What if Scotland votes Yes in autumn 2014 – would we still pay the licence fee – and would we still have the BBC?
In August 2009, at a time when News International were strenuously denying everything, James Murdoch addressed the Edinburgh Television Festival, claiming:
“The expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision.”
(Twenty years earlier Rupert Murdoch had also addressed the same festival, saying much the same thing.)
In the Scotsman, Jennifer Dempsie notes that Scotland would have a larger budget specifically for radio, TV, and iPlayer services than at present: Scotsman:
The licence fee revenue in Scotland is around £325m (sadly the BBC are not too keen to publish official figures in this area). If you assume total BBC Scotland overhead and distribution costs of about £50m (including the contribution to BBC Alba costs), we are left with a public service programme budget for radio, television and online services in an independent Scotland of approximately £275m. A report showed the BBC as providing figures for their total Scottish spend as just £102m plus £70-75m of network-related spending. So, a Scottish public service broadcaster retaining the entire licence fee would have a budget of about £325m, as against the measly £175m currently. Approaching double.
Plus, we could get rid of David Dimbleby on SBC Question Time, forever.
But set against that, while we’d still be able to pick up the BBC on our channels, we’d no longer have access to the full range of programmes on BBC iPlayer. According to a discussion on the Guardian site, Polly Curtis asserts that an independent Scotland would want to somehow retain the BBC:
The government of an independent Scotland is likely to strike a deal with the BBC and ministers in London to keep the BBC broadcasting across the UK, several well-placed sources have indicated in response to this Reality Check blog.
Detailed study of the financial and practical issues which would face a Scottish broadcasting corporation, working on its own with just Scottish licence fee income, appear to be so great that the Scottish National party agrees that retaining the BBC in some form would be necessary.
Senior sources have disclosed that discreet, unofficial talks between the Scottish government’s advisers and the BBC about a future role after independence – assuming Scotland votes for it – have already started.
The current Scottish government position about relying heavily on a Scottish corporation may change by 2013.
Andrew Neil has claimed that Rupert Murdoch’s meeting last week with Alex Salmond at Bute House was about Murdoch and Salmond courting over Salmond’s plans to cut corporation taxes if Scotlnd becomes independent, and Murdoch hinting he might move BSkyB’s headquarters to Edinburgh if that happened.
“A little bird tells me Mr Murdoch suggested a referendum winner would be an announcement that corporation tax for firms coming to an independent Scotland would be cut from the UK norm of 26% to between 10% and 15%.”
MacKenzie added that if that occurred, Murdoch would act to relocate Sky in the Scottish capital.
However, Media Guardian described Murdoch’s investment in Scotland as “modest” with News International staff based in Scotland to produce the Scottish Sun, and BSkyB staff based in Livingstone, Dunfermline and Uddingston.
““BSkyB did not comment on the speculation, but insiders said that the company had no plans to move its corporate headquarters to Edinburgh, not least because there was as yet no independent Scotland.”
But there’s another reason why Murdoch might move the BSkyB headquarters to Scotland. To get away from UK legislation that might deem News Corporation, Murdoch’s fief, to no longer be a “fit and proper” to hold a broadcasting licence.
One of these is the question of whether Sky, as part of the Murdoch media empire, is a ‘fit and proper person’ for the purposes of the Broadcasting Act (News Corporation holds 39.14% of the shares in BSkyB). Section 3 of the Broadcasting Act 1990 and s. 3 of the Broadcasting Act 1996 impose a duty on Ofcom to ensure that broadcasting licences (whether radio or television) are held by fit and proper persons. This duty is ongoing and does not apply just at the time of the grant of the licence. It is therefore possible that a licence may be removed from a person if that person ceases – in Ofcom’s opinion – to be fit and proper. The person in question is the holder of the licence – so the person may be a corporate body. Ofcom will take into account the actions of controlling directors and shareholders, as well as the actions of the licence-holder itself and any determination could affect all licences held by that body.
Janen Ganesh of the Economist suggested that Murdoch might think he and News International could run away from the phone-hacking scandal – certainly it seems that Alex Salmond hasn’t given him any trouble over it.
Andrew Neil’s summary was:
“he’s never liked Britain, even less so when the establishment’s taken its revenge on him [over phone hacking] – so he’d like to break up the United Kingdom.”
Last year Julian Pike of the London law firm Farrer & Co reacted to the Panorama investigation headlined “Tabloid Hacks Exposed”
focused on the alleged role of Murdoch journalists in employing “dark arts” – Fleet Street jargon for dubious and potentially illegal reporting tactics – and in particular allegations of “blagging” (jargon for pretending to be someone else) and computer and phone hacking at the News of the World.
Pike laid out News Group’s complaints about the BBC’s investigation in letters sent to Panorama in early March headed
“NOT FOR PUBLICATION & NOT FOR BROADCAST: STRICTLY PRIVATE & CONFIDENTIAL.”
In two letters, dated March 10 and 11, Pike suggested that the BBC might be pursuing the hacking story for business or political reasons rather than for journalistic motives.
Pike said that BBC Director General Mark Thompson had been “required to apologize” in November 2010 for adding his signature to a letter from a group of companies who were critical of News Corp’s bid to acquire the balance of shares in BSkyB which it did not already own.
Needless to say, the Leveson inquiry proved Panorama temperate – and the campaign for News International to acquire a majority share in BSkyB has been put on hold.
James Murdoch has resigned. (Hopefully he’ll remember that.) But in 2008, the Tories came up with a plan to “top-slice” the licence fee, then £3.2 billion a year:
and “parcel out” cash to other companies so that Britain had a “plurality of public service broadcasters”.
A later version of the proposal was for £150 million of licence fee money to go to Channel 4, which has to fulfil certain public service obligations including making educational programmes and demonstrating cultural diversity.
However, in November 2008 Mr Cameron effectively ripped up the plan, declaring: “I’m sceptical of that. I think we need to look at this issue of top-slicing but I think there are quite a lot of difficulties with it.”
No such proposal was included in the Conservative manifesto at last year’s election.
Tim Montgomerie, editor of the ConservativeHome website, who also writes for The Sunday Telegraph, was told at this time by a senior Tory who was one of the architects of the policy that it was to be abandoned after a request by James Murdoch.
The reason was said to be that Mr Murdoch wanted to preserve the effective duopoly between the BBC and Sky because this suited News Corp.
A senior source said: “The last thing Sky wanted was other broadcasters getting a slice of the licence fee. The policy was amended accordingly.”
free news on the web provided by the BBC made it “incredibly difficult” for private news organisations to ask people to pay for their news.
“It is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it,” he said.
News Corporation has said it will start charging online customers for news content across all its websites.
Two and a half years later, we now know that diminishing ad returns were the least of News International’s problems. Phonehacking was endemic: police officers and other public officials were corrupt; Rupert Murdoch is in a big, tangled web of trouble.
By July last year David Cameron was even being criticised in the Torygraph
for hiring Andy Coulson, the former News of the World editor who was arrested by police investigating phone hacking, as his director of communications.
He is also good friends with Rebekah Brooks, former chief executive of News International, who has also been arrested.
The latest claim adds to similar charges that Mr Cameron, while in opposition, changed his party’s policies to suit the interests of the Murdoch empire.
Despite that, Alex Salmond is climbing in with Rupert Murdoch. What are we to make of that? What’s the future for the BBC in Scotland if Murdoch has Salmond’s ear? What tax deals have been done to allow Murdoch to escape the public criticism of the Leveson inquiry?
Is anyone from the SNP going to ask Alex Salmond these questions at the SNP conference in Glasgow this weekend?
Update, 30th April: SNP blogger Moridura on the BBC.