What is the future for public service broadcasting in Scotland?

With the UK facing an identity crisis how will the new BBC Charter meet Scottish demands for greater autonomy and what will that mean for Scotland and for Britain?

Philip Schlesinger
4 February 2016
BBC Scotland. Kasia Raj/Flickr. Some rights reserved

BBC Scotland. Kasia Raj/Flickr. Some rights reservedIncreased 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 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.

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 is a version of an article which first appeared on the LSE Media Policy Project blog.

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