Call made to fund Scottish digital channel from TV Licence Fee

THE funding of a proposed digital TV channel dedicated to Scottish content should come from the TV Licence Fee, according to an expert panel tasked to explore how best to pay for it.

The Scottish Digital Network was the main recommendation of a Scottish Broadcasting Commission (SBC) three years ago, which estimated it would cost £75 million a year to operate, broadcasting an expected four hours of originated Scottish content per day. Convened by Scottish Government minister, Fiona Hyslop, the panel comprised – among others – the chair of the SBC, Blair Jenkins, and the former editor of The Herald newspaper, Charles McGhee.

Said Jenkins: “Essentially what we argue for is a fairer redistribution of the television licence fee income as the best way of funding the Scottish Digital Network.”

At a briefing held on Friday, Jenkins said he hoped the Scottish Parliament would be able to find time within the next couple of months to restate its previous unanimous backing of the Scottish Digital Network. Next month, he is due to present at the Education and Lifelong Learning Committee at the Scottish Parliament.

Believing that even the BBC no longer sees the TV licence fee as exclusively for the Corporation, Jenkins added he hoped there would be such political will, particularly at Westminster, that there would be no option but to re-open recent budget negotiations between the BBC and the UK Government. Those discussions, held over just a few hours in October, resulted in the BBC agreeing to pay for, among other things, the operation of Welsh language TV channel, S4C.

Added Jenkins: “I don’t think the Scottish nation was deliberately excluded [from these discussions], it was just overlooked, in the haste to do a deal.”

Among the other possible ways of funding the Scottish Digital Network, advertising was ruled out, partly because it would canabilse the revenue available to other parts of the Scottish media. A recent report into the funding of local television – commissioned by the UK Government and authored by Nicholas Shott – estimated that no more than £20 million a year could be generated while serving an audience more than twice that of Scotland: 11 million. Public funding was also ruled out, not least because of current pressures on the public purse.

Also said Jenkins: “I have absolutely no doubt [the Scottish Digital Network] will happen…. Anyone paying any attention to the mood music in Scotland right now would say Scotland needs its own dedicated broadcaster. Had broadcasting been invented this week, it wouldn’t even be up for discussion; you would have a Scottish public service broadcaster built in from the start…all we are talking about here is absolutely standard in any other European country.”

Lobbying opportunities in the relatively near future include UK-wide consultation on the provision of local television and also a new Communications Act, promised only last week by Westminster Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt.

£75 million is calculated as two per cent of the TV licence fee. An interim funding solution might be income Westminster will earn from the sale of spare spectrum caused by the closing of analogue TV signals – possibly as much as £3-£4 billion.

The panel’s report is being published tomorrow.