Across the Border: Broadcasting in an independent Scotland

 

BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow. (photo: Stewart Priest)
BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow (photo: Stewart Priest)

The devil is in the detail. What a great expression. And like many old sayings it carries great truth.

Here in Scotland we are moving towards our vote on whether to become an independent country. The referendum will be held on Thursday 18 September, 2014. I think the vote will be against independence but we shall see – much can and will happen over the next 15 months.

Many want Scotland to be independent come what may and they will not change their view before the referendum. Others believe Scotland should remain an integral part of the UK and, again, will not change their view.

But in between are the “don’t know” or “undecided” folk who will vote largely, I think, on economic issues. They will make a calculation about how independence will affect them and their families as the debate unfolds and as those devilish details are teased out.

The uncertainty of going into an independent future may make many undecided voters stick with the UK. What about public services, will there be sufficient money for them? How strong will Scotland’s economy be in the big wide world? What about the SNP proposal to keep sterling – how will that work? Will Scotland be accepted into the EU, with or without the Euro?

People will probably be less concerned about services such as health and education which have been run by Scottish governments since devolution re-established the Scottish Parliament in 1999 – provided, that is, they calculate that there will be enough money to fund them.

But there is a tricky area of services which currently operate across the border between England and Scotland. Railways is one example – how would that work? Would English-operated trains be expected to stop at the border. How far would ScotRail trains be allowed to operate into England?

And what about the military? Would a Scottish army, navy and air force be anything more than a token defence?

Personally I’m particularly concerned about broadcasting. For all its faults, we in the UK currently benefit from the BBC, an operation that is surely unequalled anywhere in the world.

For £145.50 a year (per household) we get a wonderful range of TV and radio stations – and online content – that provides something, in fact, lots of things, for everyone.

But what kind of public service broadcasting might we see in an independent Scotland? 

In August 2012 Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond outlined his ideas. The Guardian reported that he wants a new public service broadcaster, built on the assets and staff of BBC Scotland and funded mainly by licence fee payers. But he refused to rule out the prospect of the network carrying advertising alongside its public funding.

For me one of the joys of living in the UK is publicly-funded broadcasting which I am able to enjoy without advertising interrupting the flow of dramas, documentaries and sporting events. Do we really want to throw that away?

In mid-2011 there were 2.37 million households in Scotland (source: General Register Office for Scotland). Let’s be generous and assume every one of those households has a colour TV Licence. That will give a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation an income – without advertising – of less than £345m a year.

So, what can you get for £345m a year? I expect the BBC to publish its 2012/13 annual report and accounts later this month but the 2011/12 figures will give us a pretty good idea.

And it doesn’t make good reading for those who favour a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation.

To run BBC Two cost £416.6m in content – £537.1m by the time you have added in distribution and infrastructure/support – so there’s the budget gone straight away before you’ve got one TV channel, albeit a very good one, on the air. For the record, to run BBC One costs £1,041.1m in content which is approximately three times the projected income. Anyone fancy a three times increase in the Licence Fee?

The good news is that radio is cheaper. BBC Radio Scotland and the Gaelic service BBC Radio nan Gaidheal cost, including add-ons, £38.1m a year.

But the combined costs of BBC Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Live comes to £348.8m a year – roughly equivalent to our projected income for a Scottish public service broadcaster.

Many people in Scotland, most even, will not want to sacrifice all these services in return for a single under-funded new TV channel to run alongside BBC Radio Scotland.

And don’t expect the majority of TV Licence Fee payers in England to happily pay for existing BBC services to be broadcast for free in an independent Scotland.

Yes, the Scottish Broadcasting Corporation could buy in some of the popular programmes such as EastEnders, Strictly Come Dancing and David Attenborough documentaries – but this will quickly eat into the small budget.

And will we manage without BBC Radio 4 altogether? Or Radio 2?

Alex Salmond is right when he identifies the fact that “we do not have an English-language public service broadcasting channel of our own” in Scotland. But I don’t think his latest ideas are the right way to go about getting one.

To find out more

Guardian: Alex Salmond outlines plans to replace BBC Scotland –http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/aug/24/alex-salmond-replace-bbc-scotland

Guardian: Scottish referendum: BBC Scotland to invest £5m in extra programming –http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/may/21/scottish-referendum-bbc-scotland

BBC Annual Report 2012 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2012/

TV Licensing –
http://www.tvlicensing.co.uk/

Published by Graham Brown

I am Graham Brown, author of this blog, an Englishman living in Orkney since St Magnus Day 2010. I’m married to musician, singer and songwriter Kathie Touin. I am a member of Harray & Sandwick Community Council and a Manager (committee member) of Quoyloo Old School (community centre). I volunteer with the RSPB. I was on the committee which restored Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial and created the HMS Hampshire wall. I belong to the Radio Caroline Support Group, Orkney Field Club and Orkney Heritage Society. I spent nearly 24 years at the BBC in London. Remember: One planet, don’t trash it.

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