Qualified Support of Licence Fee Top-slicing Given by Scottish Committee of Ofcom

A Scottish committee of broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, has given its qualified support to a recommendation that the TV Licence Fee be 'top-sliced' to fund news programming on channel three in Scotland.

Ofcom's Advisory Committee for Scotland says it supports recommendations made in a report earlier this year about Britain's digital future, specifically concerning the provision of news by commercial TV channels, which is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain, financially, due to a reduction in advertising revenue.

As a result of a UK Government White Paper, Digital Britain, Scotland has been chosen to be one of three pilots in the UK to host a news programme on channel three, with two parties – one being STV, the other a collaboration involving the publishers of The Scotsman, The Herald and the Press & Journal newspapers – already declaring they would like to run it.

Currently, the TV Licence Fee goes exclusively to the BBC, which is arguing strongly against top-slicing.

Says an Ofcom statement: “The Advisory Committee for Scotland argues that sustainable [news on channel three] provision will require subsidy, but that a public interest test must be applied to any bid for funding.

“The ACS has suggested that surplus funds allocated in the Television Licence Fee for digital switchover could be used to support news services in Scotland, but that this need not be the only source of funding.

“The fund should be specifically for funding news, identified as completely distinct from the Licence Fee, time-limited and restricted to the public purposes set out in the BBC Charter. It should be rigorously reviewed for compliance.”

Adds Professor Philip Schlesinger, ACS chair: “If the UK government decides to shore up market failure with public money, we need to be sure that this is well spent and does not open the door to raiding the Licence Fee on an increasing scale. It should be a one-off. And we need to look at the effects.”

In a separate response to Ofcom's recent Media Ownership Rules Review, the Ofcom Advisory Committee for Scotland expressed concern about allowing media owners to become too dominant.

They warned that “in Scotland, a single owner of the main agenda-setting quality press (The Herald and The Scotsman) might also be able to control all the radio services and perhaps even new local TV stations as a result of only one or two mergers or takeovers. This is not in the public interest.”