STV Escape Severe Censure Over Scottish Government-sponsored Programming

Scottish broadcasters, STV, have been ordered to attend a meeting with broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, to review its practice when it comes to sponsored programming. But it has been exonerated from claims that its wider editorial independence was at risk because of Scottish Government sponsorship of various programming last year, around the long-running tourism initiative, Homecoming Scotland.

In an Ofcom statement issued today – following an investigation launched in March and reported at the time by allmediascotland – the Homecoming-related programmes did not breach the watchdog's code, but some programming – of short, public information-style programmes, about the likes of learning and eating – did.

Says the regulator: “Ofcom conducted an extensive investigation of 57 programmes sponsored by the Scottish Government, Scottish Government agencies or non-departmental public bodies ('the Scottish Government') broadcast on STV in 2008 and 2009. This followed allegations in the press that the Scottish Government had influenced the content of STV‟s programming – in particular three series: Made in Scotland, Scotland Revealed and The Greatest Scot (together 'the Homecoming programmes')

“Ofcom found that the Homecoming programmes referred to in the press articles were not in breach of the Code.”

But Ofcom goes on to say: “However, as part of its wider investigation, Ofcom found that 18 other programmes, the majority of which were one-minute in duration covering public information-type subjects, were in breach of sponsorship rules in the Code.”

It concluded: “With regard to any other STV programming, such as news, current affairs and its coverage of Scottish politics, Ofcom found that there was no evidence or implication that the Scottish Government had influenced the content in such a way as to impair STV‟s responsibility and editorial independence.”

At the beginning of the year, concerns about STV's editorial independence were lent added bite by criticisms that the Glasgow-based broadcaster was depriving viewers access to popular, UK programmes – such as Doc Martin and the drama, Collision – for home-grown fare, instead.

When the concerns first came to light, the spotlight in the media was more on the Scottish Government than STV, with the Scottish Sunday Express at the forefront, with a number of exclusives, derived from a series of requests under Freedom of Information legislation. 

Reported the Scottish Sunday Express on February 28: “Correspondence between [Rob] Woodward [STV chief executive] and the First Minister [Alex Salmond] – obtained by the Scottish Sunday Express under freedom of information laws – shows they had an “interesting and productive dialogue” at a meeting at STV’s Pacific Quay headquarters in January last year.

“Topics discussed included STV’s 'aspirations to increase the amount of Scottish content', as well as the broadcaster’s commitment to a Scottish digital channel and a ‘Scottish Six’ news bulletin, which are both key SNP aims.”

The Daily Record was a co-sponsor of The Greatest Scot, but Ofcom had no criticism to make of it. Following a public vote, The Greatest Scot was chosen as Robert Burns.

Says STV today: “STV welcomes the findings of Ofcom's investigation into programmes sponsored by the Scottish Government.

“We are pleased that Ofcom has refuted any suggestion of political interference in our programme schedule. As STV has asserted, Ofcom’s findings now confirm that allegations made in a Sunday newspaper, suggesting that the Scottish Government influenced STV's programming, are completely unfounded and inaccurate.

“The three flagship series investigated by Ofcom – Scotland Revealed, Made in Scotland and The Greatest Scot – were enjoyed by large peaktime audiences in 2009. We are delighted that today's ruling draws a line under these false accusations of any wrong doing.

“In Ofcom’s wider review of all relevant sponsored content spanning a number of years, we note the regulator’s findings of some technical breaches unrelated to the claims of political interference in a minority of short form, one minute programme inserts dating from 2008. No complaints from viewers were received by STV in respect of any of the 57 programmes that were considered by Ofcom.

“Of the 906 minutes (over 15 hours) of material, broadcast over a two year period, under investigation by Ofcom, just 18 minutes of short form social action programme inserts raised concerns. This was completely unrelated to any unfounded suggestion of political interference.

“STV broadcasts hundreds of hours of sponsored programmes every year, and has delivered over 500 one minute programme inserts since 2003. We have robust compliance arrangements in place, and a long and successful track record of delivering award winning sponsored and social action programming.”