In My Opinion: Atholl Duncan: BBC needs to radically rethink the way it serves its Scots audience

A RADICAL rethink is the only way to meet the broadcasting challenges faced regardless of referendum vote.

The SNP reassures us that, come independence, Scottish audiences would get everything we currently get from the BBC, as well as a new Scottish Broadcasting Service and double the current spending on Scottish programmes – without anyone in Scotland paying a penny more.

To those familiar with the finances of broadcasting, this sounds too good to be true.

Mind you, the claim from some No campaigners that we wouldn’t get Dr Who nor EastEnders in an independent Scotland is plain daft.

The London-based media consultants Enders Analysis claim that the SNP’s plan would result in English licence fee payers funding Scots to the tune of £270 million for BBC One and BBC Two alone. Something they might not be keen to do.

The Scottish Government argues that, in 2016, the BBC will raise £320 million in Scotland through the licence fee but it will only spend £175 million north of the Border. Come independence, the SNP says it would fund the Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS) with that £320 million. It would add an ongoing share of BBC Worldwide’s profits and money from Gaelic broadcasting to create a total annual budget of £345 million.

The SBS would continue to make the current level of network TV programming in Scotland for the BBC in London. This is worth around £95 million.

In return, through a ‘joint venture’, the SBS would be able to access all the current channels on BBC radio, TV and online.

The SNP argues that this would leave you with double the money that you now spend on Scottish broadcasting and production. Its big assumption is that it would be possible to agree to swap access to thousands of hours of BBC programmes which cost £3.3 billion to create in return for £95 million of programmes the SBS would provide for them. Would anyone in London ever agree to a ‘joint venture’ like this?

However, putting the issue of funding to one side, the SNP do have a very good point when they seek to offer viewers in Scotland a better deal than they currently get from the BBC.

The BBC as an institution is highly regarded in Scotland. 80 per cent of Scots say they would miss the BBC but there is a high degree of dissatisfaction with how it covers Scotland.

Audience research conducted for the BBC Trust by Kantor Media shows that only half the licence fee payers in Scotland think the BBC is value for money.

The same research shows a high proportion of the Scottish audience do not believe that the BBC offers enough “programmes and content that cater for Scotland”.

How’s the BBC addressing that dissatisfaction?

Well, in written evidence to the Scottish Parliament, the BBC stated that, by 2017, spending on making programmes specifically for the Scottish audience would be cut to £86 million.

That’s 2.4 per cent of the total licence fee income of £3.6 billion. Does that sound about right to you?

In addition to Scottish output, licence fee payers north of the Border are also able to enjoy the whole panoply of delights of all the BBC’s network content, from Dr Who to Radio 4 to BBC Online to Test Match Special and their licence fees help to fund all that.

In addition to that, almost nine per cent of the TV network spending is now invested in programmes such as Waterloo Road, made in Scotland, commissioned in London and shown across the UK, creating jobs and economic impact north of the Border.

But does 2.4 per cent of the licence fee feel like the right amount of money to be spending on output commissioned in Scotland for Scotland to reflect the current diverse political, cultural and national agenda?

If there is a No vote, this audience dissatisfaction, scarcity of funding and divergence of the national story must be tackled. A radically different landscape is required. Would it then be time to devolve broadcasting to the Scottish Parliament? Should the BBC director general be made accountable to the Scottish Parliament for the quality and range of services the corporation provides in Scotland? Has the time come for BBC News to change its offer in Scotland?

I was part of a BBC review of the so-called ‘Scottish Six’ in 2009-10. At that time, the audience research told us that nearly half the Scottish audience supported replacing the main TV news bulletins with new programmes covering global, UK and Scottish stories, edited in Scotland. However, most of this group were not viewers of BBC TV news.

The viewers who opposed change were BBC news loyalists. So, the argument was put forward that if you made the change you would risk alienating the majority of loyal viewers, while appeasing people who might never watch your programmes.

Many of the London-based executives involved at that time agreed on the logic of the ‘Scottish Six’ but argued that its time had not yet come. A few years on, the debate has now passed a point of no return. The editorial case is now compelling.

To continue with the current arrangements would become increasingly unsatisfactory for both viewers in Scotland and viewers in England. Serving each audience with news which is not relevant to them is a lose-lose situation.

The ‘Scottish Six’, the ‘Scottish Ten’ and every other main Scottish TV bulletin needs to be a mix of global, UK and Scotland ordered through the eyes of people in Scotland.

So, there’s a challenge on all sides. The SNP needs to rethink its proposal for broadcasting in an independent Scotland. The unionist parties need to consider a new vision to be implemented if there’s a No vote.

Most of all, as the BBC approaches charter renewal, it needs a radical rethink on how it better serves Scottish audiences in the future.

Atholl Duncan was head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland between 2006 and 2011. He is one of the contributors to the book, ‘Is the BBC in Crisis?’ (publ. Abramis, tomorrow).

This article originally appeared in The Scotsman, on Wednesday, February 26.