiences can co-exist with the mass entertainment and the licence fee allows this to happen.

So we have the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra which performs at the Glasgow City Halls and Edinburgh’s Usher Hall throughout the year and at the St Magnus festival, Orkney audiences are now being treated to the BBC’s London-based Symphony Orchestra with a wonderful programme including Rachmaninov, Prokofiev and Michael Tippet at the St Magnus Festival

To put that in some context, the BBC doesn’t send an orchestra to Barrow-in-Furness where the population is over three times that of Orkney, or to Stranraer which has more people than Kirkwall

And with the arrival of the orchestra comes broadcasts on Radio Three; despite Classic FM, surely one of the other benefits of the licence fee is allowing all types of classical and experimental music to be aired without the need for advertising.

What this means is that Orkney and the St Magnus Festival is on the national cultural map with places like Glyndebourne which brings publicity the marketing budgets of most UK councils beyond the big cities can’t buy.

Along with the work of George Mackay Brown and Eric Linklater, it is Sir Peter Maxwell’s legacy that Orkney is not a cultural outpost but a destination.

I chose Barrow-in-Furness as a comparison deliberately and not just because I used to work on the North-West Evening Mail. Like Kirkwall, Barrow is one of those small towns which has its own BBC studio, which used to be Radio Furness and now feeds into Radio Cumbria.

The licence fee funds small chat-based stations which would be commercially unviable and so from that point of view provides a public service which fits with the basic ethos of public service broadcasting. But in the digital age it goes further and local BBC staff can Facebook, tweet and post, and the public can also interact and benefit from the social media activity and the justified reputation for reliability of the BBC’s brand.

But as elsewhere this means that the BBC is in direct competition with other commercial communicators and when it comes to news and local information that usually means newspapers. And for the likes of The Orcadian, with an unbroken record of service to the community going back to 1854, it’s a significant issue when the main competition doesn’t have to worry about its income.

The BBC is not going to go away and nor should it; its tradition of quality, innovative broadcasting is alive and well, its World Service is a global force for good and despite its many critics it makes every effort to ensure it’s news coverage is balanced and fair.

But it has also been spectacularly unaware of the impact it has on commercial operators, especially in places like Orkney and Shetland where the competition is head-to-head and that has to change, whether by limiting its social media output or what it posts online.

The challenges facing commercial news operations are considerable, but on a visit to the Norther Islands last week I was delighted to see just how healthy both The Orcadian and Shetland Times remain.

It’s not just the news coverage, but The Orcadian is lucky enough still to carry a significant amount of public notices, keeping you up to date with road closures, planning applications and public sector jobs. We know that such services are under threat across Scotland as councils seek to save cash, but their absence from The Orcadian and papers like it would make it much more difficult for readers to find out what’s going on in their communities.

As a journalist I cut my teeth on a local weekly paper in Chester and I remain very proud of my time there, even though the paper is no more. On my visit to Orkney last week I was lucky enough to be given the use of an Orcadian car to go exploring and I was very conscious of the fact that as I tootled along to Stromness, Skara Brae, Brodgar and down to the Italian Chapel that everywhere I went I was an advert for the paper and was proud to be so. And as the paper’s ambassador-for-a-day my driving was unusually careful!

Living in the fabulous city of Edinburgh, but also as someone who ran the Edinburgh Evening News for around ten years, I know it’s easy for people to see only the negatives in where they live – don’t get the average Edinburgh person started on tourists or the International Festival.

But like Edinburgh folk, Orcadians are blessed by some of the richest heritage concentrated in such a small space anywhere in the British Isles which can be experienced on  a wonderfully human scale.  What an utter joy it was to experience  the peace of the Italian Chapel or to walk along the beach at Skara Brae as Stone Age people would have done 5,000 years ago, except there were fewer folk when I was there…

And one of those blessings is a strong paper like The Orcadian.  Throw it against the wall when it annoys you, send in an email when there is an error (the guys are human after all) and of course tell your friends when someone you know is in it, which in this community will probably be every week.

Institutions are important and The Orcadian is yours; challenge it by all means, but above all else, please support it.