Will Scottish independence kill Balamory?

Question-marks over the BBC's future in Scotland
Question-marks over the BBC's future in Scotland
Alex Stevenson By

What is Scotland famous for? Lots of things - but even the most ardent 'yes' campaigner would have to admit the quality of its broadcasting isn't high on the list. The BBC's dominance north of the border poses a big problem for Scottish nationalists. In the event of independence, what would happen to telly north of the border?

Throughout the 254 episodes of Balamory, the agonisingly cheerful live action series set in a Scottish small island community, references to the independence issue were few and far between. Archie, Edie, Ms Hoolie and co tended to keep their remarks focused on the doings of Suzie Sweet and Penny Pocket rather than the relative merits of independence. The show was axed in 2005. But that isn't going to stop people wondering whether Scottish independence might mean a future Balamory wouldn't go ahead?

The programme was produced by BBC Scotland, which the Scottish National party hopes would transform itself into a state broadcaster overnight in the event of independence. "BBC Scotland's services would continue with the same staff and assets, but with a management that would be charged with responsibility for reflecting Scottish life, culture and interests," the SNP's independence white paper stated.

It would face a tough task - ironically because of effective lobbying by the Scottish government. In 2012 Mark Thompson decided the BBC needed to cut back north of the border, meaning it would receive just 6.1% of the Beeb's total spending. Salmond and co complained, prompting its share of spending to increase to eight per cent.


Under independence, the new Scottish Broadcasting Corporation (SBC - it's as good a name as any) would operate on a fraction of the budget of its British predecessor. Not that this is a problem, the SNP believes.

"When compared to the expenditure by nations of a comparable size on their primary public service broadcaster, it is clear Scotland's current level of licence fee would be more than sufficient to provide a high-quality service, " Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop says. She doesn't think it would need advertising as a result.

This is true - but other countries' broadcasters just aren't quite as impressive as the BBC. Critically, it argues that Scotland can have its independence and its BBC too. "We will be able to access programmes from around the globe, just as we do now," its independence manifesto states, "including the BBC, ITV and the many cable and satellite channels, meaning Scottish viewers will continue to receive popular programmes such as EastEnders, the X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing."

The only small detail the nationalists have missed out is that Scots would have to start paying. They'd have to keep stumping up their licence fee in order to fund the SBC. Anything extra from the £3 billion of programming produced in the rest of the UK would instantly require cash. Because while the BBC is happy to make its content available overseas, it won't give its programmes away for free. If you've ever tried to access iPlayer abroad, you'll know the BBC doesn't make it available overseas to people who aren't paying the licence fee.

In Ireland - an example the SNP hopes could be replicated - a commercial agreement is in place that allows the BBC to be available via digital channels. Its details are commercially sensitive and so not in the public domain, so we won't know for certain exactly how much the shift would cost Scottish couch potatoes. One thing is certain, though - Scottish taxpayers would have to foot the bill.

Philip Schlesinger, a professor at the University of Glasgow, believes the SNP's 'stick another badge on BBC Scotland' approach isn't much more than a "negotiating position".

"It could certainly sustain a broadcaster with some quality production. But it would be a small-scale operation and its indigenously produced content could not match the range of that of the BBC as a whole," he argues.

"It is for that reason that what is being sought is a most-favoured nation trading relationship with the BBC. It is a proposal that sits on the table and we don't know if it will be accepted were there to be negotiations about independence after September 18th 2014."

Steve Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, thinks Salmond would have a case for asking the BBC to be nice about all this. He'd expect the newly independent Scotland to argue the rest of the UK has a moral obligation to help Scotland come to terms with the new arrangement.

"I think he will try to force the BBC's hand to come to some sort of mutually agreeable reciprocal arrangement," Barnett suggests. He thinks a newly-reduced BBC would want to avoid the headache of the divorce. From programming budgets to infrastructure like transmitters, achieving a real split would be very tricky. So there would be something in it for the BBC to continue its relationship with Scotland.

"My reading of this is that an SBC will not happen," he predicts. "I don't think it would work for everybody. But it will be used as a bargaining chip by the SNP for some kind of mutually agreeable deal about a much bigger investment in Scottish programming."

What, then, about Balamory? The problem SBC would have - as opposed to BBC Scotland - is it couldn't take big gambles with new television shows. It would have a staff of around 1,000 and would become much more risk-averse. The pressure to sell on shows it made to other broadcasters would become intense.

Straightforward children's TV shows are one thing. Reputation-building big dramas are quite another. It costs £1 million per episode to make a really world-class production - which means SBC wouldn't be able to afford any flops - either in terms of the critical reception from Scottish viewers, or in terms of being able to sell it on to foreign broadcasters.

The very existence of an 'SBC' remains uncertain, however. It's strange this isn't a bigger issue, because what people get to watch on television or listen to on the radio is a big part of everyone's daily lives. Still, that's what you get with independence: a whole lot of question-marks. Perhaps the 'no' campaign needs to do more to beam that message into Scottish voters' homes.

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