What is the future for public service broadcasting in Scotland?

70SBBC1Increased autonomy for BBC Scotland has been on the agenda for many years, and periodically constitutional change in the UK has driven developments in both structure and programming. As long ago as the late 1970s, Alastair Hetherington, then Controller of BBC Scotland, was asking for devolved budgets and operational control for Scotland – for which request he was exiled to run Radio Highland (which he greatly loved, as it happens, being a keen walker). The idea of a special ‘service agreement’ for BBC Scotland, through which it would control its own finances and operations, was mooted by senior corporation figures at a conference on PSB, held at Glasgow University on 13 January.

Broadcasting in Scotland has been looked at through the lens of the constitutional question since 1999, when devolution catalysed the initial debate about news coverage in Scotland – the so-called ‘Scottish Six’ affair, which has not yet been laid to rest. BBC Scotland didn’t get the Six, that is, its own non-network take on Scottish, national and international news. In evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee on 12 January, the BBC’s Director-General, Tony Hall, alluded to the Six and the need to review news and current affairs provision in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK. That’s one to watch.

The current debate in Scotland has been shaped by a report by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission in 2008, set up by Alex Salmond MSP when he was First Minister. This initiative was driven by two forces: political interest and producer interest. The first was about completing the portfolio of Scottish national institutions by setting up a Scottish broadcaster. The latter was about upping the prospects for production and commissioning north of the border. Audience research was conducted for the Scottish Broadcasting Commission (SBC)’s 2008 report, but this rationale has always been the weakest part of the argument for change. It should be revisited now in the context of changing delivery systems and consumption patterns.

The Scottish Government’s current argument is that the BBC should federalise and that BBC Scotland should control its own budget and governance arrangements. The Scottish Digital Network originally proposed by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission has reappeared in the form of a proposed second channel, although its precise form is unclear.

These arguments are, essentially, about different kinds of autonomy, whether within or – at the time of the 2014 Independence Referendum – outwith, the British state. The Referendum campaign crystallised a significant and evidently lasting disaffection with the BBC on the part of sections of the pro-independence camp and this has continued to shape some public discussion. However, drawing a line under this last summer, the SNP Government under First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and Fiona Hyslop, the Culture Secretary, has pursued constructive engagement with both the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the BBC.

The moot question – now, as in the past –is just how much, and what kind, of Scottish autonomy will there be in the new BBC Charter, and what will the consequences be for Scotland’s economy, polity and culture – and for that of the UK as a whole?

The moot question – now, as in the past –is just how much, and what kind, of Scottish autonomy will there be in the new BBC Charter, and what will the consequences be for Scotland’s economy, polity and culture – and for that of the UK as a whole?

The media landscape in Scotland presents wider challenges. There has been a notable decline in sales and influence of the Scottish national press, notably the Herald and Scotsman newspapers, at one time the agenda-setters of arguments for devolution. In general, since devolution the Scottish press has fared worse commercially than Scottish editions of the UK press, such as the Scottish Sun. This has made the democratic role of broadcasting in the political system even more important. Various forms of web-based journalism in Scotland have not yet become a strong enough counterweight to deficits in the mainstream media.

Beyond the BBC, of course, there is Scottish Television (STV), regulated as a PSB, whose footprint extends over most of Scotland and which is the mainstay of local television north of the border, with stations in Glasgow and Edinburgh and licences granted to establish new stations in Aberdeen, Ayr and Dundee. The other player of note is BBC Alba, a partnership between the BBC and the Gaelic Media Service MG Alba, which answers to the Gaelic community’s special linguistic and cultural concerns but also addresses wider audiences. As a publicly funded body, it is seeking secure moorings in the next Charter. But if there were other calls on the public purse in supporting a public channel, would the present set-up continue in an unmodified form?

At present, there is continuing speculation about the future ownership of ITV, the dominant player in the Channel 3 network to which STV belongs. ITV recently acquired UTV in Northern Ireland. If, like Channel 5 (owned by US media giant Viacom since 2014), ITV were itself acquired by a US major player, would this have consequences for STV and therefore for a linchpin of the present Scottish set-up?

Rumours also persist about the privatisation or radical restructuring of Channel 4. Given its role as a crucial commissioner of content from independent production companies – disproportionately so in Scotland – a change of remit would also be significant for the sector north of the border, and indeed across the entire UK.

If such structural changes across the PSB landscape come about, in whole or in part, public service broadcasting would be largely identified with the BBC as an institution and with its output. This would further underline its importance in Scotland. The scope and scale of the BBC therefore becomes particularly moot, as does how much of the licence fee comes under Edinburgh’s control.

The corporation is facing one of its biggest crises since World War II in a British state facing a double crisis of identity – how it stands in relation to the European Union and, still for many Scots, the unresolved matter of the very future of the United Kingdom itself.

The corporation is facing one of its biggest crises since World War II in a British state facing a double crisis of identity – how it stands in relation to the European Union and, still for many Scots, the unresolved matter of the very future of the United Kingdom itself. North and south of the border, this has implications for the licence fee – how it is justified, culturally understood, and legitimised.

North and south of the border, this has implications for the licence fee – how it is justified, culturally understood, and legitimised. Up and coming generations simply do not and cannot be expected to understand PSB in ways in which previous ones did. This does not mean that public service content isn’t widely valued. But it does create new challenges in engendering public support.

The Scottish debate about the future of the BBC, has been – and will be – shaped by the constitutional question, current politics and changes in industrial structures. So far, the debate has been overwhelmingly focused on the BBC and on TV. It needs to broaden to take in the wider challenges of the digital age.


This blog post was originally published by the LSE Media Policy Project and is reposted here with permission.

Comments (13)

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  1. christopher donohue says:

    The moot question is “does the UK have any Public Service Broadcaster or is it ‘served’ by an expensive State Broadcaster? for which we are taxed twice”

    1. Sandy McAndrew says:

      ” The moot question is “does the UK have any Public Service Broadcaster or is it ‘served’ by an expensive State Broadcaster? for which we are taxed twice”. ”

      Totally agree!

      People however assume the two to be synonymous.

      The colours of the state broadcaster in Scotland, the bbc, are revealed by its long standing broadcasting of stories masquerading as news that will be perceived as negative to the independence cause. Whereas there is a wall of silence on bad news that could be damaging to the union or support independence.

      In the uk, you can also see bias towards political stances that are not those supported by the London based british / English establishment. We can see this with unbalanced new related to trident, Corbyn, Russia and foreign interventions, etc.

      When have you seen a story positive about an independent Scotland? You wonder how all independent nations in the world mange without England’s help?

      What really annoys them about Russia is that Russia has out thought and performed nato in Syria, obviously Ruaaian bombs kill and nato’s bombs liberate? Or so the bbc would have us believe? nato’s bombs are currently assisting moderate mujaheddin elements on the ground, well we know how that will end up, silence from bbc.

      bbc think they know what is best for Scotland, there will come a day when one senior journalist or manager grows a backbone and discovers integrity, then the game is up for them as the beans get spilt!

  2. C Rober says:

    You would have thought that true public service broadcasting would have taken off with cable , offering another set of stations for free with legislation free of reserved powers , ie airwaves for transmission. But sadly it never happened , and in the US where this was offered it simply ebbed away.

    With todays airwave spectrum so much wider than in the UHF days , which limited the actual number of channels we received , you would have thought it would have opened up for more C4 like endeavors , ie a wholly not for profit broadcaster , free from control from either state , the rich owner or indeed corpotate forces.

    But sadly we now have in excess of 200 channels , most of whom contolled by the likes of the King Maker himslef Murdoch via SKY , and where virgin being the only other viable alternative still has to follow state control in some form , and is reluctant to home grown media and its creation.

    Tv though is dying , too much choice , see above , too little generated content. This is why the newspapers also die off , and that the likes of Murdoch will always be keen to control content and news , as seen in indy , for like minded wealthy souls … less newspapers , more tv purchases.

    There is hope though , Filmon , ironically another billionaire , Amazon Prime , and even netflix are producing content now , so the old brigade have to adapt , or attack , which in america the cable companies are happy to do with their polticians on a leash.

    As the speed of Broadband gets faster and faster , there is hardly any argument for using any airwaves at all.

    Home broadcasting , smaller guerilla stations could be profitable , sure it has took STV a long time to become profit making again , but next gen TV with targeted advertising , something that can easily be done not just down to the shire , but to the postal code and even individual demographics by IP address , cross referenced with cookies , meaning adverts that are relative to individual viewers , like the ones seen today in browsers etc.

    We arent in the days of the death of tv , but its evolution.

    The bbc though will never be allowed to regional control level even for an audience of nearly 5 million.

    SBBC is first and foremost an income generator subsidisng the BBC , and when found to be exactly that says it funds Scotland , but only to create non Scottish content.They are effectively flogging a dead horse , rather than releasing it to be empowered , therefore a threat , both economically and politically.

    The Sbbc should have been something on the table for the VOW , and a reason to refuse it now in my opinion by Holyrood.

    It should be on the list of SNP and Hollyrood agenda to create its replacement , via any means possible , tax breaks etc , even if that means a tech shift to circumvent the reserved airwave powers for Westminsters control , where a free decoder box for every household will mean the deathknell for the licence fee with current legislation…. ie the licence fee is not applicable to internet content.

    You would soon see a demand from the SBBC staff, with that loss of licence fee , to become devolved were Holyrood to become interested on the subject above , but for the very safety of that unaccountable civil service pay packet to remain in operation , taking project fear back to its peddlers , to use a Tv metaphor “resistance is futile”…. the only option is assimilation.

  3. willie says:

    The chattering classes to use a pejorative term are still chattering and nothing changes. Public sector broadcasting is imposed taxation predicated on making it illegal to receive any live signal from anywhere on the planet. It is an abuse pure and simple and the fee is levied in a way redolent of getting the ” white conial master’s stick “. Time folks took their stick and stuffed it where the sun don’t shine – because until we do we’ll still be chattering about change. It’s what we do.

  4. Saor Alba says:

    Disband the BBC. It is not fit for purpose

  5. C Rober says:

    Where is the SNP Holyrood debate on internet TV , while the airwaves are reserved , the internet is not , well to a point.

    If Westminsters Judges cite Filmon for example as piracy , in the same form as “ripped music or Video” then they could force ISP to block the streams. Just as they do for the likes of Pirate bay etc. Its funny how Filmon arent rebroadcasting SKY.

    Which is another reasoning why the internet switches will also remain a devolved power , but if criminality has to be established for a prosecution in Scotland , this is where again Holyrood has the legal powers they are reluctant to use , they can and do set what can be prosecuted.

    If you asked voters in a referendum for a truly Scottish Broadcasting Corporation , or the removal of the licence tax , I reckon the pocket would be the winner , regardless on the voters personal views of Indy.

    Lateral use of power , let the people decide.

  6. Brian Stobie says:

    ‘Increased autonomy’ can mean many things, the devil’s in the details.
    Even a well funded ‘autonomous’ BBC that can produce original Scottish content overseen by people with Scottish interests at heart will be at heart rotten if its news reporting (creating?) function is the same as it is now, framed in the words and biases of the established elites.
    I can’t see a completely editorially independent subsidiary of the BBC ever existing. If it did exist, it wouldn’t be the BBC.

  7. James_MacIntyre says:

    With the independent disappearing, the UK media scene looks in pretty dire straights.

    The devolution of Broadcasting to Scotland is, of course, important. Any idiot could tell you that. The fact Scotland has never had its own TV channel is pretty bizarre and thoroughly undemocratic. It really does show how centralized the United Kingdom is when you watch the bitterness the envelopes the Unionist centre-left when they talk about devolving broadcasting.

  8. Campbell McLean says:

    Clue is in the “b” of bbc!

    No more so demonstrated than in the reporting of the ongoing discussions on the framework of future Scottish funding.

    mundell was asked who side he is on, similar question should be asked of those at pacific quay.

  9. Alf Baird says:

    The BBC is finished in Scotland; at least half of the (older) people don’t trust it, whilst the young don’t even watch it. The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 brought about a Gaelic Language channel, and we should therefore have a Scots Language (Scotland) Act asap to deliver a Scots Language Channel.

  10. Walter Hamilton says:

    You only have to watch news and commentary from stations such as RT, then compare the content with the BBC or Sky news to realise there is something badly wrong with the BBC, government propaganda paid for by the tax payer.

  11. Bob Freedlove says:

    RT? You’re kidding me right? As someone who has lived in Russia and spends a decent amount of time there you just cannot compare the BBC to them. Biased they (BBC) may be and their coverage of Russia is terrible but to say the BBC is propaganda and intimating RT isn’t.

    @Alf, what exactly would a Scots Language Channel be?

    1. Alf Baird says:

      “@Alf, what exactly would a Scots Language Channel be?”

      A fantastic opportunity. Aw muckle dint, e’en. A bit like this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/alba – but in Scots. Music, films, documentaries, news, discussion etc told in Scots by Scots – and paid for by the Scots license fee. Whits no tae like?

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