26/07/2013 12:07 BST | Updated 25/09/2013 06:12 BST

Do Not Adjust Your Set!


We all like to complain about the BBC. Personally I can't stand Top Gear. It is blokey, adolescent pub-bore rubbish. It is an unconscionable waste of the License Fee. I also hate Total Wipeout (thankfully now cancelled) and most of the commercial-pop marketing output of Radio One.

However, like most Scots, I also have a 'worth the Licence Fee alone' list. My list includes the stunning natural history programmes like Africa. The brilliant Piper Alpha documentary shown last week. University Challenge, Sherlock, 6 Music. Like most parents of young children I would be lost without Cbeebies.

There are always legitimate complaints to be made about the institution of the BBC. Especially after recent scandals. Other national organisations were quicker to distribute their output around the UK. Everyone would want to see more BBC programmes like the excellent Hebrides made in Scotland.

However there can be few more obvious examples of where pooling resources across the UK allows us all to benefit. For around £320million of Licence Fee we get around £3.2billion worth of TV, radio and online content. So, what would the impact be of independence on the content we enjoy?

The nationalist position on the BBC has long been caught between the political need to reassure people that a valued institution will continue and their ideological desire to dismantle something that, for them, represents a shared British experience.

Blair Jenkins, the head of Yes Scotland has previously said that after independence we would "continue to receive ALL the programmes and services we are used to receiving from the BBC" but that "in addition there will be far more Scottish content." Today former Alex Salmond Adviser, Jenifer Dempsie of Yes Scotland wrote that the £320m licence fee paid by Scots would be "spent in Scotland for Scotland" but she was less sure than Jenkins about whether we would still get all existing BBC content. We would, she wrote, have more money to "buy in programmes from other places including our BBC favourites if we wanted."

To be clear: the £320m we pay in licence fee in Scotland is our contribution towards the £3.2 billion of content we get at the moment, including the distinctive Scottish output of BBC Scotland. To continue to get "all the programmes and services" we receive now and to have more Scottish-specific content, something has to give. Every pound spent on programming "in Scotland for Scotland" like River City is a pound less to spend on shared programming like Strictly, Match of the Day or big events like the Olympics. This isn't an argument about complex broadcasting policy. It is a matter of simple arithmetic.

Pete Wishart, the SNP's culture spokesman acknowledged this at a TV conference last year. Complaining that programmes created by UK shared-commissioning did not reflect the 'Scottish experience', he suggested that rather than paying our existing contribution into the BBC budget we would spend £50-£70million buying the programmes we wanted from the BBC. To pretend that as little as £50million can get us everything we enjoy now simply isn't credible.

To get more programming, without losing what we have as part of the BBC economy-of-scale, means bringing in additional income somehow. The First Minister in a speech to the Edinburgh International Television Festival pointed to Denmark and Norway as models for Scotland. It is worth noting that these countries, which don't produce anywhere near the volume of content the BBC does, have licence fees that are around £100 more than here in Scotland. Who would choose to pay more to receive less?

That the nationalist attitude towards the BBC is motivated by a political rather than a policy approach is revealed in the last paragraph of today's article. Dempsie tells the BBC that in making decisions about the future relationship between an independent Scotland and the BBC the nationalists will be watching their news and current affairs output during the referendum. If the SNP don't like it, she warns them, "it's not exactly going to serve them well for the future."

Without detail of how we could continue to receive our programmes and get more programmes without paying more, Scots would be wise to follow the old advice: do not adjust your sets.