Scotland's future: a new national broadcaster by Brian Winston
Nov 27, 2013
Yesterday, the Scottish government launched its blueprint for a new Scotland. This week, OurKingdom is examining what it says. Here, Brian Winston looks at what this all means for the BBC.
It is often forgotten that John Reith, in founding the BBC, suggested that its primary purpose was going to be that it would allow the chimes of Big Ben, that aural Union Jack, to be ‘heard echoing in the loneliest cottage in the land’ -- so let’s not be surprised that Alex Salmond intends to seize its assets in Scotland. In fact, his entire project would look pretty weird if he didn’t.
The BBC was born on 1 January 1927 at the same time as the state itself – that is the state of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, also a new entity in 1927. It is not far fetched to suggest that the impulse for a unified broadcasting authority, the creation of which very much pushed radio’s technical capacities in the min-1920s, was intimately connected with the forging of a revised (if not a new) national identity consequent upon the breakaway of the Irish Republic. The BBC is, thus, a creature of Westminster in more ways than one. It is not only chartered and licensed by a distant Westminster. The Secretary of State for Culture has, by the latest iterations of these documents, direct powers: she chooses and pays the trustees who run the Corporation, for example. But more than that, its cultural and political remit is inexorably bound up with the UK (1927) project.
Of course, in the short term, as David Elstein has here pointed out, the BBC will loose its Scottish licence money (£320m) but it will need paying for its assets and it will presumably get to keep all its other profits; so let’s not have a rerun of the scares about an independent Scotland’s currency, budget, defence to suggest that, also, Scotland cannot go it alone with broadcasting. If Danmark's Radio can, so can the Scottish Broadcasting Service being proposed by the SNP. It is an insult which flies in the face of British broadcasting history, replete as it is with stellar Scottish contributions, to suggest otherwise. Salmond knows he has to keep the Queen (and why not: Elizabeth 1st of Scotland is as legitimate north of the border as south) but the BBC has no similar ancient Scottish roots. And anyway Salmond runs no risk of loosing ‘EastEnders, Dr Who, and Strictly Come Dancing’ and ‘channels like CBeebies’, the shows singled out in the SNP's case. If he doesn’t get the ‘joint venture’ he’s proposing, his SBS can still buy the stuff on the open market.
One can sympathise with the BBC struggling against its metropolitan biases but it can do no other than have them. They are, as Reith laid down, still its essential point and lavish centres in distant northern English towns, for example, cannot change that.
Salmond can and must. The BBC, for all its strengths, is the prime institution of its coeval, the state radical commentator Tom Nairn once christened ‘UKANIA’. Any meaningful reform of UKANIA must involve a reform of the BBC, too.