'EXCEPT for viewers in Scotland ..." Has any phrase generated more frustration than those five small words from the BBC, which manage to unite both Unionists and Nationalists in revolt against the schedulers?
Broadcasting in Scotland always generates strong feelings. At the Sunday Herald's debate on independence and identity last week, Professor Tom Devine launched a bitter attack on the output of BBC Scotland, calling Radio Scotland a "national disgrace". BBC Scotland was then kicked about the platform to the evident satisfaction of much of the 400-strong audience.
Alex Salmond's recent confirmation that he intends to break up the BBC after independence has aroused accusations of parochialism, political opportunism and cultural vandalism. But perhaps the most biting criticism is that a Scottish BBC would just be like "BBC Scotland" – meaning narrow-minded and second-rate. Which is curious because most of the people who work in BBC Scotland are neither. Now, I declare an interest here: I worked for the BBC for many years, in London as well as Scotland, and I retain a lot of affection and respect for many of the people who work there. I've not been shy of criticising BBC Scotland's output in the past. But clunky scheduling, combined with our national inferiority complex, sometimes clouds our perception of what BBC Scotland actually produces, much of which is excellent. Its coverage of the Rangers financial scandal, for example, put much of the Scottish press to shame. And say what you like about fly-on-the-wall documentary, The Scheme – it was brilliant television. Even Radio Scotland does a remarkable job given its negligible resources, and it remains the most popular station in Scotland after Radio 2.
However, the BBC is often its own worst enemy. Along with the rest of chattering Scotland, I cringe every night when Newsnight Scotland crashes into the network programme, often in the middle of a sentence uttered by Kirsty Wark or Gavin Esler. I sometimes think Newsnicht was dreamed up by a Nationalist cell working deep within the BBC, because nothing could be better designed to antagonise Scottish viewers. It's not that Newsnight Scotland is a bad programme, and it isn't their fault. The problem is that the London-based parent cares so little for its Scottish offspring that it can't even be bothered to hit the programme junction on time.
Discontent with BBC Scotland can only get worse as the latest round of cuts, announced this summer, hit home. Within five years, some 16% of BBC Scotland's funding will disappear, along with around 120 staff. It is six years since the former head of news and current affairs, Blair Jenkins, resigned over an earlier round of cuts. Which leaves you wondering if anyone will be left to occupy the BBC's £200 million glass box at Pacific Quay on the Clyde. Maybe they'll just install a computer that automatically adjusts bulletins to add Scottish content. Don't laugh – in the digital future, anything is possible.
Mark Thompson, the outgoing director-general of the BBC, told Holyrood's Culture and Sport Committee that the bulk of broadcasting jobs will remain because an increasing number of network shows, such as Waterloo Road, are being produced in Scotland. But this misses the point: the budgets for indigenous programmes like Good Morning Scotland, which are already less than one-third of the budgets for comparable London programmes such as Today, will get steadily smaller.
Falling standards will fuel discontent over clashing news agendas. Stories about English GCSE results and falling A-level grades invariably lead the BBC network bulletins transmitted in Scotland, even though they are irrelevant here. The political and cultural divergence between Scotland and England after more than a decade of devolution is such that it is increasingly difficult for London-based news programmes to make sense north of the Border. But the will and the means are lacking to deliver Scottish news output that is of network quality.
All this helps explain why Alex Salmond chose this year's Edinburgh International Television Festival to announce his intention to press ahead with plans to break up the Beeb and create a Scottish service funded by Scotland's share of the licence fee – around £300m. He clearly believes viewers are so fed up with BBC Scotland that they'll willingly trade it in for his new Scottish BBC. But this is dangerous territory for the Nationalists. The UK BBC is still held in high regard in Scotland and losing it is one of the things that really worry people when they think about Scottish independence. Unionist MPs invoke an image of a "White Heather Club" BBC mired in couthy parochialism. The former Labour minister, Brian Wilson, a panellist on last week's Sunday Herald debate, has said it would be Nationalist "madness" to exchange the world's best broadcaster for something like Ireland's RTE.
Salmond responds that there is no reason why a small country can't make big programmes. Look at Denmark, which has produced world-class thrillers such as The Killing and Borgen, which manage to be both very Danish and international in their appeal. Mind you, there's actually no reason why programmes like these could not be produced in Scotland under the current arrangements, and in a different era they might have been. Scotland is surely the natural setting for dark murders and heavy jumpers.
Shows like Borgen are produced by the Danish public service broadcaster DR, which is funded by a licence fee and legally obliged to produce original dramas that reflect Danish culture. DR only has a budget of around £20m a year for these shows, which concentrate on story rather than pyrotechnics – so clearly it can be done. A nation like ours, capable of producing the theatre production Black Watch, hardly lacks the creative resources.
There is no reason why there couldn't be a perfectly reasonable Scottish digital TV channel right now – indeed there already is one, in Gaelic: BBC Alba is increasingly highly regarded. In 2008, the Scottish Parliament recognised this when it voted, unanimously, to endorse the Scottish Broadcasting Commission's call for an English-language Scottish digital channel. With the proliferation of channels in the new digital environment, it would be odd not to have a dedicated Scottish channel, whatever happens to the BBC.
So, this isn't really an independence issue. And irrespective of how Scotland votes in the 2014 referendum, I predict two things: within a decade, there will be a Scottish channel; and broadcasting will be a responsibility of the Scottish Parliament. There will be a burst of creative activity in Scotland as Scottish writers and producers discover they no longer have to go to London to get on.
And just to keep them on their toes, there will be nothing to prevent Scottish viewers voting with their remotes and continuing to watch BBC programmes on iPlayer and other digital outlets. On the box, if not elsewhere, it really is possible to have the best of both worlds.
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