Broadcasting and the referendum

Claire Enders, the redoubtable media analyst, has taken a pasting today from over one hundred Guardian readers angered by her pessimistic prognosis for Scottish media, should “yes” prevail on Thursday.

David Elstein
16 September 2014

In The Guardian today, Claire Enders (a welcome regular at openDemocracy broadcasting discussions) is scathing about the SNP, and about the Scottish Government’s White Paper proposals for re-shaping broadcasting after September 18th (the plans are “fantasy” she says), should independence be supported in the referendum. She forecasts harm to the BBC and Channel 4, the creation of a Scottish Broadcasting Service that lacks UK public broadcasting traditions of impartiality and independence, difficulty of access to existing BBC services for Scottish viewers and listeners, being cut off from the BBC i-Player, higher mobile and fixed-line telephony costs, and damage to the quality of life, the economy and democracy in Scotland.

Quite why Scotland’s size should prevent the emergence of a strong independent media sector, when that does not apply to, say, Eire, is not immediately evident: especially in the context of Claire’s regular calls for wholesale reform of regulation of UK media (calls that presume their strength and independence are in question). On newspapers, The Guardian published in parallel to Claire a mildly optimistic scenario, from Iain Macwhirter. On broadcasting, I am confident Claire is wrong.

As I have previously shown (“Broadcasting for Scotland”, September 18th 2013 and “The BBC and the Scottish Referendum”, August 22nd 2014), Scotland is currently poorly served in return for its £320 million annual contribution to the BBC, 93% of whose output is produced in England. Claire mocks the notion of a “joint venture” between the BBC and the planned Scottish Broadcasting Service (“what could a nation of five million produce?”), but I think she misunderstands the concept.

The SBS would take over what BBC Scotland currently provides (at a cost less than a tenth of the Scottish provision of licence fees), trebling the amount spent, and broadening the range of content generated so as to fill dedicated TV and radio channels. This is substantially what the bi-partisan Scottish Broadcasting Commission recommended five years ago (in other words, this is not some kind of SNP broadcasting system).

In return for taking over the bulk of the BBC’s physical and personnel assets in Scotland after independence (which would otherwise remain as a substantial cost to the BBC with no realistic benefit), plus modestly increased levels of programme commissioning from Scotland and an annual payment of perhaps £50-70 million (much more than, say, Eire pays for BBC content), Scotland would make it worthwhile for the BBC to continue to provide its own network channels (TV and radio) in Scotland. This would save the BBC wasting £30-40 million a year on a terrestrial transmission system to which it is contractually committed for many years.

Given that there is no benefit to Scotland from the BBC’s decision four years ago to accept the obligation to fund S4C, BBC World Service, BBC Monitoring, local TV stations that are nearly all in England and broadband roll-out that primarily serves England, this would not be a bad outcome for the BBC, with a net cost trivial in the context of its £5 billion annual income. As for Channel 4, far from it withering away in Scotland, the likelihood is that ownership of it would be shared between the two states (the rest of the UK and Scotland), leading to a significant – but proportionate – increase in the amount of content commissioned from Scotland.

Claire’s worries about the ability of an SBS “to match the traditions of impartiality and independence of the BBC” triggered a deluge of abuse in the comments posted on her article, not least because many “yes” supporters have a distinctly jaundiced view of BBC Scotland’s output, and were demonstrating outside the BBC’s offices only today in protest at alleged bias in BBC network coverage of the referendum campaign. What had particularly annoyed them was political editor Nick Robinson’s report last week – given great prominence on national news bulletins – that the Royal Bank of Scotland would move its headquarters to England in the event of a “yes” vote.

Even 12 hours after the bank’s chief executive had explained that such a technical move would have minimal impact on operations and jobs, the “story” still led BBC One’s News at Ten. Remarkably, the BBC’s economics editor, Robert Peston, seemed to share Alex Salmond’s suspicion that Robinson had been suckered by a Treasury press release, which led him to report a decision by RBS well before the bank’s board had finished its meeting to discuss the matter, and to pre-empt, whilst the markets were still closed, the bank’s own announcement of what was potentially a market-sensitive matter.

Claire seems to believe that, after independence, Scottish politics will still be dominated by a party advocating independence, which will in turn try to control the media. I suspect that post-independence issues will steadily return to centre stage, with traditional political divisions re-asserting themselves. But let us also remember that it took the BBC decades to wean itself from taking a lead from the powers that be: Churchill was kept off the air in the 1930s because the Conservative leadership so insisted; likewise, Enoch Powell for much of the 1960s and 1970s. It is hard to understand why the BBC has resolutely refused to engage in advance with the Scottish government on post-referendum arrangements, other than at the behest of Westminster: a “yes” vote will leave it heavily exposed, running financial risks which might yet force it to seek post-referendum emergency funding to plug the holes in its service budgets and its pension fund.

Even a “no” vote – if it genuinely leads to Gordon Brown’s promised home rule – will surely force a revision of the broadcasting arrangements for Scotland, with an outcome not dissimilar from the one that a “yes” vote would bring about. Coverage of Scottish news would be entirely devolved to Scottish hands, with the main news bulletins constructed locally, whilst still retaining access to the BBC’s output. For those Scots long bewildered by the BBC banging on about issues in education, health or the legal system that are irrelevant to Scotland, this would be a blessed relief. Dedicated Scottish channels would be financed. Of course, the SBS would go through the inevitable teething problems, and might have to fight to assert its editorial independence from Holyrood: but that it would represent a considerable advance on the position of BBC Scotland (controlled, like all other BBC outposts, from London) cannot be doubted.

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