I've known for several months that a major on-air discussion about the proposed Viking Energy windfarm project in Shetland was likely to take place on the BBC local radio station, Radio Shetland, and that I'd be hosting it. So I've been extremely careful to avoid making any public comment on the issue. Feelings have been running high. As, until a week on Monday, you can hear for yourself.
The anti-windfarm group Sustainable Shetland has mounted a high profile campaign against the project. There have been accusations of bullying tactics by both sides, and some regrettably vituperative comments have been made, orally and in the press. Friends have fallen out, families have been split. So this was going to be no ordinary 'Speakeasy'.
For one thing, it was going to be two hours long, and broadcast in summer, after Radio Shetland's 'late' programmes had stopped for the season.
I was happy to host the programme, though there are issues with the format of Speakeasy which are problematic: No live calls are put through on air; people call in their comments or questions, or email and they are usually anonymous on air, although names are normally given at initial contact. There is, as always, a risk of systematic, pre-planned lobbying, and it's probable this happened on Monday night.
Anyway. By the time we went on air at 6.10pm, we had been deluged with calls and emails, the vast majority opposing the development. SS have delivered an anti-wind farm petition with 3000 signatures, and are extremely well organised. They were represented in the Lerwick studio by Billy Fox and Kevin Learmonth; on the other side of the table were councillors, charitable trustees, and directors of Viking Energy Alan Wishart and Bill Manson. MP Alistair Carmichael and MSP Tavish Scott also contributed live via ISDN line and by phone.
The major issues are these:
1: Conflict of interest. The council is the planning authority but has a half-share in the development. Shetland's oil funds, administered by the Charitable Trust, are being ploughed into the project. Bill, Alan and other councillors are accused of being hopelessly compromised in their decision making.
2: The environmental and aesthetic impact of the development: It is huge - 150 turbines, each 145 metres tall. That's right. Metres. Roads will be built, quarries dug, power sub-stations constructed. Vast amounts of peat will be shifted, thus, SS argue, fatally compromising the so-called carbon benefit of the project.
3: The financial issues: How much will it cost and will Shetland as a community benefit, or lose out? The council and Charitable Trust has a bad record of investment in other supposedly profitable projects.
The main problem with the programme, as far as I was concerned, was reflecting the huge number of public contributions, which came in throughout the show. I believe the overall make-up was accurately provided, though it was impossible to read out everything, and most emails were very lengthy. The impact on Shetland's landscape was a recurring theme. Though outweighed by opposition, there were some significant arguments for the project going ahead.
The in-studio confrontations were sometimes fraught. It was clear that while the councillors were used to forthright opposition and were prepared to deal with it, the two SS campaigners did not take kindly to having their positions challenged publicly, either by the councillors (Alan was on particularly sarcastic form)or,in a devil's advocate fashion, by me. Billy Fox grew particularly agitated after I cut short his quoting at length from a document, and I was accused of not allowing him to speak. I then made it clear that all participants should feel free to speak, and that they did not need to be asked by me. But the mood was clouded.
We had one 'vox pop' insert from the streets of Lerwick and four other, balanced sets of interviews from around the isles. By the end, I felt most of the issues had been raised and the faults in arguments on both sides exposed. I don't think the studio guests parted on particularly friendly terms, but hey, that's showbiz.
Since the broadcast, there have been, I think, four complaints to BBC Radio Shetland about the debate, all centring on the way it was conducted by me, all alleging bias against SS. I do not know who these complaints came from. All but one are highly personal and very bitter. Commensurate, I fear, with the tone of many anti-windfarm letters to the local paper.
I remain unwilling to take any public position on the wind farm issue. There are good arguments on both sides. Monday's programme was an attempt to highlight those arguments. And you can judge for yourself (until next Monday) whether they were made, and made well and fairly, here.