Media: BBC beware: Scotland is set to go it alone

Can Auntie remain calm and neutral about the break-up of Britain?
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The Independent Culture
Being a star presenter with the BBC obviously has its perks. Along with the celebrity status and the big fat salary, you need never feel encumbered, like all those nonentities in the newsroom, by the Corporation's tedious rules about impartiality.

So the other day we had Gavin Esler - who is in danger of losing his semi-celebrity status in this country now that he is an anchor on BBC News24 - worrying in The Scotsman about how he has "begun to worry about the English".

As an expatriate Scot, Esler says he is concerned to see developing a "distinct English whine". Old English friends of his have demanded to know why the Scots won't cheer on the English in the World Cup. Another chum, whom he describes as "a Londoner and longtime Labour supporter", was particularly aggressive. "Too many Scots in government," she insisted. "It is like being colonised."

She insisted? Sounds more like a man called Jeremy Paxman, who was whining recently about England being run by Scottish "nabobs". As Paxo put it: "It feels a little like living under the Raj." The Newsnight anchor maybe thought he could say what he liked because he was on a late-night talk show in Australia. Clearly he didn't reckon on the Scottish diaspora, nor the Scottish press which has panned Paxman.

The Daily Record dubbed him "Supersneer" and the SNP leader ribbed him during a recent Newsnight studio debate. Paxo ignored the provocation. He plainly has no intention of joining Jimmy Hill as a major hate figure among the Scots. (Having your sexuality repeatedly questioned by the massed ranks of the Tartan Army is no fun, as the long-chinned Match of the Day pundit can readily attest).

The fact that one presenter and one former presenter of BBC2's flagship news analysis show have dared to venture into the debate about the Union doesn't matter much in itself.

But it does throw into sharp focus a question that should bother broadcasters and politicians alike: can the BBC really be expected to remain calm and neutral about the break-up of Britain? We're talking about the British Broadcasting Corporation, remember. Although it would never allow itself to be described as a state broadcasting service, it would obviously suffer if Scotland split away from the British state. It would lose around a tenth of its licence fees, for a start. This is no longer a wild scenario. A whole batch of recent opinion polls have shown the SNP ahead of Labour in Scotland and support for independence growing rapidly, especially among young Scots. After honouring his party's pledge to establish an elected parliament in Edinburgh, Tony Blair could go down in history as the man who broke up Britain.

The BBC's top mandarins love Britain. Director General John Birt has described the BBC's "extraordinary success" as "in important measure a triumph of British governance and regulation". And the chief executive of the BBC's Broadcast directorate, Will Wyatt, has waxed lyrical about the value of British broadcasting to the nation. The man in charge of the corporation's pounds 1.5bn annual output budget has cited coverage of the VE and VJ anniversaries, along with the acclaimed costume drama Pride and Prejudice and some storylines in the soap operas EastEnders and Coronation Street, as examples of how important broadcasting's role can be in drawing the nation together.

Note how Beeb bosses talk about the nation singular. Pull them up on this point and they swiftly acknowledge that, of course, the UK comprises two nations (England and Scotland) plus the principality of Wales and the province of Northern Ireland.

BBC bureaucrats have traditionally classified Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as the "national regions" and have been trying to win friends in recent years by commissioning more network programmes from the Celtic Fringe.

Andrew Marr, lately of this parish, has argued that the Corporation is "more important in keeping these islands together than any political party". That's possibly putting it a bit strongly, but there is no doubt that the BBC has served as bonding agent and been a rare source of British national pride in the post-war era. This was especially the case when the Corporation transmitted a single nationwide service and saw its role as "equalising national life" and overcoming "parochialism of outlook". But those days are long gone and will fade even more into the midst of time as the digital revolution unfolds.

BBC Scotland will exploit the new technology and political devolution to opt out of the network schedule more frequently and to push its plan for a separate Scottish channel for digital subscribers. They also ultimately want to produce their own tartanised version of the Six O'Clock News for Scots, code-named Scotland at Six. BBC Scotland bosses will insist, of course, that this has nothing to do with nationalism. They're just providing an enhanced service for Scots and anyone else interested in Scottish affairs, wherever they may be across Britain, they say.

The reality is that national public broadcasters can never be truly neutral when the nation they serve is under threat from a secessionist movement. That is clearly evident in Canada, where broadcasters and politicians alike have had to deal for some decades with a very serious separatist movement in Quebec. Guylaine Saucier, chair of the CBC board, has stated: "CBC is central to my view of what defines Canada. Canada has endured as a nation because succeeding generations have been able to communicate a shared sense of values that has crystallised into an idea of nation that is unique in the world." One again, nation singular.

Yet, at the same time as it talks about "building bridges between the two cultures", CBC has unintentionally contributed to Quebec nationalism (with at least a small "n") by funding separate English and French services. The latter are often staffed by people who would gladly destroy the Canadian confederation and CBC along with it. Much the same situation applies in Scotland. There are some closet Nats in the upper echelons of BBC Scotland, who will do everything in their power to bring about the creation of a separate SBC. There are also some who don't want to go that far and are simply engaged in a little local empire building.

There are also a few naive souls who don't realise the possible effects of broadcasting devolution. It will undoubtedly have some political effect. Anything that turns up the Scottish dimension in Scots' lives simultaneously dims the British dimension. A more Scottish BBC will contribute to making Scots feel more Scottish and less British, a process that is already well under way. And Scottish viewers are Scottish voters, as Jeremy Paxman, Gavin Esler and the rest of the BBC need to remember as they struggle to deal with a digital, devolved Scotland.