The ALCS Interview: Pete Wishart MP

Rock musician, MP and now Chair of the All Party Writers Group (APWG). The Scottish National Party politician talks to us about creators' rights, libraries, music, books and what is next on the agenda for the APWG.

You founded the Scottish rock group Big Country, before going on to join the band Runrig. You then became an MP. How did one lead to the other?

I was always interested in politics and come from a very political family and when at college I went on to become the student union president. I was also a very good friend of Stewart Adamson from the Skids and when he said he wanted to form a new band (the one that would go on to be Big Country), I had no hesitation in wanting to be part of it. When that didn’t work out, I was effectively headhunted by Runrig who were taken with Big Country’s sound and wanted to try and emulate some of their success.

Politics were never far from Runrig and we were closely associated with a number of political campaigns, most notably the cause of securing a Scottish Parliament. Increasingly, I was asked to participate in more and more political events until I was invited to stand for the SNP in the first Scottish Parliament. At that time Runrig were going through some personal changes so I left the band. Then I couldn’t resist standing for Westminster in 2001 and, since elected, have opted out of professional music.

You are a strong supporter of the creative economy and have for a long time been involved in working towards fairer compensation for creators. Why did you decide to lend your support to the cause?

As a former musician, I was keen to see how I could support musicians when I became an MP. I then quickly became familiar with the wider ‘political’ environment that underpins support for artists. Ensuring that artists get properly rewarded for the wonderful works they produce is at the heart of what I want to contribute in supporting creative enterprise.

Your work centres on several causes related to creativity. What challenges are unique to each cause? And what unites them?

Each creative discipline has its own particular challenges and many are sectoral specific, such as the issue of  registered design in the design sector and educational exceptions for writers. There is, though, a strong commonality particularly when we look at the copyright framework and securing IP rights. The ability of the different sectors to work together has been a key strength in recent years.

Andrew Carnegie  – that giant of philanthropy – would be dismayed if he was around to observe what was going on today.

You recently became Chair of the All Party Writers Group. Which issues is the Group working on at the moment, and what would you like the Group to achieve in the next couple of years?

The All Party Writers Group is considering a number of issues at the moment, not least fair contracts for authors and how this might translate in the commercial marketplace and the issue of volunteer libraries and library loans not currently included in Public Lending Right (PLR) sampling. I’ll be meeting writers’ organisations in the month ahead to firm up the overall agenda for the APWG.

How do you think the forthcoming comprehensive spending review might impact on Public Lending Right (PLR) funding?

Loans in libraries are going down; this is probably because so many are closing. Still, those numbers will be of concern when any review  of PLR is taking place. This year has seen the loans of audiobooks added to numbers but even so, there is a downward trend. The All Party Writers Group will be keeping an eye on this and any future developments concerning PLR.

The 2010 Digital Economy Act enabled PLR to be extended to on-site loans of e-books. In fact no library yet has this facility. Yet off-site lending is growing. How do you feel writers should be remunerated for e-lending?

I understand that pilot schemes have been trialled recently and I will be interested in hearing the outcome of these from publishers. It is important that writers are remunerated for all uses of their work. Whether this should be done through licensing schemes or whether this type of payment should be made through the PLR scheme has yet to be evaluated though. I believe writers’ unions will be forming their own decisions on what’s best for writers. The APWG will be interested to hear their recommendations at the appropriate time.

You are from Dunfermline, as was Andrew Carnegie, a man who personally funded hundreds of public libraries in the UK. What are your thoughts now that so many libraries are closing?

Libraries have been such a feature of our communities for so long and it is heartbreaking to see these wonderful resources closing down. So many people still rely on libraries to secure books and conduct research. Andrew Carnegie  – that giant of philanthropy – would be dismayed if he was around to observe what was going on today.

What’s decided in Brussels is important and something no doubt that ALCS will need help on to get writers’ voices heard…

You write a column for the Scots Independent, and you are also a blogger. What particular challenges do you think writers are facing at the moment, and how do you think they could be addressed?

I enjoy my little dips into journalism with both traditional and new media. The changing technology and the mastering of the various new platforms for content are the main issue and there are particular problems for journalism. The old platforms of traditional press and print journalism have found it particularly difficult to transition to new platforms and find opportunities to monetise.

Do you think we should be warned about prospective legislation being mooted within the EU? If so, why?

What’s decided in Europe can ultimately impact on UK laws. Copyright is important to creators. We must ensure that any decisions taken in Brussels are fair and equitable for us and not detrimental to creators of any type making a living. We can see from the recent ALCS research into authors’ earnings that they have dropped by 29% since 2005 and that the number of professional writers making their living solely from writing has dropped from 40% to 11 ½% over the same period. This is disastrous for the creative industries and we must do all we can to stop this trend. So yes, what’s decided in Brussels is important and something no doubt that ALCS will need help on to get writers’ voices heard when issues around copyright are being discussed.

Copyright education in schools is not included in the National Curriculum, which risks giving us a whole  generation of children which does not understand that not everything on the internet should be available for free. What do you think should happen to correct this?

It is really difficult to teach people to respect copyright when there is little, if no, education in schools on the subject. Industry is doing its bit to make copyright education programmes available in schools and soon the Creative Content UK initiative will be launched (a part-Government funded, part-industry funded programme); a nationwide copyright education initiative aimed at the general public. It would be ideal if copyright appeared on the National Curriculum in Schools as well however and the APWG will definitely be promoting this goal.

I’m always impressed by the input of the many writers and artists who give up so much of their time to promote the cause of creators’ rights.

You play in a parliamentary rock band called MP4 in aid of charity. Are you and your band members all in agreement on your stance on the creative economy?

Yes. Kevin Brennan has been very active on the creative economy and contributed to many of the debates. We have done several initiatives around downloading and collectively put our names to a number of the more pertinent issues.

As a musician, did you have any personal experience of being let down by rights legislation before you got into politics?

As with most musicians the ‘political’ side of the business was left to others to manage and I just got on with playing and recording. When I was performing it was the pre-digital 90’s and issues were somewhat more relaxed than they are now. Then concerns were more about contractual arrangements with record companies and the interests of A and R. It almost seems like a golden halcyon period now.

We’ve heard about your band: who else do you work with on addressing creators’ rights?

I’m always impressed by the input of the many writers and artists who give up so much of their time to promote the cause of creators’ rights. At the All Party Writers Group AGM at the House of Commons it was great to meet so many writers with their own particular stories about why they are involved.

What are you reading at the moment?

Over the summer, I’ve been spending my time wading through various political books and biographies I’ve missed out on (boring, I know) and I’m currently reading The Establishment by Owen Jones. Really well written and very well reasoned.

Last question: who do you think is the next big thing in Scottish rock?

There are some fantastic new Scottish artists like Chvrches, Frightened Rabbit and particularly Young Fathers. Expect to hear some incredible things from them soon.

Interview by Barbara Hayes and Jade Zienkiewicz.