Robert Beveridge: Can BBC and STV Survive Independence?

The announcement of cuts to BBC Scotland – especially to news and current affairs – throws into sharp relief the problems of structuring and funding public service broadcasting and what is required to achieve.

Surely now is the time to increase investment in the coverage of news about Scotland at a time when Scotland is becoming more newsworthy on the global stage.

Make no mistake: there is going to be intense and increased interest in the referendum on independence and what will be needed from the BBC is authoritative reporting which is sensitive to nuance and detail.

Only in this way will the BBC meet the terms of its charter and make a case for remaining in being if a federal BBC becomes a viable option or indeed a necessity.

Readers will recall that in the era of de-colonisation, newly-independent nations established an airline as a flag carrier and took over the broadcaster. What will happen if the Scottish people choose independence in 2014 or beyond?

And what will happen to the BBC? Will the proposed Scottish Digital Network somehow transform into a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation and, if so, what might be the funding and regulation model for the new broadcaster?

Would the mix of programmes be similar to that in the Irish Republic? 

How would we deal with cross border transmissions with viewers and listeners in Scotland able to access content by the new English Broadcasting Corporation through satellite or the internet?

What would be the effect on Scotland’s national (apart from the Borders) commercial public service broadcaster – STV?

And what about Channel 4? Presumably this would continue but it is worth remembering that this channel is also owned, as it were, by the British State. Indeed, the chair of Channel 4 is appointed by the UK Government, as is the chair of the BBC Trust.

One little noticed issue in the Scotland Bill is whether the national BBC Trustee for Scotland is to be appointed by Scottish Ministers or jointly between London and Edinburgh with the former retaining real control. Inevitably, Whitehall seeks to maintain the status quo.

The Scottish Parliament hearing on broadcasting issues in the Scotland Bill is scheduled for the 25th of this month and amongs the witnesses giving evidence is Blair Jenkins, past chair of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission. It will be interesting to see if he continues to advocate top-slicing the TV licence fee to pay for a new Scottish Digital Network or whether a new Scottish Broadcasting Corporation is going to be a more attractive option.

In any case, the broader status quo does not seem to be an option as we go forward. We are due to have a UK election in 2015. Possibly an independence referendum in June 2014 and the next Scottish general election in May 2016

The BBC charter runs out in 2016.

To cap it all, the channel 3 licences are up for revision or renewal by broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, in 2014. One possibility might be the creation of an all-UK channel 3 licence for ITV.

At a stroke, Coronation Street, the X Factor and all the other ITV programmes could be broadcast by ITV and not by STV. We might not have a repeat of the Downton Abbey issue of last year but would we seriously want STV to lose around 90 per cent plus of its content and income? What would be the effect on jobs at STV and creative output?

How would STV be any real competition for BBC Scotland in such circumstances?

Would television in and for Scotland become like our film industry: small scale, dominated by others telling our stories, if at all, and subject to cyclical pressures.

Would we be able to mount productions like A History of Scotland or would we be able to afford to support the excellent BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles – whose contract has just been extended to 2015 – or would the new dispensation mean that Scotland could only afford the RSNO?

The announcement yesterday of cuts at the BBC including 120 or so at BBC Scotland throws these issues in sharp relief. I have no doubt that civil servants at St Andrews House and Whitehall are commencing to think through the various scenarios.

My own preference, following Alex Salmond’s references to a social union, is for the BBC to remain in place but with substantially altered governance structures and processes at all levels – making the BBC genuinely federal – quite a challenge for the Corporation and one which, despite partially successful attempts to throw off the label of being the London Broadcasting Corporation, they have yet to commence to consider.

This thinking must be done NOW and separate from the stresses of reporting the referendum campaign to citizens in Scotland and across the UK. It will not be helpful for the future of the BBC itself to become part of the political debate when tempers are running high and accusations of failure to report the referendum with impartiality are part of the mix.

What is also vital is that these issues are not left to policy wonks or politicians. The public need to have their say. 

Robert Beveridge is a consultant in Media policy and regulation and Visiting Professor at the University of Sassari, Sardinia.

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