Broadcast Media as Centralised Control
When the Institute of Local Television was set up in 1989 I took inspiration from the German Open Channels. These were radio and TV channels on Germany’s extensive cable network funded from the broadcast licence fee and administered by the regional authorities, or German Lande.
The Offener Kanäle broadcast unfettered and openly expressed views on a first come first served basis, placing the onus for legal and moral responsibility on the producer, not on the broadcaster as a gatekeeper. Here the broadcaster becomes a transparent agent and not an institution second guessing the rights or wrongs of what to broadcast but – in effect – the broadcaster is like the telephone company, distributing without interruption what is being communicated.
Most of us are aware that over the last twenty five years broadcasting policy has fallen out of step with the blurring edges of technology and social media that have emerged between communications on the internet contrasting in form and function with what is still characterised as ‘TV’ or ‘radio’.
The newer technologies provide technical scope as well as political opportunities (some say) to adopt a more devolved approach to broadcasting, to look more closely at what ‘broadcasting’ is in the changing realities of the web and at how and on whose behalf broadcasting is regulated. What might a more enlightened and democratic approach to broadcast regulation seek to secure? How can broadcasting be made more accountable, more useful to local and civic narratives?
As Lord Smith ponders what he believes might be devolved after the referendum we can look at what the political parties are asking for broadcasting. We need to go and go a little further back at the moment to reflect on civil societies views. Those responding to the Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution had some interesting things to say.
Initially we can look at what the political parties are asking for in 2014. We can compare these political ambitions with the broader civic concerns responding to Calman and finally – and perhaps as a salutary lesson for those anticipating positive thoughts from Lord Smith – explore Calman’s assessment of the responses and his judgement in 2009 on what a devolved broadcasting amounted to.
Submitting to Lords Smith in no particular order:-
Liberal Democrats …
write in their submission, Federalism: the best future for Scotland: The report of the Home Rule and Community Rule Commission of the Scottish Liberal Democrats
176. There are legitimate issues surrounding the coverage by broadcasters of political and social issues in all parts of the UK. As a federal UK developed it would be important to ensure that these were addressed. Similarly, the location of production facilities for broadcasting needs to be seen to be equitable across the UK. The Commission believes that the BBC and the UK media market are successful because of the fact that they operate across the UK and reflect many different cultures and national and regional identities. We do not think the case is made for a separate Scottish Broadcasting Corporation.
Recommendation 38: Broadcasting should continue to be regulated at a UK level to reflect a single UK market, whilst encouraging steps to ensure equitable distribution of broadcasting and media jobs throughout the United Kingdom.
Scottish Conservatives …
have nothing at all to say about broadcasting in their submission, Commission on the Future Governance of Scotland – broadcasting does not appear at all.
Scottish Greens …
are deeply confused … while applauding the ‘biggest news-gathering machine on the planet’(!)
Debate over the future of the BBC is not confined to SNP proposals during the independence debate (to which the Scottish Greens did not subscribe) but resurfaces from time to time at UK level. Our proposal for a renewed BBC Charter and Agreement to create a shared governance relationship between UK and Scottish Governments, rather than just the Secretary of State at UK level, would still be relevant in the context of deeper devolution within the UK.
This could perhaps be extended to include the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies and would create a number of advantages: an additional level of protection for the principle of public service broadcasting; a structural inventive for the Corporation to take its different audiences seriously; retaining the scale of the biggest news-gathering machine on the planet.
The SNP …
Other key economic levers, including competition, energy and broadcasting policy, responsibility for the Crown Estate, transport policy not currently the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament (including rail) and aspects of immigration policy, such as the post study work visa, should be devolved
And under Culture and Heritage write …
Only with further powers can Scotland fulfil its cultural ambitions and build upon its international reputation for culture, heritage and creativity. Responsibility for taxation and lotteries would give the Scottish Parliament a coherent suite of powers in relation to the screen sector and culture and heritage.
Devolution of broadcasting would provide the leverage needed to enhance job creation through increased production; contribute to a fairer society through programming aimed at promoting wider access to culture; and enable Scotland to better express its place in the world.
Calman Commission on Scottish Devolution
For a broader spread of views from Scotland on broadcasting devolution made well ahead of the referendum we have responses to the Calman Commission’s. Commission on Scottish Devolution, The Future of Scottish Devolution within the Union: A First Report, Volume II: A Summary of Evidence (December 2008) (http://www.commissiononscottishdevolution.org.uk/papers.php)
Under the heading Broadcasting (pp 52-53) Calman summarises the evidence submitted. The ‘disclosed’ evidence is firmly weighted towards full independence, devolution or subsidiarity for broadcasting. It is worth noting the Green Party has turned virtually 180 degrees. A wide range of civil society contributors favour greater devolution and accountability to Holyrood for broadcasting in Scotland.
• Should be devolved (radio, TV, film – including tax incentives for filming in Scotland). (Scottish Green Party)
• “Current powers over broadcasting should be devolved, not to narrow the perspective to parochial concerns but to ensure adequate reflection of Scottish perspectives on a wider world.” (Church of Scotland)
• “Broadcasting would be better controlled by Holyrood. I know I am not alone in feeling disgruntled about having to pay the license fee for broadcasting which predominantly concentrates on English news.” (Ruthie Allan)
• The aim should be to give fuller and better coverage of Scottish national and international cultural and political matters. (Prof Douglas Gifford, University of Glasgow)
• Broadcasting should be regulated by the Scottish Parliament: “The present situation of the English BBC News masquerading as British News must be corrected.” (AJ Parrott)
• Sick of watching “main” news dominated by English cricket, NHS, education stories – we need a “Scottish Six”. (David Macphail) Part 2: Written submissions | December 2008
• Could be devolved – but this “would not necessarily entail the break-up of the BBC” – or “it could become a concurrent competence, with the UK setting only broad guidelines” (Prof Michael Keating)
• “Scotland has a distinctive culture that should be reflected in broadcast media” – so general support for devolution, subject to further consideration of the regulatory function of Ofcom and oversight of the BBC. (UNISON Scotland no.2)
• Some devolution may be appropriate to respect “the distinctive cultural life and ambitions of Scotland”. (Scottish Episcopal Church)
• UK regulatory bodies such as Ofcom, the BBC and the Competition Commission should report jointly to the UK and the three devolved administrations. (David Hutchison)
• Ofcom is not accountable under the Communications Act 2003 to the Scottish Parliament for its regulatory functions, but its activities impact on devolved matters such as culture, broadband and digital inclusion. Ofcom has an agreed protocol with the Scottish Government and Scotland Office on liaison and consultation. It regularly engages with Scottish Government activities and Scottish Parliament inquiries, and undertakes its own Scotland-specific activities. (Ofcom)
• The Scottish Parliament should have power to direct Ofcom and the BBC Trust, and more far-reaching devolution should not be ruled out. (STUC no.2)
• No view on whether broadcasting should be devolved – but if it is, “this should include the transfer of the UK’s obligations under Article 11 of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the power to legislate to allocate broadcasting capacity on the electromagnetic spectrum. The devolution of obligations must carry with it the grant of the means to fulfil those obligations.” (MG Alba)
• There is a case for “a tiered approach to communication responsibilities (including broadcasting and wireless broadband) based on the principles of devolution and subsidiarity”. Each nation would be responsible for terrestrial communication services for reception and transmission internally, while voluntary broadcasting trusts would oversee wireless communication requirement that benefit primarily local audiences and subscribers. Mobile phones would be a shared responsibility. Surplus spectrum could be leased by nations and local trusts, partly to provide revenue to support national and local services. Satellite services would continue to operate internationally, and the regulatory structure would conform to European principles. (Institute of Local Television no.2)
In his Final Report of June 2009 (Serving Scotland Better: Scotland and the United Kingdom in the 21st Century, http://www.commissiononscottishdevolution.org.uk/uploads/2009-06-12-csd-final-report-2009fbookmarked.pdf) Calman wrote:-
5.39 In its First Report, the Commission invited specific views on whether the current arrangements concerning broadcasting were sustainable and whether the responsibilities of Scottish Ministers in respect of broadcasting might change.
5.63 The subject matter of the Broadcasting Act 1990 and the Broadcasting Act 1996, and the BBC, are reserved. In its First Report, the Commission noted that the Scottish Government has called for broadcasting to be devolved and acknowledged the contribution to the debate made by the Scottish Government’s own Scottish
Broadcasting Commission.5.17 The Commission observed that the Scottish Broadcasting Commission’s conclusions – that there should be a greater focus on Scotland and a greater role for the Scottish Parliament and Ministers as regards broadcasting, within a UK framework – were broadly consistent with the evidence received in the first phase of its work.
5.64 The Commission has received evidence from broadcasters, the broadcasting regulator and other providers of broadcasting services, including the BBC5.18 and OFCOM.5.19 In its first phase, especially, the Commission heard concerns about the continued viability of locally orientated content (particularly around news and current affairs). The Commission concluded that this represents a problem for the whole UK, rather than simply for Scotland, and is not something that could be satisfactorily addressed within its remit.
5.65 The focus of the Commission’s attentions in the second phase of its work has been to satisfy ourselves that the current framework and arrangements for broadcasting are sustainable in the long term and in the interests of the people of Scotland.
5.66 As would be expected, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission was able to devote more time to, and consult more specifically on, the subject of broadcasting in Scotland. The Commission has not heard evidence arguing that the Scottish Broadcasting Commission’s recommendations on accountability are inappropriate. Indeed, the consensus appears to be that, if implemented, the recommendations will secure a role for the Scottish Parliament and Ministers in broadcasting, providing a better outcome for Scottish audiences whilst preserving the advantages that accrue from being part of an overarching UK framework for broadcasting. The Commission acknowledges that the Scottish Broadcasting Commission was better placed to consider these issues and was able to consult with the industry more widely, but has no views on its other recommendations about the broadcasting sector.
5.67 The Commission has therefore focused its attentions on whether recommendations on accountability are likely to be followed. The evidence the Commission has taken from key players such as the BBC and OFCOM indicate a willingness and an enthusiasm from national broadcasters for both greater involvement and consultation with representatives of the Scottish people in order both to understand their preferences and to reflect them better.
5.68 OFCOM is now generally recognised to have established effective links with the Scottish Government and Parliament and in evidence states that it has embraced and adapted to the current devolution settlement. The Commission welcomes, and is impressed by, OFCOM’s ongoing commitment to engagement with the Scottish Parliament and Government and hopes that the latter will take advantage of the proposals OFCOM makes to increase scrutiny of broadcasting in Scotland by Scottish institutions.
5.69 Representatives of the BBC have explained to the Commission how the Corporation has restructured in the wake of Anthony King’s first accountability report to ensure that all BBC journalists appreciate the nature of the devolution settlement and reflect this in their reporting. The Director-General of the BBC has undertaken to appear before Scottish Parliamentary committees if invited to do so and the Corporation lays its annual report (and a separate Scottish annual report) before the Scottish Parliament. The Corporation argues that its reporting lines are laid out in its Charter which is determined by the UK Parliament and that, if the Charter were to be altered to place different reporting requirements upon it, it would gladly respond to them.
5.70 While welcoming the measures that have been taken, the Commission considers that they should be supplemented by transferring to Scottish Ministers the UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport’s current responsibility for the appointment of the Scottish member of the BBC Trust, subject to the normal public appointments process. This is consistent with the recommendation of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission. The Commission notes the work of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission and does not feel it necessary to comment further on broadcasting in Scotland.
RECOMMENDATION 5.4: The responsibility for the appointment of the Scottish member of the BBC Trust should be exercised by Scottish Ministers, subject to the normal public appointments process.
SMITH COMMISSION REPORT 27/11/14
36. There will be a formal consultative role for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament in the process of reviewing the BBC’s Charter. The BBC will lay its annual report and accounts before the Scottish Parliament and submit reports to, and appear before, committees of the Scottish Parliament in relation to matters relating to Scotland in the same way as it does in the UK Parliament.
37. The power to approve OFCOM appointments to the board of the MG Alba will rest solely with Scottish Ministers.
… plus ça change!