Licence Fee should be funding option for new Scottish TV channel, says Jenkins

THE chair of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission has said that, failing other forms of funding being sourced, the licence fee used to pay for the BBC should not be ruled out as the means to set up a new digital TV channel dedicated to ‘high-quality’ Scottish content.

Blair Jenkins was speaking at a conference today, in Glasgow, on the future of the Scottish broadcasting, 18 months after his commission recommended the setting up of a Scottish Digital Network, which has received widespread backing – including unanimously at the Scottish Parliament – but which has yet to secure the estimated £75 million-a-year required to get it off the ground.

The former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland restated his commission’s preferred option for funding – from Westminster, from revenue generated by an auction of ‘cleared broadcasting spectrum’ once TV signals are switched from analogue to digital in two year’s time – but he said that the licence fee should not be immune from being a possible alternative source of funds.

In a speech published here, he said: “The SBC estimated the annual costs of the Scottish Network at £75 million. It is a lot of money, but proportionate when you put it in context. My preferred option is to get the funding out of the proceeds of the auction of cleared broadcasting spectrum once digital switchover is completed in 2012. That auction will raise billions of pounds for the Treasury and of course the bundles of highly-attractive bandwidth belong to all of us. They are a public asset. They are also a UK-wide asset – so correcting the Scottish public service deficit seems like a fair use for a fair share of this windfall.

“However, if there is to be no new or additional funding for public service broadcasting, then we have to consider funding the new Scottish Digital Network out of the television licence fee. And with the revenue from that source totaling about £3.6 billion every year, £75 million doesn’t look like such a big number any more – in fact, not much more than two per cent of the total licence fee income. In that context, it is not tenable to say that the Scottish Digital Network is something we can’t afford to have.”

The conference was organised jointly by the Saltire Society and the Scottish Government, with Scottish Minister, Fiona Hyslop, the keynote speaker.

Added Jenkins: “Right now the UK government is pushing ahead with top-slicing the licence fee to fund the continuation of regional news on ITV. It remains to be seen whether that finally goes ahead, but the really important point is that for the first time we have government saying explicitly that the BBC has no exclusive rights to the licence fee and that it can be used for other public service purposes – which is already the position in Ireland, where seven per cent of the licence fee money does not go to RTE, but goes towards PSB content on other broadcasters. And in places like Germany the licence fee has always been shared.

“Now we said in our final report that the BBC is the main pillar of public service broadcasting in the UK and that every other country would love to have it. Personally, I believe that very deeply, but there is a difference between being the main pillar and being the only pillar. In Scotland at the moment we are facing a one pillar future. We need choice and competition, not monopoly, so the licence fee cannot be ruled out as a source of funding.”