Digital Britain author urges wider bids for news pilot

THE author of a report recommending Scotland hosts a pilot news scheme on commercial TV has said it would be “disappointing” if it was the just the “usual suspects” who applied to run it.

Speaking in Edinburgh yesterday – in the wake of the UK government’s outlining, on Tuesday, of his proposals for the ‘digital Britain’ – Lord Stephen Carter was speaking about Scotland being chosen to host one of three pilots in the UK, providing an alternative to BBC news coverage, with the support of government funding.

The proposal is a recognition that commercial television stations are finding it increasingly unviable, financially, to provide a news service, as more and more channels compete for the same (or less) advertising revenue.

He believed only broadcasting offered guaranteed impartial news and STV has already made it known it will pitch to run the Scotland pilot, which will run from next year for two years, possibly in collaboration with one or more newspaper groups – since the consortia being invited to run the pilots do not have to be exclusively television stations.

He said one of the reasons for running the pilots was to see innovative and original thinking coming from a cross-section of players and parties. “I think it would be disappointing if those consortiums were, to put it bluntly, solely the usual suspects,” he said.

One organisation encouraged by Carter’s remarks are the producers of the Scottish news content for GMTV, Macmillan Media.

It said: “We are pleased that independent news providers such as ourselves will have the opportunity to potentially be involved in an Independently Financed News Consortia in Scotland.

“Our experience producing regional news for GMTV gives us an unique perspective in the UK market.

“We will certainly be seeking further clarification from DCMS [Department of Culture, Media and Sport] and [broadcasting regulators] Ofcom about the process.”

Carter – minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting at Westminster – said newspapers could not be considered eligible for government funding in the same way as a broadcaster because they didn’t operate within a regulatory environment that guaranteed impartiality, even if some or all their content happened to be impartial.

Were the pilots to be adopted more permanently, funding would come, recommends Carter, from a top-slicing of the TV licence fee that currently goes entirely to the BBC. That is still a matter for consultation.

Answering the concern that top-slicing to provide an alternative news provision might prove the ‘thin end of the wedge’ – ahead of future top-slicing to provide, for instance, alternative children’s programming, arts programming, etc. – he said: “The question that is really at its sharpest is: Is there a way of achieving the end of sharing a portion of the licence fee and ensuring the provision of protections against future ‘salami slicing’ and endless tinkering by political parties or governments of any persuasion.

“We recommended in the report – actually quite specifically – enshrining that change in the [BBC] Charter which would then require any subsequent change to be the feature of debate and votes in both Houses of Parliament.”

Meanwhile, the £75 million-a-year estimated cost of running a new digital network (TV channel and online) dedicated to Scottish content – including news, but also other content, such as drama – was yesterday identified by Carter as the main reason behind a relative lack of support in his report.

The Scottish Digital Network was last year proposed by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, set up the year before by First Minister, Alex Salmond, to look at the future of Scottish broadcasting.

Yesterday, the SBC chair, Blair Jenkins, described the relative absence of the Scottish Digital Network in Carter’s report as the “elephant in the room”.

Said Jenkins: “I would be the first to agree that news [and its protection, as recommended by Carter] is essential. However, we all know that there’s much more to life and public service broadcasting than just news, and we have in Scotland a high degree of clarity and consensus around the solution.

“We have the unanimous view of the Scottish Parliament and all [political] parties, we have a very high degree of public support, and we have the full support of the independent [TV] production sector in Scotland. We have a clearly established public service deficit and a clear demand for more public service content, and the Scottish Digital Network is the identified solution.

“So, [the SDN] is a bit like the ‘elephant in the room’, I think.”

But Carter replied: “The Scottish Broadcasting Commission report was a quality piece of work, but there was one key, missing element: money. What we considered in the report is we think, unarguably, there is a case for the [outside] funding for competitive [to the BBC] news.”

However, he added: “As the consultation unwinds, you might discover that, once you pass the Rubicon, we might be able to have a more dispassionate debate about where are other public service deficits.”

Afterwards, Jenkins told “Nobody – including Stephen Carter – disputes that there is a glaring and growing deficit in public service broadcasting in Scotland and that Scottish audiences need secure and sustainable competition to the BBC.

“The cost of the Scottish Digital Network is about two per cent of the licence fee income of £3.6 billion a year, so it can certainly be afforded.

“There is also the windfall to the Treasury of the spectrum auction in 2012 which will raise billions, and Scotland’s share of that would more than pay for the network. So there are at least two funding options.

“The new network is essential if Scotland is truly to be part of Digital Britain. Politicians of all parties have to build on the unanimity of the Scottish Parliament behind this proposal.

“Otherwise, we will be saying to Scottish audiences that they can have 500 channels, but none of them will be Scottish. That’s not digital Britain, that’s a digital deficit – and also a democratic, economic and cultural deficit.”