Some in the independence camp have got a bit of a bee in their bonnet about the BBC, with such luminaries as Pete Wishart describing the corporation as the “institutional enemy” of independence. It will, he said, need to be replaced with a new SBC that can buy in £50-75m worth of BBC content a year. Newsnet Scotland’s attitude to the Beeb, similarly, is akin to the Daily Mail’s attitude to gay asylum-seeking carcinogens. Even the First Minister himself has played this game, invoking Godwin’s law by implying his own removal from a rugby commentary slot was so far up the scale of misbehaviour that we would normally associate it with the Nazis.
And to be fair, the BBC’s approach to anything non-metropolitan is often poor, and sometimes it does feel very partisan. Their treatment of the SNP during the 2010 leaders’ debates was unacceptable, for instance, although full equality would have been inappropriate for viewers outside Scotland. And it’s not just them: Greens can tell you a tonne of such stories. As just one illustration, on election day itself in 2007 the lunchtime news showed pictures of a certain Robin Harper voting while a voiceover intoned that he was only there for the cameras, having voted by post some days earlier. Could we get someone to correct this baseless nonsense even in time for the teatime news? We could not. Irritating. On a more minor but telling note, they were right to fix the infamous weather map tilt back in 2005, the most directly graphical illustration of a skewed agenda.
And yet I cannot agree with the SNP’s solution, just as I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory that their anti-BBC attitudes are some kind of quid pro quo with the Evil One. I do not want an independent Scotland to cut itself off from the BBC and set up a new organisation instead, especially not one if it’s one that trades indy-scepticism for partisan political loyalty. I recognise the bathwater but I also value the baby.
Sure, Good Morning Scotland is essential listening during Scottish elections, despite its obsession with weather and travel reports, and I regard Newsnight Scotland as first-class if cramped (and I’d also rather it didn’t clash with what’s often the most interesting 20 minutes of the network edition), but their focus is necessarily narrower, less internationally-minded. Do we really want an SBC replacement for the remainder of Newsnight to have to staff foreign bureaux, including one to cover rUK news like just another outpost, or to have to try and replace Paul Mason or Susan Watts? I don’t.
After independence I would like to watch a Question Time that covers Scotland more, not less, and listen to a Today programme that deals with Scottish issues properly as well as providing excellent global coverage. Some of this can be achieved very easily now. As a start, they could use their own staff on the ground more for network news, for example, i.e. going to Brian Taylor or David Miller for comment on UK-wide programming rather than a separate Scotland correspondent.
Leaving the news and current affairs side for things I know less about, do we want to have to pay for more Scottish drama and other content as well as paying the BBC for what they do best? Wouldn’t it be better to see the BBC take a more radical approach and give more power and more channel access to their “nations and regions” instead?
BBC management couldn’t continue with the status quo if there’s a yes vote, clearly. An independent Scotland that retained that link would need to be a spur to the corporation to look at alternative models of management, structures that better reflect the growing diversity of their audiences. They should do so anyway, whatever the outcome of the referendum, not least because they’re competing with a revitalised and increasingly confident STV, an STV that’s expanding its hyperlocal services and doing well by doing so. A less constrained digital network gives the BBC the space to up their game accordingly. The right answer is not what would truly be separation, just as it isn’t for rail infrastructure or the electricity grid: it’s surely something more like devo max for BBC Scotland, or even that old Liberal solution, federalism.