• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Will Time Lords be a thing of the past? Who can tell?

ATIME machine would be a very handy thing to have, especially in these interesting times.

You could hop six months hence to discover the result of the referendum then venture further into the future to see how it was all working out.

If there is a Yes vote, you might pop into a shop to see what the money looks like. Was George Osborne bluffing back in 2014? Or you might be tempted to zoom on to 2024 to learn whether universal free childcare, as promised in the SNP's independence White Paper, has become a reality.

If No, you'd surely want to stop off in 2017 to find out if Britain was still in the EU. Could a re-elected David Cameron really have been so badly humiliated in his in/out referendum? Another jump and you'd know whether Holyrood was setting the lion's share of your income tax, or whether those 'more powers' promises were just hot air.

Sadly, such flights of fancy are not the reason time travel has found a niche in the independence debate. Rather it's down to Dr Who and his Tardis, and whether we'd be able to watch them on the telly in a future independent Scotland. The warning that we won't - or, at least, might not - has been repeated for years with varying degrees of conviction by pro-UK politicians, who claim a Scottish state broadcaster could not hope to provide all the programmes we currently receive from the BBC.

The pro-independence campaign protests that Dr Who is broadcast in something like 80 countries around the world. The last time a Dr Who row erupted (last November, if you really want to turn the clock back) it was described as a "scare story in the stratosphere for extreme daftness" by Yes Scotland chief executive Blair Jenkins and most sensible observers agreed with him. Exterminate!

That the debate about broadcasting in an independent Scotland has been dominated by the fate of a fictional, time-travelling, intergalactic guardian is a pretty good indication other issues, such as the currency, have received more rigorous scrutiny so far. However the SNP's plan to create a new national broadcaster, the Scottish Broadcasting Service, throws up important questions about one of our most cherished activities. Scots spend 4.5 hours per day on average watching TV, slightly more than viewers in the rest of the UK, so if there is one thing we should bother to read it's probably the SNP's independence White Paper, Scotland's Future.

The blueprint says the SBS would be "initially based on the staff and assets of BBC Scotland". In a key passage, it adds: "We propose that the SBS enters into a new formal relationship with the BBC as a joint venture, where the SBS would continue to supply the BBC network with the same level of programming, in return for continuing access to BBC services in Scotland."

Such and arrangement, the White Paper says, "will ensure that the people of Scotland will still have access to all current programming including EastEnders, Dr Who and Strictly Come Dancing and to channels like CBeebies". The SNP stress the current licence fee of £145.50, and all the present exemptions and discounts, would remain the same.

As for commercial television and radio, the White Paper says all existing broadcasting licences would be honoured. That means STV, which covers most of Scotland, ITV Border, covering the south of the country, and UK-wide Channel 5 would remain unchanged until 2024 following recent 10-year licence extensions.

The Nationalists' argue Scots receive a raw deal from the BBC. The corporation raises £320 million from the licence but BBC Scotland's expenditure is only £200 million and due to fall to £175 million as a result of cutbacks by 2016. Independence, they claim, would lead to more programme-making in Scotland and give a much-needed boost to the creative economy.

Blair Jenkins, the chief executive of Yes Scotland and a former senior BBC and STV executive, said: "BBC Scotland has been subjected to serious cutbacks in budgets and staffing levels.

"With independence we can strengthen the range and quality of material being produced for Scottish audiences."

With BBC Scotland still producing a relatively small share of "network", or UK-wide programmes (despite significant improvements from a paltry 3% a few years ago), the message resonates with many people in the country's creative sector.

But others are less sure. In a recent blog Steve Hewlett, the media commentator and presenter of BBC Radio 4's The Media Show, said: "The trouble is the sums just don't add up." He suggested the gap between licence fee money raised and spent in Scotland actually went a long way in terms of accessing the entire spectrum of BBC output. To understand his point it's worth glancing at the BBC's accounts. Across the UK the licence brings in about £3.6 billion. Other income and revenue raises a further £1.4 billion, more than £1 billion of which comes from corporation's successful commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, which sells programmes and formats around the world. In other words, the BBC is a £5 billion broadcasting behemoth, spending something like £3 billion on programme-making.

Accessing the same level of programming under independence, believes Mr Hewlett, would cost "quite a bit more than it does now".

His view is shared by media policy expert David Hutchison, a visiting professor at Glasgow Caledonian University. Prof Hutchison believes a new Scottish Broadcasting Service would be able to strike a deal with the BBC - as the SNP envisage - but at a cost to viewers.

The pressure on the SBS to retain access to well-loved shows, combined with the pressure on the cash-strapped BBC to drive a hard bargain on behalf of its licence payers, would push the Scottish licence up to about £200, he reckons.

He said: "The aspiration in the White Paper that things will continue as before I think needs to be looked at very hard. There is no question that in the event of negotiations, the BBC would be in the strongest position.

"Yes, a deal could be struck but I think it would result in a higher licence fee in Scotland. And I think the idea people would be willing to pay £200, which may be the figure, needs to be questioned."

The No campaign, meanwhile, is dismissive of Nationalist claims that Scotland is short changed by the publicly-funded BBC and highlights the conclusion of the Scottish Government's broadcasting commission - chaired by Mr Jenkins in 2008 - that "Scotland has undoubtedly benefited from being part of the overall broadcasting ecology of the UK".

Margaret Curran, Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, said: "As part of the UK, the Scottish television industry has thrived. The creative industries are a great success story for Scotland."

As for the broadcasters themselves, they are unable to take a view.

A BBC spokesman said: "We will not enter into discussions about the future or the shape and nature of our services after the referendum. To do so might compromise perceptions of the impartiality and balance of our coverage."

A spokeswoman for STV said: "As an impartial public service broadcaster, STV has no corporate or editorial view on the outcome of the referendum in September."

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

220314