Tuesday 9 September 2014

Thoughts on Scottish independence and the BBC

What would Scottish independence mean for the BBC (an organisation famously founded by a Scot)?

I will admit that, until I was prompted to think about it, the fate of the BBC was pretty low down my priorities when it comes to thinking about the possibility of Scotland becoming independent from the rest of the United Kingdom. 

Though English, I'm roughly one-thirds Scottish (a Scottish granddad from Glasgow, plus more distant Scots on other ancestral branches), and we holiday in Scotland more than anywhere else, my childhood dog was a tim'rous West Highland called Robbie, I buy a Scottish Sunday newspaper every week ('The Sunday Post', if you're wondering) and, I feel I must add as a sand grown 'un, the braw seaside town of Morecambe has long been a home-from-home (work-wise and holiday-wise) for lots of Scots - and long may it continue. So the thought of Scotland divorcing from the rest of the UK and leaving me semi-orphaned should, I think, make Alex and Nicola feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves. (Should I ask some grubby UK lawyer - Michael Mansfield? - to sue them for emotional abuse then?)

The present Scottish government's cunning plan appears to be to transform what is now BBC Scotland (lock, stock and several smoking barrels) into a brand new broadcaster called the Scottish Broadcasting Service. This includes retaining BBC Scotland's existing staff and being given all of their assets. This new entity would continue to be funded by means of the license fee, albeit a brand-spanking-new Scottish version of the license fee. 

Sounds easy doesn't it?

Well, presently Scottish license payers account for some 9% of the total, contributing around £350 million to the BBC's coffers. That sum of money would make me happy if I won it on the lottery but (as numerate types will know) it's not a huge amount of money to run an ambitious national public broadcaster - as can be seen if you compare it to, say, the cost of BBC Two along (some £545 million). The SBS might well struggle to punch above its weight then, and adverting and/or state funding (i.e. direct taxation) would probably eventually prove irresistible for any post-independence Scottish government (especially an SNP one) seeking to boost the new national broadcaster's prestige (and, maybe, such things might very well work). 

That £350 million is obviously money that would be lost to the rump BBC in the remaining parts of the United Kingdom, but that rump BBC would still be a very large rump, with 91% of UK license payers remaining to fund its services - and rather fewer services at that (goodbye Gaelic language stations, for example). It would also continue to hold the vast bulk of the corporation's existing assets. 

There's bound to be some squabbling if an independent Scotland seeks a parting share of BBC Worldwide's massive profits from commercial sales but, even if they got it - given  that they would be setting up a breakaway broadcaster - it would surely be a minor windfall that could be enjoyed but once and ne'er again, and BBC Worldwide's profits would, thereafter, be only at the disposal of the continuing (non-Scottish) BBC. (Wouldn't they?)...Or would there be years of further squabbling to try to get a share of that overwhelmingly non-Scottish media equivalent of North Sea oil (over the profits gained from sales of ex-BBC-Scotland programmes, for example)? 

Looking at it, it seems as if the BBC south of the border, across the other border into Wales, and across the Irish Sea (to Northern Ireland) would pull through pretty much in tact financially - unless the government of the day at Charter Renewal proved surprisingly tough. The new Scottish Broadcasting Service would, therefore, have to be either very bold and imaginative - or stubborn (stupid) and statist - to avoid being a mere minnow swimming alongside a (red, white and) blue whale of international repute. 

What would that Scottish Broadcasting Service be able to offer? A Scottish Radio 4? A Scottish Radio 3? A Scottish Radio 5 Live? Who would get custody of James Naughtie, Nicky Campbell, Ken Bruce and Eddie Mair? 

The SNP government argues, in the modern world, with its plethora of easily available digital channels, that the beyond-the-Scottish-borders BBC would still be easily available to Scottish viewers and listeners. Plus there's the internet and the i-Player. Thus Radio 4, Radio 3, Doctor Who and Strictly would still be there at the click of something or other to Scottish viewers. Or so they say (and they could very well be right).

Scotland, however, would then be a foreign country, and wouldn't it be subject to the same charges and blocks that other foreign countries are subject to (as far as I am aware)? Would the rump UK want to allow an independent Scotland unfettered access to its BBC without them paying a penny towards it? Why should they have free access to what would become our license-fee-funded delights, like Doctor Who and The Big Questions

Do the Scots even want rid of the BBC though? If you believe Twitter, Newsnet Scotland and Biased BBC, you'd be mad not to want rid of the biased BBC (though Twitter and Newsnet Scotland see the nature of bias very differently from Biased BBC), but - as per the Guardian - a fairly recent British Social Attitudes survey found that 61% of Scottish viewers wanted to keep the BBC and saw no need for a new Scottish broadcaster and a mere 11% opted for the replacement of the BBC with an independent Scottish broadcasting service. 25% said they’d be happy to have both the BBC and an independent public broadcaster. That survey pre-dated the recent, long referendum campaign and views may well have shifted dramatically - but it's hard to believe they've shifted that dramatically.

Lots of people (most people?) are, of course, full of conflicting, contradictory thoughts most of the time - I know I am, and wouldn't have it any other way - and, thus, all such polls are best treated as only partially reliable guides. Still, I'd say the evidence strongly suggests that the new Scottish Broadcasting Service won't be greeted with unalloyed joy even among those who voted for independence (if the result goes that way) - but, if people in Scotland vote 'yes', that's probably what they'll get.

It's a curious thing but, in the small part of the blogosphere that I inhabit (the 'Biased BBC' part), the idea of scrapping the BBC is a very popular idea. It's not one either Sue or myself have ever been keen on (though I would do some drastic things with the BBC's funding and stamp on its monopolising tendencies), so we're apparently with the bulk of Scottish opinion there (and, therefore, ranged against the cybernats and B-BBCers.) I'd personally like to see the BBC radically transformed throughout the UK - a UK that includes Scotland - but I don't want to see the BBC broken up. Or the UK broken up for that matter. 

I've been drinking a fine single malt whisky tonight, so if the thread of this post is beginning to lose its focus, then it be os it...

...but I'm drinking to the friendship of Scottish, English, Welsh and Ulster license payers, and long may we continue to celebrate together as a nation whilst listening to Barry Cryer's laugh on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue

And here's an Englishman on Orkney to pipe us to bed. Goodnight...


  1. It seems like quite the conundrum, Craig, but I wonder if there aren't some clear paths to follow from what we know about how the BBC operates. Certainly there seems to be an impression in Scotland that the BBC is pro-Union, so there would be some resentment towards a license fee paying for the State broadcaster of a State they've quit. Although, it's probably not going to be up to the citizens, but rather whatever the Scottish politicians think they can do. BBC Alba could be spun off as a Scottish Broadcasting Corp., but they'd have to go through the whole process of creating a Charter and all that. The BBC bosses would be loathe to lose any territory they control, so look for them to work out either a licensed franchise off which they can earn royalties, or some sort of BBC Worldwide deal to maintain the reach of Auntie's tentacles. Everyone will eventually get used to commercials. They'll probably have to come up with some new programming, though. A new series of Still Game, at least?

    If Scotland does become a non-UK country, the BBC will have to block them from the iPlayer if they're not paying the license fee, unless some reciprocal arrangement is worked out with whatever the new Scottish entity is. Mark Thompson's dream of a worldwide subscription service might then be nudged towards fruition. At the very least, cash cows like Dr. Who will be licensed for broadcast one way or another. The Leviathan must be fed, no matter how Byzantine the accounting.

    Who will get custody of Naughtie and Campbell and Mair? Nothing will change for them except an increase in their earnings. If they're not already "freelance", they can easily become so, thus enabling themselves to earn a fat paycheck on both sides of Hadrian's Wall. Naughtie probably can't wait to get going.

  2. Ironically I think the canny Scots might get quality TV on the cheap. The RUK BBC would be prepared to sell its programmes at less than equivalent cost in order to maintain revenue (just as it does to the rest of the world). The SBS could concentrate on producing programmes with a Scottish flavour. Itmight co-produce more with RTE.

    Might not the position of Scottish ITV be more precarious? The Scottish government might be tempted to sell of the franchises to someone like Murdoch...especially if he does come out in support of independence. Scotland might not be so averse to multi-media empires as long as they are friendly to Scottish independence.

    Dan Read


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