The big news in media today is that the BBC has announced plans for a new Scotland-specific TV channel. The new service will have a budget of £30m (about the same as BBC Four), and will broadcast every night from 7pm until midnight – with a nightly 9pm news bulletin.
To make it happen, the corporation is planning to employ 80 new journalists and will also be splashing £20m on a new programming budget, for BBC Scotland to make more programmes that will be shown across the UK.
It’s a big deal, not just for TV viewers but for politics too: In effect, the BBC is admitting that it thinks that Scotland will probably become independent from the rest of Britain sooner rather than later.
Allow me to explain my thinking – or my conspiracy theory, if you like.
You don’t need to be a political scientist or a psychic to know that politics is undergoing some enormous shifts: In 2014, 45% of Scots voted for independence. The majority of Glasgow, the UK’s third largest metropolitan area said they don’t want to be a part of the UK any more. And now, in the face of Brexit and Tory hegemony (not Hogmanay – otherwise Scots might like that) in Westminster, a second vote with independence as the frontrunners seems all but inevitable.
Which means that in just a few years time, Scotland could no longer be part of the UK, creating a bureaucratic mess that will make Brexit look like a primary school maths problem by comparison.
When the time comes for Scotland to divorce Britain, it is going to be incredibly complicated. Instead of dividing up the CD collection, Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK) are going to have to divvy up everything from pension pots to nuclear submarines.
Oh, and the national broadcaster too.
If Scotland leaves the UK, then it is surely going to want to take a chunk of the BBC with it: It will, after all, want to set up its own national TV broadcaster instead. And this is why I think that this is ultimately the motivation behind today’s announcement: BBC Director General Lord Tony Hall knows this, so rather than have government negotiators carve up who gets what from the BBC, he’s trying to get ahead of it by offering up a part of the BBC that can be relatively easily chopped off without hobbling the rest of the organisation.
Imagine the worst case scenario if the BBC didn’t carve out a business unit that could be dropped: Scotland declares independence, and as part of the negotiations Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon demands that because Scotland accounts for 8.3% of the UK population, it should also get 8.3% of the BBC’s assets. Carving this out would be a nightmare: How do you take control of 8.3% of a studio? Or how do you determine, say, the long term value of a studio versus something intangible like a brand (the rights to make Doctor Who, say)?
If BBC Scotland has its own TV channel and production centre, suddenly that question becomes much simpler. And yes, the BBC has also hinted that it will be spending more cash on Wales and Northern Ireland too – but it seems unlikely that they will be getting their own entire channels with such enormous budgets.
A reorganisation with this in mind would also be line with what we’ve heard previously – which makes me think there might be something in it. Last year, as part of the BBC’s Charter Renewal process, it appeared that the BBC was doing the same sort of thing with other parts of the corporation (such as the BBC’s studio business), so they could be easily sold off at a later date, without hurting everything else in the process.
Now here’s the crazy thing. Let’s imagine I’m right. Let’s suppose that an assumption about Scottish independence is what has driven this major strategic decision by the Beeb. One consequence of this assumption could be that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: That the BBC’s new channel helps accelerate Scotland towards cutting its ties with the UK.
The reason is because one of the ingredients in creating a sense of nationalism in a country is a common culture: If we all exist together, we will naturally feel closer to each other.
In Scotland, devolution in the late the 90s and the creation of the Scottish Parliament had some unintended consequences for politicians in Westminster: Yes, it enabled Scots to feel better represented and make decisions in some areas closer to home, but it also contributed to breaking this common thread with the rest of the UK – and conversely, contributed to a sense of Scottish – not British – nationhood. In fact, Tony Blair, the man who instigated devolution, now blames it for causing the closer-than-they-would-have-hoped independence referendum.
Given the circumstances, a BBC Scotland channel does make a lot of sense: Scotland does have different politics which does need different scrutiny to the rest of the UK, so chances are that audiences will be better served by the new channel.
But… if there is a BBC Scotland channel, talking only about Scottish issues, to Scottish people, in Scotland, it is surely only going to help drive this wedge between Scotland and the rest of the the UK even further apart – making independence that little bit more inevitable.