David Elstein says Scotland’s bid for autonomy is an opportunity for an independent media outside London
The BBC faces a possibly existential threat in the next 12 months and it comes, not from uncertainty over the future of the BBC Charter and licence fee, but because of the implications of Scottish independence if the “yes” camp wins next September’s referendum.
Independence would profoundly affect two key pillars of the broadcasting economy: the allocation of spectrum and the structure – and financing – of the established broadcasters.
In terms of spectrum management, the role of the Westminster government and its appointed regulator, Ofcom, would presumably be ended by a ‘Yes’ vote for independence.
It is not hard to see an independent Scottish government using its newly-acquired powers over spectrum allocation to force a re-drawing of the ITV map, with the Border franchise (currently part of ITV Tyne Tees Border, delivering local programmes to Cumbria and southern Scotland from Gateshead) being broken up, so as to create either a unified Scottish ITV contractor, licensed by the Scottish equivalent of Ofcom, or a re-divided system north of the border.
Similarly, Channel 4 north of the border might be re-licensed by a Scottish government, using its existing spectrum, in exchange for a significant boost in commissioning and scheduling content originated in Scotland. Alex Salmond has also spoken of creating a Scottish public broadcaster based on the assets and premises of the BBC in Scotland. He has not pronounced on whether this would be a fully-fledged replacement, using all BBC spectrum north of the border, as well as diverting all licence fee revenue gathered in Scotland.
It is impossible to discuss broadcasting in the UK without the BBC being at the heart of the debate. The BBC’s roots lie firmly in the 1920s, when public corporations were the fashion of the day and the Empire was still a thriving institution. Indeed, the World Service as we know it today was launched as the Empire Service, funded by the licence fee, by that most famous son of the manse, John Reith.
When Reith was finally winkled out of the BBC in 1938 after 16 years at its head, he fetched up as chairman of Imperial Airways, better known today as British Airways.
The BBC, like the UK government, is run from London. Of course, it has elaborate regional and national structures, with councils, boards and advisors. But you just need to follow the money to understand how the organisation works. The vast majority of the BBC’s income – £3.6 billion from the licence fee, plus a further £1.5 billion gross and £150 million net from its commercial activities – is controlled from London. Its budgets for network television and radio channels, are all run from London (apart from Radio Five Live, which was moved to Salford, for entirely political reasons).
Even when the chairman lives in Birmingham – or Edinburgh – the vast majority of board meetings for the old Governors and the new Trust were and are held in London. Like Edward the First in Wales, the BBC has built an impressive series of fortresses – Salford Quay, Pacific Quay – costing hundreds of millions of pounds, but these are as much an expression of the BBC’s power and how it exercises it as of any serious devolution of decision-making to the nations and regions.
I gave evidence last month to the House of Lords Communications Committee that is investigating how to measure media plurality. I argued that the BBC’s 60 per cent share of all news consumption by UK adults needed to be mitigated by substantial devolvement of editorial decision-making within the organization. Authority should be separated between radio and television, between news and current affairs, between network services and services in the nations and regions. The BBC News Channel should be allowed its editorial independence.
My argument was that this would benefit the BBC, UK citizens, the degree of plurality in UK media and democracy in its widest definition. What I did not emphasise then, I underline now: a channel run by Scots, for Scots and funded by Scots is anyway overwhelmingly overdue, both as part of that process of devolving editorial authority, and – just as importantly – as an expression of the Scots nation.
A bi-partisan Scottish Broadcasting Commission, appointed by the Scottish Parliament, reported in 2009 that there was a need significantly to upgrade the quality, extent and identifiably Scottish nature of broadcast content in Scotland. A key component of the report was the recommendation that a dedicated volume of output be broadcast by a Scottish Digital Network.
In the four years since the SBC’s report, there has been little progress on the Digital Network, which consequently already has a slightly dated air about it. For instance, the emphasis on more news and current affairs has been somewhat overtaken by the expansion of such output in the light of the impending referendum.
Even if the SDN were refined in concept, it would still remain stuck between the BBC’s present unwillingness to countenance it and the Scottish Parliament’s inability either to fund it or to ensure its place on the various broadcast systems.
The SBC estimated the cost of the Network at about £75 million a year. The BBC collects well over £300 million a year from Scottish homes through the compulsory licence fee, but returns far less than that in terms of programme budgets and commissions.
£75m to provide content targeted at 6 million Scots in Scotland and millions more outside compares favourably with the £95 million a year cost of the Welsh-language channel S4C, serving half a million Welsh speakers, which the licence fee will be funding from next year.
Could the Scottish Parliament leave the BBC in place, and itself pick up the bill for a Scottish Network? It already spends some £12 million a year on BBC Alba (virtually the entire cost of the channel), serving just 50,000 Gaelic speakers. It would be adding injury to insult for Scottish licence fee payers if they had to pay an extra £12.50 on top of the licence fee to provide a Scottish Digital Network that arguably should be funded by the licence fee anyway.
Moreover, under current laws, the Scottish Parliament does not control broadcasting spectrum in Scotland, so could not impose a Scottish channel on a fully-stretched transmission system. Providing access solely online is a very unattractive and costly alternative. STV does a reasonable job for Scottish viewers, but has too little practical independence from the ITV network to do significantly more.
Meanwhile, the coalition in Westminster has pre-empted a crucial slot on the various electronic programme guides for the local TV services that Jeremy Hunt was so keen to see launched throughout the UK. A Scottish channel might find no suitable slot on the EPGs.
How could Scotland escape from this triple bind?
The first objective should be to demand from the Westminster government the right to pre-empt the spectrum and EPG placing secured for local TV services for one or more dedicated Scottish channels, national or local. Making that demand ahead of the 2015 referendum serves a useful purpose. Westminster might deem it politic to concede the point before it became a referendum issue – and if Westminster refused, a referendum issue it should and would become.
The second objective is to confront the BBC. We should never forget that S4C was conceded by a Conservative government in response to a hunger strike by the Welsh Nationalist leader, Gwynfor Evans. The coalition ambush of the BBC in October 2010 was another salutary event. In a brief 48 hours, the BBC conceded that it would finance out of the licence fee the BBC World Service (a Foreign Office project), S4C (a Treasury project), broadband rollout (an industrial project) and local TV (a Jeremy Hunt project). The collective cost of these commitments – none of them a legitimate charge on licence fee payers – is close to £400 million a year. The BBC opted for this hefty burden to avoid having imposed on it the cost of providing free TV licences for the over-75s. That would have cost some £600 million a year.
2015 will be the year when the BBC faces a wide range of pressures over its scale and scope, its governance and its financing, as renewal of its Royal Charter looms closer. So the coming 12 months must be the year in which the Scottish government asks the BBC whether it really wants to risk the full potential impact of independence, or would rather reach a concordat ahead of voting day that would take broadcasting substantially off the referendum agenda.
That concordat would concede not just the financing of a Scottish Digital Network from 2016 onwards, but detailed editorial independence for BBC news and current affairs departments from 2015. In return, the Scottish government would discuss with the BBC the basis for continued collection of the licence fee and continued use of spectrum and assets in Scotland such that the major BBC channels and BBC programming for Scotland survive a “Yes” vote.
The BBC is in many ways a wonderful organisation. But its structure, design, history, DNA and its mindset render it resistant to real change, let alone constitutional upheaval. But like many seemingly powerful institutions, it is also vulnerable to a carefully planned attack.
Ofcom, the UK media regulator, is already putting pressure on the BBC Trust to find ways to offset its dominant place as a news provider by extending internal plurality. Granting far greater independence to BBC Scotland is one way to meet this demand. The bigger step – a fully independent Scottish network, funded by the licence fee – needs to be built above this, and can be delivered by a determined campaign launched as part of the independence campaign.
Of course, the prospect of a fully independent Scottish broadcasting system, if the referendum result allows it, will be appealing to many Scottish voters. But I suspect the BBC is rather more popular in Scotland than the union itself, so arguably that prospect should best be used as a lever to deliver stages one and two of the Scottish broadcasting agenda, even if that involves leaving unharvested some of the possible fruits of independence, should it be voted through. I am a great believer in the bird in hand. And the case for independence might actually be strengthened for many voters if the future of the BBC in Scotland has been resolved before polling day next September.