A FORMER UK government minister has told a major debate on the future of Scotland’s media that setting up a separate state broadcaster in the wake of independence would be a “pointless act of vandalism” against the BBC.
Brian Wilson, founding editor of the West Highland Free Press, warned the SNP’s proposed new broadcaster would leave the country with a “financially threadbare service” and Scottish audiences watching BBC programmes as “a nation of eavesdroppers.”
The former Energy Minister said there was minimal demand from audiences north of the border “to see the world through a Scottish prism alone” and insisted pulling Scotland out of the BBC would be “a classic example of cutting off our nose to spite our collective face.”
Under the Scottish Government’s proposals in the event of a referendum victory, a new public service broadcaster would be set up, using income from the existing licence fee.
The SNP claims the new broadcaster could be set up “based on the existing staff and assets of BBC Scotland”, although it has been warned by the UK Government that a “Yes” vote is effectively a vote to leave the BBC.
The BBC’s “Scotland-only” budget is thought to be around £100 million, but this does not include the cost of UK network productions made north of the border, which is thought to be worth another £75 million.
However the SNP claims that Scotland’s share of income from licence fees would be around £320 million by 2016-17, when it hopes the country will be independent.
Mr Wilson was speaking at a Scotsman Conference at the Scottish National Gallery on what future shape the media will take in Scotland.
Mr Wilson, who is currently a columnist for The Scotsman, said: “The market tells is loud and clear that what the Scotttish audience wants is diversity.
“There is minimal demand to see the world through a Scottish prism alone.
“We listen as much to Radio Four as to Radio Scotland. We watch television programmes across the spectrum of output regardless of source.
“We have a diverstiy of options which reflect our diversity of identities and interests. We do not need nor want to be excluded from any of them or forced into invidious choices between them.
“We are threatened with Scotland being separated from the BBC in order to create a Scottish broadcasting service funded by Scottish licence payers. I believe that would be a pointless act of vandalism. The arguments against it have only been addressed at the most facile level.
“It is true that we would continue to watch BBC programmes, but we would do so as a nation of eavesdroppers, neither paying for nor having claims upon the great institution we’ve chosen to opt out of.
“We’d walk away from excellence in order to establish a financially threadbare service, dependant on a preponderance of imports, in order to satisfy a purely political demand for a broadcaster which reflected the separate state we’ve chosen to create.
“It would be a classic example of cutting off our nose to spite our collective face.
“It would also inflict serious wounds on the BBC itself. Take away 10 per cent of its finances and you would damage much of what it does on behalf of the whole United Kingdom. But 10 per cent of the BBC’s finances would not buy us much in terms of a Scottish broadcasting service. Where is the gain in that?”
The conference also heard from a leading media expert, Professor Raymond Boyle, who said the debate over the future of broadcasting in an independent Scotland had been “dull and unimaginative” so far.
He added: “The media should entertain, inform, provoke and even at times enrage us, as well as facilitate broader conversations and offer a public space to discuss the tensions that exist in supposedly national cultures.
“At the core of public media should be the twin concepts of cultural pluralism, in terms of representation, and audience choice, in terms of genres, output and access.
“Yet who gets to decide what is appropriate for the Scottish audience? The audience is often invoked by politicians and the industry without evidence that they’ve been truly engaged.”
Critic and commentator Joyce McMillan suggested “government intervention” in the media landscape in Scotland would be needed to sustain a healthy future for journalism.
She added: “I think there will be intense debate if Scotland does become independent about the future of a Scottish broadcasting corporation should look like, what proportion of its money should be spent here and what should be spent buying in the programmes that we all know and love from the BBC and other broadcasters.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We’ve always made clear that viewers across Scotland would still be able to enjoy all the BBC’s output post-independence, just as they do now, and we welcome recognition of this fact.
“Scotland has a wealth of production talent and the creation of the Scottish Broadcasting Service will provide an additional opportunity for this to be demonstrated.
“The White Paper proposes that the Scottish Broadcasting Service would enter into a new formal relationship with the BBC as a joint venture, where the SBS will continue to supply the BBC network with the same level of programming, in return for on-going access to BBC services in Scotland.
“The SBS would also have the opportunity to co-commission, co-produce and co-operate with the BBC, and other broadcasters, ensuring more opportunities for producers and a more diverse range of viewing choices for people in Scotland.”