Brian Wilson: Saying bye-bye to BBC is a bad idea

Alex Salmond shares a laugh with BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten (Getty)
Alex Salmond shares a laugh with BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten (Getty)
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SALMOND’S plan to ditch the Beeb and replace it with an ‘RTE model’ is not in the interests of Scottish people, writes Brian Wilson

ALEX Salmond’s address to the Edinburgh Media Festival contained an important statement of principle. A post-independent Scotland would still be able to see EastEnders on television, even though we will have divorced ourselves from the BBC.

It’s not exactly Declaration of Arbroath territory and I don’t think anyone had anticipated being deprived of that particular cultural offering, so he wasn’t conceding a lot in return for his declared intention of splitting up the BBC and establishing a Scottish Broadcasting Something in its stead.

Much more interesting was the alternative vision that he has in mind. The model under consideration is Radio Telefis Eireann, the national broadcaster of the Republic of Ireland. Ye gods! I have heard of setting the aspirational bar low, but this really does take the shortbread. “Cry Freedom! Our telly will be like RTE”!

The proposed trade-off should serve as a wider metaphor. We will be invited to give up our stake in one of the world’s great public institutions, the BBC, in order to be like RTE.

We will abandon public service broadcasting – founded by a Scot, disproportionately enhanced by Scots, staffed throughout its many outposts by Scots – in order to be like RTE. This is where madness leads us.

When, I wonder, did Alex Salmond last study the RTE schedules before anointing it as a model for Scotland? He would have found that we already have our equivalent and it is called STV – funded by advertising, with a smattering of locally generated programmes, but sustained by American imports and old movie libraries, though RTE does not have ITV’s back-up to leaven the mix.

I have nothing against RTE, which doubtless does its best on a limited budget, but the idea that creating a parallel entity, in exchange for withdrawing from the BBC, might be in the interests of Scotland, Scottish audiences or Scottish broadcasters is preposterous.

It is the logic of political nationalism and of nothing else. In the process of departing, we would inflict great damage on the BBC. At present, Scottish licence-payers contribute 9 per cent of the revenue which keeps the BBC afloat, broadcasting in many tongues, through multiple outlets and creating pinnacles of excellence and respect. Everything, in fact, that Rupert Murdoch despises about it.

Take away our 9 per cent and the BBC’s battle to survive as a public service broadcaster – i.e. not funded through, or answerable to, advertising – would be that much harder to sustain. And for what? 
So that Scotland could adopt the “RTE model” which is based on 
six minutes in every hour devoted to advertising, topped-up by a licence fee.

Some might say that the problem with Scottish broadcasting is that it has already conceded too much ground to the political agenda which maintains that every other issue should be subordinate to 
the question of Scotland’s constitutional status.

I was reminded of this last week when an invitation reached me to participate in an STV series of three-hour-long programmes which promise a post-war political history of Scotland “through the prism of the National Question”. War and Peace without the laughs. My initial reaction was: “Oh no, here we go again.”

Roll quick trot through 1945-67 with detour for the Scottish National Convention; then grainy shots of Hamilton by-election when life began, followed by the familiar repertory company of talking heads dissecting every twist and turn of the constitutional debate ever since. And that, to the complete satisfaction of a certain mindset, is the post-war history of Scottish politics “through the prism of the National Question” because they know no other. On reflection, I thought that frustration with such recurring nonsense is not enough.

This rewriting of post-war Scottish political history is insulting both to historical reality and to the political generations who shaped the society we live in today without the merest keek through “the Prism of the National Question”.

What did the National Health Service have to do with “the prism of the National Question” except that its founding father, Aneurin Bevan, dismissed Nationalism as “an infantile condition”? Or the Welfare State? Or rights at work? Or gender equality? Or rights for the disabled? Or a national minimum wage? Or indeed the right to buy council houses?

The answer in each instance is absolutely sweet hee-haw. So how in the name of sanity is it possible to compose a post-war political history of Scotland which subordinates all of that to “the prism of the National Question”?

When Scottish secretary 
Tom Johnston initiated the great programme of hydro power in the Highlands and islands, did he do it through the Prism of the National Question or from an innate sense of social justice? When Willie Ross established the Highlands and Islands Development Board, did the Prism of the National Question have anything do with it? Or slum clearance? Or comprehensive education?

The list is endless – and the one common feature is that the Prism of the National Question is nowhere to be seen.

Scotland needs to fight back against the rewriting of its own history. Almost nothing has been achieved through navel-gazing about the constitution. But beyond the prism walls, vast reforms and great achievements have been secured through British institutions to which Scotland has contributed vastly. All of that now has to be defended against the kind of vandalism that would separate Scotland from the BBC as the 
by-product of a political agenda.

For we can rest assured that once Radio Telefios Alba was in place, everything would be seen through the Prism of the National Question.