A Scotsman invented the television. A Scotsman founded the BBC, and Radio Times. Millions of Scots use the corporation’s services every day. A Scotsman even flies the Tardis. So what will happen to the BBC if the people of Scotland decide to break with the union? The organisation itself is tight-lipped: “Our priority is to report the story of the referendum impartially, so we do not speculate on what may or may not happen.”
But the SNP is clear what it expects – a new Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS) funded by licence-fee payers of the fledgeling nation, offering Scottish programming as well as existing BBC content such as Strictly and Doctor Who.
The obvious question is why would the BBC share its expensive programmes when it’s been made clear that the SBS doesn’t intend paying commercial fees for them? MSP and Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop told us that in return for continued access to BBC output, “the SBS would supply roughly as much content as BBC Scotland does currently for BBC network”. Whether this is a fair trade would be debated in the lead up to 1 January 2017, when the SBS would start broadcasting in the event of a vote for independence.
Margaret Curran, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland in Westminster, is doubtful the BBC “could or should” give Scotland mate’s rates for its shows. “If you were in London you wouldn’t want your licence fee to give extra help to what is now a foreign country,” she argues.
But would the loss of £320 million in Scottish licence fees – roughly a tenth of what the corpo- ration collects from across the UK – affect programme-making south of the border?
According to former BBC direc- tor-general John Birt, it would. He argues that combined with the £800 million in savings currently being sought by the corporation, reductions in core services would have to be made. “The BBC as we know it would effectively lose one quarter of its funding,” he warned recently.
Others are less pessimistic. Jeremy Peat, a former member of the BBC Trust for Scotland, says: “I see no reason why this should be the last straw breaking the camel’s back, it’s just another straw the camel has to bear.”
Beyond money, post break-up there would be discussions over who is entitled to the existing buildings. Hyslop argues that based on population share the SBS should get “the equivalent of BBC Scotland, the staff and assets, and also the building in Glasgow”. The lease on Pacific Quay would have to be renegotiated, along with everything from the creation of new regulators to the use of transmitters.
No one said founding a new nation was going to be straightforward. Independence might be the biggest upheaval in broadcasting since the BBC’s foundations, but not even the Doctor knows how it will pan out.