The BBC and Scotland: a constitutional question

It is not easy for the BBC to combine the need for a strong centre with genuine federalism. However fraught, this tension can be productive. 

David Hutchison
4 May 2015

BBC Scotland, Glasgow. Image: Flickr/ Kasia Raj

There is always a danger writing in and from Scotland of appearing somewhat parochial, even at a time of heightened interest in the country in the wake of the 2014 referendum, and the extraordinary surge of the SNP as we approach the 2015 general election. So at the outset let me make it clear that in what I have written in the past I have been a strong supporter of the BBC as the UK’s - and possibly the world’s - premier public service broadcaster, and of the licence fee system of funding. I ought also to acknowledge that some years ago I spent a period on a couple of the Corporation’s committees and would have to admit that it is an organisation which is rather good at ‘incorporating’ even those who might on occasion be critical of it.

Viewers and listeners north of the border have access to a range of UK wide services and some customised in whole or in part for Scotland. ITV comes in the shape of Scottish Television, which is one of two independent commercial broadcasters not owned directly by ITV plc (the other is Ulster TV). However most of STV’s output is provided by ITV, and its own contributions in the form of opt-out programming are mainly in the areas of news, current affairs and sport. Its most successful network commission was the long running Taggart detective series.

The BBC’s two main channels, BBC1 and BBC2, have the suffix ‘Scotland’ added north of the border. In practice this means that there is a significant amount of opt-out programming, mainly, though not exclusively, on BBC1. This takes the form of news, current affairs, documentaries, sport plus some light entertainment and drama. It is the aspiration that drama and situation comedy should also be purchased for transmission by the networks but this is far from automatic.

Unsurprisingly, there is an ongoing argument about the amount of programming commissioned directly by the UK national networks from Scotland (an argument replicated in other parts of the UK). Following the establishment by the SNP minority government of its Broadcasting Commission in 2007, the BBC’s then director general undertook to work to a target of network production from Scotland equivalent to the country’s share of the UK population, which is just over 8%.

There has been some progress towards that figure but also controversy about the ‘warehousing’ of existing network programmes in Glasgow, as opposed to the commissioning of original productions. Channel 4 has a poor record in outsourcing production beyond England, but Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, announced at the beginning of 2014 that it was proposing that from 2020 the ‘out of England’ quota would be set at 9% by both volume and spend, which is rather more than the current 3%.

BBC Alba is a Gaelic medium television service financed jointly by the BBC and the Scottish Government. It transmits a range  of programmes, including news bulletins (which mix the regional, the national and the international), up to seven hours per day, and its establishment in 2008 marked the successful outcome of a long running campaign by Gaeldom. The channel continues to attract audience numbers well in excess of the number of Scots who speak the language, and that has been helped by its sports coverage and by its judicious use of subtitles.

As in the rest of the UK, there is a plethora of other channels available via satellite, cable and digital terrestrial. The Broadcasting Commission proposed that a new pan-Scottish channel be established, with an emphasis on factual programming, but since neither the Holyrood Parliament nor any other body has offered to provide the necessary funds, to date it remains only an aspiration.

Scottish listeners have access to all of the BBC’s national services and two stand-alone services, BBC Radio Scotland (there are similar channels in Wales and Northern Ireland) and Radio nan Gaidheal, a Gaelic service. In addition, Scotland is covered by a range of commercial stations (mostly owned now by the Bauer Media Group of Germany), and a growing number of community stations. As with television, some national UK output on BBC services - Radios 3 and 4 principally - is produced in Scotland.

Broadcasting is in much better shape than the Scottish press - in addition to the absolute declines in circulations experienced in many parts of the world, indigenous titles have lost market share to Scottish versions of English papers - but it also faces significant challenges. The remarkable decision by the Westminster coalition government in the middle of a licence fee period to, in effect, impose cuts by compelling the Corporation to fund a range of activities it had not previously funded has had an impact on staff numbers and the level of first run programming throughout the UK. Commercial broadcasters in radio and television have had tricky moments too in recent years as advertising revenue has fluctuated in a difficult economic environment.

BBC Scotland had a difficult time during the referendum debate. The Corporation would argue that it did its best to give both sides equal and fair treatment but there was much criticism from some in the Yes camp, and there were even demonstrations by Yes supporters outside its Glasgow headquarters over alleged bias.

These claims were supported by some academic research, particularly by Professor John Robertson of the University of the West of Scotland. However the chief executive of the Yes campaign, Blair Jenkins (himself a former head of news and current affairs at both BBC Scotland and STV), conspicuously declined to endorse general criticism of the BBC output. However, after the vote, Richard Findlay, formerly chair of STV, let it be known, shortly after he took up the post of chair of Creative Scotland, that he felt that while his own company had done a reasonable job in sustaining balance, the BBC had fences to mend with the Scottish government.

The White Paper published by the Scottish Government in November 2013 suggested that post-independence people in Scotland would have continued access to all existing services and a new television and a new radio channel would be established. But there would be no extra cost to viewers and listeners, since the revenue raised by the licence fee in Scotland would cover all outgoings. This rather dubious proposition could not easily be contested by the BBC, since that would have opened it to accusations of seeking to influence the outcome of the vote; what it chose to do instead was to stage several discussions on the matter during which outside commentators were asked to explore the idea.

On the assumption that Scotland remains part of the UK for the foreseeable future, it is obvious that the BBC will continue to play a pivotal role in Scottish life and culture. It is in Scotland’s - and the UK’s - interests that the funding cuts made by the coalition government are restored, and that the Corporation is not put in a permanently weak position vis-a-vis its competitors, in particular Sky, which has recently moved beyond films and sport into significant original drama production. If that means an increase in the licence fee in real terms, so be it. Even if the fee were doubled - not a serious possibility of course - it would still be far cheaper than the average Sky household’s subscription. For its part, the Corporation must continue to rid itself of the pernicious legacy left by former director general Mark Thompson’s  approach to executive pay, and to find some way of atoning for other grievous errors such as the toleration of Jimmy Savile.

But it is not just a matter of sustaining the BBC in its present form. It is a reasonable assumption that the future of the United Kingdom is going to be a federal one - we are part way there already. The BBC has an apparently federal structure but in practice the dominance of London remains very strong. Of course it is not easy to combine a strong centre, which is necessary to build critical mass and to resist improper pressure from politicians and others, with genuine federalism. In the political sphere such a model inevitably generates constant tension. But it can be creative tension. And if in the next few years the BBC could genuinely move in such a direction - which might involve joint accountability to Westminster and other national legislatures in the UK - that might even offer the United Kingdom a model of a sustainable future constitutional settlement.

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