We must admit, we thought Ian Davidson would be a shoo-in for this particular award after his unforgettable implosion on Newsnight Scotland in August. But then we read something twice as mad and half as comprehensible. It was a piece from STV News in October, based on some comments by unfortunately-named Scottish Labour “deputy” leader and hereditary MP Anas Sarwar. We’ve read it eight or nine times now, and we still have genuinely not the slightest clue what he’s wittering on about.
We’re going to step through it line-by-line and see if we can get it to make any sense. Feel free to join in if you’ve got any ideas, because we’re stumped.
“SNP proposals for establishing a new public service broadcaster in an independent Scotland would lead to a higher licence fee, fewer programmes and fewer channels, the deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party has warned.”
Righto. Let’s hear the argument, then.
“Anas Sarwar, MP for Glasgow Central, argued it was “simply living in a fantasy world” to suggest the current range of BBC TV, radio, website and iPlayer content would be available to viewers in an independent Scotland.”
Not sure we follow this one. The BBC is a commercial organisation. It licences its content to pretty much anyone who’s prepared to pay. Indeed, the most comparable nation to Scotland – the Republic Of Ireland – has a crossborder partnership with the BBC to allow BBC channels to be viewed in the Republic on a free-to-air basis. It’s hard to imagine a similar arrangement not being agreed with Scotland, but even if it wasn’t, it’s all but inconceivable that the BBC wouldn’t be prepared to SELL the rights. It certainly doesn’t seem like a “fantasy”.
(With TV viewing becoming increasingly internet-based, it’d be close to impossible to prevent Scots from accessing BBC shows anyway, even if the corporation wanted for some unfathomable reason to actively shut itself off from millions of potential viewers and a source of much-needed revenue.)
“Mr Sarwar told MPs during a Westminster Hall debate on Scottish separation and the future of the BBC that First Minister Alex Salmond intended to break up the BBC and establish a separate licence fee-funded public service broadcaster in Scotland.”
Alex Salmond would of course not have the power to “break up the BBC”, let alone the desire. The BBC would clearly continue to exist even if its Scottish offices were to close – though it would find itself a little lighter in the pocket, as it’s currently subsidised by Scottish licence-fee payers to the tune of around £100 million a year, over and above what it spends in, or on making programmes for, Scotland.
“If everyone paid the full amount for their licence fee in Scotland, Mr Sarwar said, it would generate £320m, but allowing for discounts it was close to £300m – compared with the current UK wide BBC budget for all platforms of approximately £3.5bn.”
Um, yes. That sounds about right. And?
“Sport spending alone by the BBC he said currently stood at £479m a year.”
Clementines and satsumas are both kinds of orange. But what does that have to do with anything? The BBC certainly doesn’t lavish anything within a million miles of £479m a year on Scottish sport, so the relevance of the statistic escapes us.
The corporation closely guards the amount it spends to broadcast Scottish football on radio and in TV highlights, for example, perhaps out of embarrassment – on the basis of the SPL’s accounts we’d be astonished if it was as much as £3m a season. One need endure only a single weekend of watching Match Of The Day then Sportscene to measure the BBC’s respective levels of commitment to English and Scottish football.
And what other Scottish sport does it spend a lot of money on? A few rugby matches a year? The Camanachd Cup? It seems extremely unlikely we’re getting our fair 8.4% share – which would be £40.2m – of that sporting expenditure at the moment.
(An independent Scottish broadcaster could take just a third of that sum, comfortably outbid Sky for live SPL/SFL coverage – bringing the game back to a mass audience, putting extra cash into the pockets of our hard-pressed clubs and saving fans money on subscriptions – and still have over £25m left every year for sport alone.)
“Programmes potentially under threat in the advent of a separate Scotland and the break-up of the BBC, Mr Sarwar warned, included ratings hits Strictly Come Dancing, Frozen Planet, Holby City and Match of the Day.”
Why? Any particular reason for that specific selection? Why wouldn’t Scotland want to buy those shows in? Why would the BBC refuse to sell them? Doesn’t he in fact just mean “all BBC programmes of any kind would be blocked from transmission”, but realises that saying so would make him sound like a lunatic?
(Also, we suspect that highlighting “You wouldn’t be able to see English football” as a particularly disastrous consequence of independence is a symptom of the Caledonian Cringe that so many Unionist Scottish MPs seem to pick up in Westminster.)
“He added: “It is inconceivable that the quality, quantity and breadth of output could be maintained with just 10% of the current available resource.””
What? Sarwar appears to be suggesting here that a Scottish broadcaster would for some reason have to reproduce the entire UK output of the BBC – catering to over 50m non-Scots and including dozens of English regional stations plus Welsh and Irish broadcasting – with Scottish revenues alone. That’s… odd.
Remember, the total budget of BBC Scotland – both TV and radio – will be just £86m by 2016/17 under current BBC spending plans, not £3.5bn. So should an independent Scotland raise Mr Sarwar’s suggested £300m from a licence fee, it’d be able to completely replicate all the work of BBC Scotland and still have £214m left in the kitty to buy in whatever shows it wanted from the rBBC or elsewhere with.
“Mr Sarwar said 910,000 Scottish people watched Strictly Come Dancing every week, 39% of the audience share in Scotland, while Frozen Planet received 750,000 Scottish viewers, 28% of the audience share in Scotland.”
Er, okay. So we’d probably want to buy those in, then? That might cost a few quid, but as the BBC’s top five brands put together only made around £300m from being sold outside the UK in 2010/11 – to the entire world, and including DVDs, live events and magazines as well as broadcasts to an audience of billions – it seems fair to say that the teeny little 5m population of Scotland wouldn’t have to blow all its cash to put them on on a Saturday night. Realistically, not even the corporation’s biggest flagship series would cost more than £1m a year each to show in Scotland.
(Particularly as all of those top shows were on BBC1 and BBC2 anyway, which – alert readers will recall – the BBC already broadcasts to neighbouring Ireland for free.)
“He said: “Why on earth would you want to break up the BBC and then spend money buying the exact same programmes back again?””
Because, as we’ve just seen, it’d be a lot cheaper that way?
A few hundred other obvious answers spring instantly to mind. Here, Anas Sarwar appears to be suggesting that the replacement of BBC Scotland with an independent public-service broadcaster is in fact the primary reason for Scottish independence – rather than, say, getting rid of Trident, protecting the poor and sick from the destruction of the welfare state, ending the insanity of PFI, keeping education free, investing in a renewable energy industry, creating a more equitable society etc. Which is strange.
“Mr Sarwar warned this ability to purchase programmes from the rest of the BBC, with funding being available was “yet another assertion, not fact”.”
We’ve already established that such funding – to the tune of over £200m, by Mr Sarwar’s own statistics – would be available. So unless he’s suggesting the BBC would turn down money out of sheer spite, it in fact seems a pretty sensible assertion.
“He said it was “ridiculous and fanciful” to make the claim that nothing would change, adding the position being followed by the SNP was “not only not credible, it is downright misleading”.”
We’re not sure which bit isn’t “credible”, let alone misleading. Mr Sarwar himself suggests that a Scottish licence fee would bring in £300m a year. It’s a publicly-documented fact that BBC Scotland’s budget will be just £86m by the time an independent Scotland would be holding its first election. It therefore stands to reason that the Scottish Broadcasting Corporation with £300m a year in its coffers would be in an extremely healthy financial position, both when it came to making its own programmes and to buying in those it wanted from the rBBC and elsewhere.
The rest of the piece is given over to a series of weird non-sequiturs from Ed Vaizey, controversially declaring himself to be pro-the UK, with Anas Sarwar presumably having been led off to a dark room with a damp flannel. But Sarwar’s bizarre stream of disconnected gibberish has in fact demonstrated the precise opposite of what he presumably intended it to.
Entirely irrespective of the state of the country generally, Scottish broadcasting would by any reasonable assessment be better off independent, even by Sarwar’s figures. £214m buys you a LOT of Frozen Planet and Holby City even if you’re having to pay for it. And obviously, other TV suppliers like Sky, who supply the vast majority of current channels, would be unaffected by independence. They already pay to broadcast to Scotland and they get their money directly from customers. In fact, an independent Scotland could probably afford to cut the licence fee in half and still be quids in.
In other words, then, what we’ve learned is that everything in the story’s opening paragraph is complete and utter rubbish – we WOULDN’T have a higher licence fee, we WOULDN’T have fewer programmes and we WOULDN’T have fewer channels.
Anas Sarwar can’t possibly be a complete moron. So for allowing himself to issue such an inexplicably ridiculous rant, he leaves Ian Davidson trailing helplessly in the dust and grabs himself our 2012 WTF? Of The Year award. Congratulations, Anas!