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BBC will be available but will we want to watch it?

Don't bemoan the media, become the media - or so the digital democracy slogan goes.

Well, a group of us tried it at the Edinburgh Festival, purely as an experiment, producing and transmitting a live daily show from the Hill Street Theatre. You can see the results on referendumtv.net.

And no, it is not going to replace the BBC in a hurry. But considering it was done with no rehearsals by a handful of unpaid volunteers armed with cheap off-the-shelf cameras and only one computer, it shows broadcasting can be done - and will be done in future - by just about anyone with the will and the imagination.

The old broadcasting structures are breaking down. Yet, our media environment and psychology is still based on the terrestrial channels of the pre-digital age. At the centre is the BBC, sitting with its £3.7 billion licence fee revenue and a virtual monopoly of public service broadcasting. But this is changing fast. Already, most of us get our television channels through Freeview, Sky and countless cable providers. BBC channels come bundled with the rest, and BBC programmes become part of the general multi-channel mix.

The only person who does not seem to understand this is Lord Birt, the former Director General of the BBC, who more than anyone was responsible for the hideous double-speak bureaucracy that dominates the corporation today. Yesterday he warned Scots that, after independence, they will be cut off from BBC programming. Sent to bed early with no Dr Who. He says any cooperation with a Scottish Broadcasting Service - as proposed by the Scottish Government in the independence White Paper - is "make believe". The screens will go black and cultural life in Scotland will wither as Scots lose access to Strictly Come Dancing.

Well, Lord Birt clearly has not visited Ireland, where all the BBC channels are available on Sky, cable, digital terrestrial and free-to-air Freesat. Open any paper in the Republic and you will see all the BBC channel listings laid out just as in Britain. The only difference is that in Ireland they also have their own licence fee-funded broadcaster, RTE, which is routinely scorned by those who do not actually watch it. RTE buys in many BBC programmes. Maybe I am missing something here, but surely this is the "best of all worlds" we keep hearing about? All the BBC programmes available plus a couple of public service stations.

The licence fee raises £320 million in Scotland, which is quite a lot. Unfortunately, too many Scottish politicians cannot believe a country as small as Scotland could produce decent programmes. Shadow Scottish Secretary Margaret Curran says Scotland would be able to only produce White Heather Club television if it left what she calls "the BBC family". Well, try telling Denmark it can't produce quality programmes, or any of the Scandinavian broadcasters. Small countries are producing some of the best television in the world: Borgen, The Killing, The Bridge. There is no reason why Scotland couldn't emulate them.

A dedicated Scottish English language broadcasting channel is long overdue - and here's the thing: Margaret Curran actually voted for it. One of the very few unanimous votes ever registered by the Scottish Parliament was in 2008 when all of Scotland's parties endorsed the call from the Scottish Broadcasting Commission for a dedicated Scottish digital channel. And what happened to that? Nothing. The UK Department for Culture, Media & Sport was not having any of it. As with the Scottish Six, it was considered too dangerous and another chance to reform the UK broadcasting environment foundered on the rocks of corporate centralism.

Scotland has had no shortage of broadcasting talent, but it largely gets exported to London, which is why Scottish accents are so prevalent in the media village. Anyone who wants to get on in the BBC has to go to London - as I did - because that is where the jobs are, where the careers and the budgets are. I spent more than 20 years in the BBC, nearly half of it in London, and it seems to me that the present situation is the worst of all possible worlds.

In the BBC "family" Scotland is always the poor relation, and required to know its place. BBC Scotland is run by a defensive clique of managerial trusties whose main job seems to be holding the line against the Nationalist menace. Lord Birt freely admits this in his autobiography, where he tells how he and Tony Blair worked to curb devolution of broadcasting to "fight" the SNP. More fool them. Their centralism and intransigence over the Scottish Six only fuelled the demands for Scottish home rule.

Many Scots do try to come back from London, of course, but it is a big risk. I was speaking recently to one of my contemporaries, who started in the BBC when I did and became one of the best documentary film makers in Britain, with a string of Baftas and other awards to her name. She tried to come back to Scotland three years ago, and found she simply could not get any commissions from the BBC. So she had to go back to London. If you are not in the metropolitan village you are little people.

So Scotland could go it alone, but would it ever have to? Everyone I speak to seems to believe the BBC would be determined to maintain its brand identity across the whole of the British mainland, not least as a bulwark against digital fragmentation, which is a threat to the future of the licence fee. Big events such as the Commonwealth Games are of UK national interest and the BBC would be eager to keep its control over them. It is theoretically possible corporate executives would try to blank out "national treasure" sporting events or charge for them like Sky with football, but it seems highly unlikely.

This is not a good time for the BBC to be playing hardball in Scotland or anywhere else. And Lord Birt is the last person to be lecturing Scotland on quality broadcasting. He is a figure regarded with contempt and derision by programme makers. The UK BBC lost its way over two decades ago, when John Birt sought, under pressure from the Tory governments of the day, to stifle creativity and radicalism by imposing a top heavy management superstructure of Byzantine complexity. I was working for the BBC in Westminster in the early 90s when Birt-speak was at its height. Teams of doublespeak management consultants were sent round with white boards to lecture programme-makers on how to think. The BBC was tamed, but at the cost of its creative soul.

Unionists fail to notice the BBC long ago ceased making the "best TV in the world". That is now done by cable channels in America and public service broadcasters in small northern European countries who are supposedly too wee to do television. The BBC is desperate to keep in the race, which is why you can be guaranteed its increasingly indifferent output will still be available whatever the outcome of the referendum. Strictly Come Dancing, Snog Marry Avoid, endless panel shows, the tired comedians, the patronising Dimblebys.

The real question for the BBC is this: will people still want to watch it?

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Arts and Entertainment

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