A Disaster for Viewers and a Real Threat to Democracy; Analysis

Article excerpt

Byline: Tim Luckhurst

REVOLUTIONARIES and coup plotters used to agree on one priority. 'First seize the radio station,' was the advice given to zealots preparing to seize power. Now it seems the SNP has taken the advice to heart. If Scotland chooses independence, it will get a new national broadcaster as well.

The party's National Conversation paper on broadcasting proposes taking control of the staff and assets of BBC Scotland and running them as an autonomous Scottish Broadcasting Corporation. This might be funded by a licence fee. SNP leaders have not yet decided.

This is disingenuous. Very little of the BBC output available to licence payers in Scotland is made here. Most of it is produced in other parts of the UK and financed by the licence fees of UK residents. To produce broadcasting of the same quality, a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation would require a vastly higher licence fee.

Without quite saying so, the SNP document admits this, in the way politicians do when they have something to hide. It suggests a mixture of advertising revenue and licence fee and proclaims this hybrid system is used in Ireland and many other European countries.

What it carefully avoids saying is that none of these nations has a national broadcaster anything like as good as the BBC. In many of them, viewers will watch almost anything in preference to the programmes made by their state broadcasting company.

The SNP waxes lyrical about Irish broadcasting in much the same way as the party used to enthuse about Icelandic banking. The comparison is almost as foolish. The Irish state broadcaster, RTE, is impoverished and its programmes are banal.

It is rumoured that RTE made strenuous efforts to end the recent run of Irish successes in the Eurovision Song Contest because it could not afford to host the contest. Similar problems exist wherever licence fee income is too small to sustain excellence.

The other flaw in the hybrid model is that it makes broadcasters beholden to government. Starved of reliable income and obliged to compete for advertising revenue, the European television stations which the SNP cites as examples go cap-in-hand to ministers to plead for funds.

The result is broadcasters too beholden to ministers to challenge government or hold power to account. It would be naive to assume Mr Salmond and his team do not cherish this possibility. One of the reasons politicians should be kept apart from broadcasting is that they confuse objectivity with support for their own opinions. …