FEAR NOT, fellows citizens of Free Scotia, you need not adjust your television sets. Eastenders is safe and will have a future in our independent land. With this guarantee, the people can rest easy. There will be no jamming stations positioned along the Tweed and Solway to prevent Scots from accessing the best and most popular programmes the BBC has to offer.
Has it really come to this? And so soon? Has the debate about Scottish independence descended to a level at which the broadcasting of television soap operas is considered a sensible matter for debate? Apparently so. If this is the future then god help us all.
One feature of the constitutional debate is that the media appears to have decided that the SNP must have an answer for every hypothetical question about life in an independent Scotland. Moreover, the SNP cannot say "we don't know, we haven't made any plans in that area" for fear they will be accused of lacking a blueprint for Scotland's future and, thus, of making it up as they go along.
Of course many things about how matters might be organised in an independent future really are unknown. We won't know until or if we get there. So, with risk and uncertainty a guarantee, it makes sense for the SNP to try and answer as many questions as possible. It is part of their mission to reassure folk that less may change than they may fear.
Hence the First Minister's appearance at the Edinburgh International Television Festival last week at which he saved Eastenders for the nation. Bully for him. A shame, however, he didn't promise to kill River City. BBC Scotland's soap falls into the category of things we pretend must be somehow ok because they're Scottish but which, really, we do know are actually on the useless side of ordinary (cf, Scottish football).
Actually, that's true of much of the Scottish media. None of it is quite as good as it might be. I suppose you might claim the media might be revitalised by independence but it can't be said that devolution - supported by every indigenous paper - has done much for the Scottish newspaper industry.
Still, it is, if you like, evidence of how trivial the arguments about independence really are that we're prepared to spend time seriously discussing which particular existing BBC shows might be available to Scottish viewers as some point in some independent future. (As more and more people move to cable and satellite, the answer is likely to be "most of them".)
A national broadcaster - such as the Scottish Broadcasting Corporation envisioned by the SNP - might even be thought some kind of vanity project akin to the national-flag-carrying state-owned airlines once considered a part of statehood. (Many of those airlines, mind you, are now bust) Nevertheless, some kind of public service broadcaster seems likely in Scotland too.
As is so often the case, Ireland provides the most useful model for Scotland and not just because many viewers in the Republic also get the BBC's channels. (Indeed, when, after many years dependent upon RTE alone, Cork was finally able to receive BBC pictures supporters of Cork City FC took this as an irony-coated badge of sophistication: "Multichannel! Multichannel!" they chanted knowingly.)
Having spent five years living in Ireland there'd be no disgrace in emulating RTE. But it should be remembered that though an SBC might certainly be more Scottish than the BBC; it might not be any better. The comparison with RTE is a valid one. Few people familiar with the Irish broadcaster's current affairs output would deny that, at present, it soundly defeats BBC Scotland. In my view its coverage of sport (chiefly rugby, football and gaelic games) is also much better than anything available from BBC Scotland or STV.
So there's nothing pathetic about being quite like RTE. But if you think an independent Scotland is suddenly going to be producing hours and hours of top-class drama you're mistaken. And no, the success of "The Killing" or "Borgen" proves nothing except that, in recent years, Danish television has been on a good run. Even so, one hit a year does not a schedule fill. And, in any case, viewing figures for these dramas are actually tiny and the preserve of the upper-middle classes.
After all, even if you allow that, with a license fee supplemented by advertising (though STV would lobby against allowing an SBC to profit from advertising) creative budgets might be larger than they are at present, this is no guarantee of excellence. So long as Scotland on screen is a matter of either Highland whimsy or Glasgow misery then most of the country is being short-changed. There are many Scotlands but broadcasters at present only seem to believe in two of them. Perhaps this would no longer be the case in an independent future but I wouldn't want to risk too much wagering on that proposition. These are the stories we like to tell ourselves as well a those we sell to the outside world.
Nevertheless, even allowing for technological advances, it is still the case that quality drama is a fearfully expensive, desperately difficult and hugely uncertain business. For every hit there's likely to be several flops. Losing the economies of scale offered by the BBC is a big deal (even if losing the BBC's bureaucracy is a good deal too). The budget for high-quality, home-grown drama won't, I suspect, run to making much more than 100 hours a year of the stuff and, quite possibly, much less than that. And that's assuming - for the sake of argument - that the SBC might have an annual budget of £500.
This is fine and lord knows it's no reason not to vote for independence. Scotland's television future after independence will be pretty familiar: a lot of cheap imported shows, knock-offs of established BBC programmes (such as Question Time, University Challenge etc, etc), more domestic current affairs and, occasionally, some good documentaries and unembarrassing dramas. Again, there's nothing wrong with that.
But one should not make too much of it either. Scotland would be like any other "normal" country. Which means there'd be a limited market for television of real quality.
As it happens, it seems absurd that the First Minister should stoop to outline this kind of detail. Independence is a thing worth having or it isn't and the future of television - however interesting the subject may be - can't possibly be the sort of thing that a decent, mature, grown-up country would think worth considering carefully before the decision is made. Far less would such a country allow such considerations to have any sway at all.
So, oddly, it demeans the First Minister and his cause when he spend time addressing these kinds of trivial matters. Yes, there are times when the SNP needs to offer some indicatory detail about its view of Scotland's future (though, of course, the SNP might not win elections in that future) but there are also limits to when this is necessary and, I suggest, TV schedules are one such limit. If this is what we're talking about then we're not talking about anything and the cause is no kind of cause at all.
I know it would be bold to dismiss questions on these matters with an airy "that will all be worked out in due course" since that would invite plenty of derision in the press but, jings, it might be better than trying to address every question on every subject related, however tangentially, to life in an independent Scotland. Not least because even answering such questions merely invites a fresh out break of Whatabouttery - as in That's all very well and good, Mr Salmond, but what about this?
But at least Eastenders is safe. So there's that.