Licence fee key as SNP sets up clash with BBC

The Scottish Government says it wants a stronger broadcaster, but critics fear it would really prefer to neuter it, writes Euan McColm

The Scottish Government says it wants a stronger broadcaster, but critics fear it would really prefer to neuter it, writes Euan McColm

THE demand seemed perfectly reasonable, The UK has changed dramatically since the dawn of devolution in 1999, said culture ­secretary Fiona Hyslop, so it was time for the BBC to change, too.

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The SNP’s relationship with the corporation has long been fraught but Hyslop was businesslike rather than confrontational. Her remarks, though, were no less troubling to some in the BBC’s Scottish headquarters in Glasgow than former First Minister Alex ­Salmond’s accusations of bias made throughout – and since – last year’s independence ­referendum.

One BBC staffer said: “The SNP is coming after us. Hyslop and Salmond want the same thing, they just have a different way of going about it.”

The culture secretary last week called for budgets to be transferred to BBC Scotland, enabling “independent decision-making” over commissioning and editorial issues. This transfer of financial might should, she said, be adopted as part of the corporation’s current charter review.

The BBC’s Royal Charter is the corporation’s constitutional basis. It sets out the public purposes of the BBC, guarantees its independence, and outlines the duties of the Trust and the Executive Board. The current charter runs until 31 December next year, at which point the renewed version will replace it. And the Scottish Government does not intend to miss the opportunity to influence the future direction of the corporation.

On Thursday, Hyslop said: “I have outlined the Scottish Government’s proposals for the future of the BBC: a federal BBC, with at least a board for each nation, with a mix of BBC staff and independent members.

“This model itself would not incur any great additional costs but would encourage independent decision-making over editorial direction, staffing structures and commissioning, and co-operation over the wider running of the ­organisation.

“This must be also be ­supported by a proportionate share of the BBC licence fee, ensuring spend in Scotland ­reflects what is raised in ­Scotland.

“There is currently a clear mis-match between the licence fee raised in Scotland and the amount spent in Scotland of around £120m.

“This model would ensure resources can be stewarded intelligently in a way appropriate to the context, equipping the BBC in Scotland with more tools to deliver a high-quality service.

“This government has called for the creation of a new TV and radio channel, to support the demands of audiences and the TV sector.”

Her words echoed those of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who, in a speech at the Edinburgh Television Festival last month, said that the BBC’s model of public broadcasting no longer reflected the “varied and rich political and social realities of the UK”.

Hyslop’s remarks were greeted with dismay by some inside the corporation’s Scottish headquarters. One journalist said: “Politicians can try to sound as reasonable as they like when they’re talking about the BBC but the fact is that they want to change things to benefit themselves.

“The SNP isn’t interested in a BBC that’s just more distinctively Scottish, it’s interested in a BBC that’s more compliant. They want to neuter the BBC not make it stronger.”

The fears expressed by that staffer may well have some basis in reality. Salmond has made no secret of his belief that the corporation should be brought into line. Speaking at the SNP’s spring conference in Glasgow in March, Salmond was adamant that the BBC’s coverage had been instrumental in the Yes campaign’s defeat in the independence referendum.

The former First Minister had, of course, previously attacked the BBC over what he perceived as its bias. He had lashed out at the corporation’s former political editor, Nick Robinson, for his reporting of the debate over Scotland’s constitutional future (an issue to which Salmond continues to return, months later) and described a demonstration outside the corporation’s Scottish HQ as “joyous”. But addressing party members at the pre-­election conference, he went further.

Salmond said that control of the BBC in Scotland should be transferred to Edinburgh so that its alleged bias could be “resolved”.

He said: “In reality, I don’t think the broadcasting issue in terms of how it treats Scotland will be properly resolved till we have broadcasting under the remit of the democratic parliament of Scotland.”

A BBC Scotland staff member said: “What more proof does anyone need? Salmond is obsessed with the BBC. Lots of people in the SNP are. When he says we’re biased, loads of his supporters just take that as gospel. Every party has accused us of being biased against it at some point but the SNP are off the scale.”

Another corporation insider claimed that the corporation’s journalists in Scotland expected complaints about their coverage of the SNP as a matter of course.

“What the party does is just complain about every bloody thing, no matter how inconsequential. It’s obvious what they’re playing at: they want to make reporters nervous about anything that might reflect badly on the SNP.

“If we get a complaint, we have to go through all the procedures to address it. That’s fair enough if the complaint is justified, but if it isn’t then it’s just a way of bogging us down. Who needs that when you’re already working flat out?”

Among the Scottish Government’s demands for the BBC in Scotland is that all licence fee money paid by Scots should remain in Scotland. This is particularly troubling to some in the corporation. One BBC insider said: “That’s completely bonkers. The money that Scots make goes towards network programmes that everyone across the UK watches. Scots licence payers help fund EastEnders and Wimbledon coverage and all sorts of things that Scots want to watch.

“There’s no rhyme or reason for demanding Scots licence payers’ cash stays in Scotland, other than to give people the idea that their money is being diverted away from them.

“It’s the same as the argument about tax going to Westminster. The SNP wants to create the same resentment about their licence fee cash ­going to London as they do about taxes going to the ­Treasury.”

But is there any chance that the SNP will have its way and see all licence payers’ cash retained north of the Border?

“No way,” says one corporation staffer, “but it doesn’t matter to them because losing that argument will mean they can spin that the big bad BBC is taking all their cash to pay for anti-SNP propaganda.

“I don’t think for a minute that the SNP really expects to get an agreement that all Scottish cash should remain in Scotland, they just want to set up another battlefield.”

Opposition parties in Scotland are concerned that the Scottish Government’s proposals for the BBC’s new charter are about political gain rather than improving services.

Scottish Labour MSP Claire Baker said: “The BBC is known and respected the world over for its content and we must ensure that quality is maintained at the heart of the charter renewal process.

“It is important that we have a sustainable BBC in Scotland, where skills are harnessed, jobs are secured and high quality programmes are produced. That is why Scottish Labour is calling for increased investment for BBC Scotland and for retaining and improving the quotas system for commissioning.

“We also have to look at the challenges that the BBC, and broadcasting in general, will be facing in the future. That is how content is viewed and shared and how the BBC stays relevant in a time of smartphones, streaming and social media. This will be a crucial charter for the corporation and we must ensure it is forward ­looking.

“Whilst we will be laying out Scottish Labour’s view on the BBC’s future in the weeks ahead, it is vital that this Charter Renewal process is driven by the public, not politicians, and secures the best deal for licence fee payers and the creative industries in Scotland.”

Scottish Conservative culture spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “The SNP cannot make their mind up about the BBC. They constantly complain about skewed coverage of ­Scottish issues, yet are happy to demand more money for Scotland.”

As the Scottish Government outlined its proposals, BBC Scotland described its hopes for the charter renewal process. The broadcaster’s head of public policy Ian Small added: “The BBC’s Charter document offers a vision of what the BBC could and indeed should look like in the years to come: open, creative, distinctive and one where audiences have a much more personal relationship with us as broadcaster.

“We want to improve the quality and quantity of our output, we want to help grow the production sector, we want to encourage innovation and investment, and we want to help skill and train the next generation of journalists, of young programme makers, of writers and producers.”

But there are concerns within the corporation’s Scottish HQ that management in London will capitulate to SNP pressure. An insider said: “The Scottish Government is relentless and it will get people on-side. If they can persuade folk that they’re not getting a good deal or that the BBC doesn’t care about Scotland, watch them just roll over.

“Maybe I’m wrong and I should give the bosses more credit but I don’t think I am. I think the SNP will get more than we should give them.”