In My Opinion: Maurice Smith: Let the BBC be bold in Scotland as it grapples with Charter renewal

THE debate over the future of the BBC in Scotland is in danger of being sucked into the broader tensions between Holyrood and Westminster over constitutional issues that have little bearing on our future broadcasting services.

First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, set out the Scottish Government’s stall at the Edinburgh International TV Festival last week (read her speech, here).

Presented in conciliatory terms,  she set out a shopping list that included greater investment in BBC Scotland, including the creation of an English-language TV channel, a second BBC Radio Scotland service, and more money for programme making, generally.

None of this is particularly new. An earlier proposal for a separate channel earned all-party support when it was published by an SNP-inspired commission back in 2008.

Radio Scotland has run two services for many years, as it regularly splits its AM and FM frequencies to provide sports programming, for example. In fact, I am aware that, in the late 1990s, there was an internal proposal to formalise this and create a ‘5 live’-style news and sport service on medium wave.

But these are fevered times. Labour and Conservatives have questioned the latest proposals because, well, they come from the SNP. Labour’s Ken Macintosh MSP questioned (on an edition of STV’s Scotland Tonight last week) whether there is public demand for a separate channel, a reasonable point but, in truth, a bit of a ‘red herring’ as new TV services tend to be editorially-led decisions that live or die, post-launch.

The Tories’ Ruth Davidson has been more direct, at the weekend – in The Times, here – opposing the Sturgeon plan because she sees it as part of an ongoing campaign by the SNP to break up Britain.

Some commentators have interpreted the case for giving Holyrood a say in the future oversight of BBC services in Scotland as a bid by the SNP to demand editorial control of BBC Scotland and particularly its news operation.

This criticism beggars the question of whether the existing arrangements allow that level of potential interference to Westminster. Sauce for the goose, and all that.

As Sturgeon was taking to the stage, on Thursday, to discuss her plans, The Guardian’s Severin Carrell was reporting (here): “Nicola Sturgeon’s ambitious proposals for new BBC TV and radio channels in Scotland are based heavily on an official BBC blueprint that was scrapped after the latest £750m funding cuts, the Guardian can reveal.

“Sources close to the BBC have confirmed that its executives drew up plans for a new Scotland-only TV channel and an extra radio service funded by the licence fee, as part of the corporation’s proposals for the renewal of its Charter.

“The proposals, which the BBC forecast would cost about £75m, were leaked to the First Minister’s team by BBC staff because they were hastily shelved by the broadcaster in July.”

If this is the case, we are in for a long struggle to gain any real insight or clarity about the BBC’s intentions for Scotland. Let’s set the politics of broadcasting aside for a moment – if that is possible in the febrile environment of Scottish politics – and examine Scotland’s broadcasting deficit.

If we set aside the unseemly debate about ‘BBC bias’ during the Scots independence referendum, and the juvenile spat prompted by Nick Robinson’s rehashing of his row with Alex Salmond as the soon-to-be Today presenter launched a book in Edinburgh (as widely reported, including here, by The Daily Telegraph), let’s examine the broadcasting landscape.

The licence fee income collected in Scotland, said to be £320m, is a great deal more than the BBC actually spends north of the Border.

The question is whether more of that cash can be spent on additional programming – arts, culture, documentaries, news and current affairs – or whether it might even be stretched to pay for new radio and TV services. A separate English language channel of Scottish programmes has been estimated at £75m, for example.

The line that, at a time of cost-cutting – including the imposition of licence fee costs for the over-75s on the Corporation rather than the UK Government – there won’t be any additional money for Scotland misses the point entirely.

While broadcast spending is about total sums available to nations, regions, channels and commissioning genres, in this case it is also about proportionality.

So, if the BBC budget is cut – and that’s a moot point – the real argument is about whether Scotland gains a greater proportion of the total money available. That is actually what the BBC’s critics in Holyrood and elsewhere are complaining about, after all.

Although the BBC will take responsibility for funding the over-75s’ free licences, part of that deal is that the licence fee itself will be in operation for at least a good few more years – as noted here, by Broadcast magazine – and extended to cover non-linear viewing.

This means that the disingenuous argument that ‘I shouldn’t have to pay a licence because I only watch TV on iPlayer’ is effectively to become redundant, as it should have been anyway.

Politicians should be less concerned about Nicola Sturgeon’s wish-list, or her perceived motives for making it. We need a thoughtful debate and better-informed public discussion about what we want from broadcasting in Scotland.

The industry supports a large and growing number of jobs in Scotland, and greater spending north of the Border would benefit the creative sector hugely. It would be a crying shame if this is reduced to party political point-scoring between Edinburgh and Westminster, or between the Holyrood parties.

Likewise, an internal ‘Scotland v London’ wrangle will do the case for more BBC services no good at all, as anybody who remembers the battle for the ‘Scottish Six’ should know.

There is a real opportunity for the BBC itself to be bold and come up with a compelling proposition for Scotland. This is not only about whether it gives its next Scotland news correspondent an ‘editor’ title, but about analysing what the Corporation should be doing in Scotland over the next decade, and producing an imaginative response.

Maurice Smith is a contributor to a new book to be published on September 5: ‘The BBC Today: Future Uncertain'; edited by John Mair, Professor Richard Tait and Professor Richard Lance Keeble; published by Abramis, Bury St Edmunds.