I’m sure more than a few people are writing about how “concerned” they are by the First Minister’s plans to “break up the BBC” voiced at Edinburgh’s International Television Festival yesterday, but my only personal concern is that Alex Salmond may have been reading my mind from the audience. His vision is almost word-for-word what I’ve been suggesting for months now as the most reasonable path for Scotland to take upon independence, as there are few alternatives, especially as you can’t reasonably expect the residents of one country to pay towards their neighbour’s national broadcaster.
Let me break it down: the SNP, while they won’t put out solid figures until next year’s White Paper, want to take BBC Scotland’s existing staff and facilities and use them as the basis for a new broadcasting corporation, should the independence referendum end with the establishment of an independent Scottish state. This would be ad-free and primarily funded by the £320 million already brought in yearly by television license fees in Scotland, a substantially larger figure than BBC Scotland’s existing £102 million budget; that extra money would go towards providing “a wider range” of Scottish content.
Salmond did, however, commit to spending between £50 million and £75 million of that annual budget on licensing existing BBC content for broadcast. His so-called, slightly comic “Edinburgh Declaration” was a promise to keep EastEnders on air, while presumably also licensing other favourites like Doctor Who. The additional Scottish content is worth the compromise, he claims, and the audience reaction seemed positive, particularly towards his welcoming attitude to commissioning more independent content, regional material driven at particular communities, and “[using] the digital revolution to engage with Scottish communities overlooked by conventional broadcasting”.
The First Minister chose to draw parallels with Irish state broadcaster RTÉ in how the station might work (and be economically viable). A comparison of note was the £92 million spent on commissioning content on Scotland by the BBC compared to the £200 million spent on commissioning content in the Republic of Ireland by RTÉ. Perhaps even more staggering is Salmond’s claim (albeit unsourced) that the proportion of UK content commissioned in Scotland growing from 2.6% to 9% in the past six years has benefited the Scottish economy to the tune of £20 billion.
That value could also be amplified by a dedicated English-language Scottish channel, something he would like even without independence. Citing BBC Alba’s success even as a Scottish Gaelic channel, he’s called for broadcasting to be devolved to Holyrood even in advance of the independence referendum, supporting “any developments that improve and advance [Scottish broadcasting]” and questioning why Scottish Parliament can legislate on healthcare, “potentially the most important issue in the planet”, but not broadcasting.
According to the First Minister, the growth of the Scottish television industry since 2006 still “does not meet the needs of Scotland in the digital age”, pitching a “digital network” which would be accessible everywhere in Scotland and would even license content internationally to give the world “a window into Scotland”, while insisting that Westminster have no “inclination, motivation, or even the time” to improve either Scottish broadcasting nor the “legislative frameworks that are fifty years out of date”.
“Independence gives us the best possible chance of creating that [improved] framework,” he added, as well as confirming that any licenses granted by the UK government prior to independence would be honoured by the Scottish government, giving broadcasters like ITV and Channel 4 the option to continue broadcasting in Scotland under the same terms. Scotland would, however, establish its own regulatory body similar to Ofcom, potentially with a different attitude from the UK body.
With the White Paper still a year away, this is obviously but a tease of what is intended to become a narrower specification for the “proper public service broadcasting for this exciting and energised country”, but it still answers some vital questions about the future of the BBC. Obviously, Alex Salmond intends for a tight relationship between the Scottish and UK governments post-independence – a point on which the future Scottish broadcasting landscape could strongly hinge.