Will threat to BBC licence fee revive calls for separate Scottish broadcaster? – Brian Ferguson
Two years after it was announced, the much-heralded arrival of the “BBC Scotland” platform was a key moment in Scottish broadcasting history.
After decades of debate about how Scotland should best be represented on screen, the BBC had finally delivered a dedicated channel with a ringfenced budget and its own nightly news programme.
The BBC had met a key post-referendum demand of the Scottish government for the country to have its own channel for the first time, even if its £30 million budget fell far short of the £100 million the SNP claimed would represent a “fair share” of the income raised from the licence fee in Scotland.
At the time, the new channel felt like a slightly uneasy compromise after hopes of establishing a separate Scottish Broadcasting Service were dashed by the referendum result, which also killed off fears that Scots would lose access to some of the BBC’s most popular programmes and that fewer productions would be made in Scotland if it had its own broadcaster.
However, within its first 12 months, the new channel had silenced many critics with the quality of its output, including flagship programmes like The Nine and Debate Night, the award-winning drama Guilt and Scottish football show A View From The Terrace.
Its documentaries in particular delivered on a key demand from First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the 2017 Edinburgh TV Festival for the BBC to step up its efforts on diversity.
The new channel has also offered a chance to revive many classic or largely forgotten Scottish films.
But I suspect it’s not just down to the new channel that the case for a separate Scottish broadcasting service is rarely made these days.
The quality of the BBC’s drama output has come on in leaps and bounds since the 2014 independence referendum, with Scottish talent at the forefront of ratings winners like Line of Duty, The Bodyguard and Vigil.
The BBC’s commitment to Scotland was underlined just before Christmas in a joint announcement with the Scottish government about a new studio facility at the Kelvin Hall in Glasgow – a project unimaginable a few years ago when the SNP was taking the BBC to task on a regular basis.
All of the above certainly makes for an intriguing background to the weekend’s revelations that funding for the BBC is to be frozen for two years and that the future of the licence fee is under threat from the UK government.
With BBC chairman Richard Sharp and director-general Tim Davie already warning of having to make “tougher choices which will impact licence fee players” before the end of the current financial year, it is hard to imagine its Scottish output will escape cutbacks.
But if the very future of the BBC is up for debate, if and when the next independence referendum comes around it seems highly likely that the prospect of a separate Scottish broadcasting service will be back on the agenda.
By then, one of the biggest questions may be whether Scotland is getting a better deal from the BBC than it was a decade ago.
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