Government Unveils Push for Greater Broadcasting Powers

The Scottish Government is urging Westminster to allow it to create public service broadcasting TV channels of its own choosing and to be invited to any future negotiations about how the TV licence fee is allocated.

The appeal is being made part of wider submissions to Westminster as the Scotland Bill goes through its parliamentary stages.

And in a series of proposed amendments to the Bill about broadcasting in particular, the Scottish Government have submitted five. 

Unveiled this morning by Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, they are:

* To have the right to establish public service broadcasting institutions;

* To be involved in future licence fee setting arrangements;

* To have responsibility for approving licensing decisions made by the UK Government for local television stations which will broadcast within Scotland;

* To have the ability to intervene in local cross-media mergers that affect Scotland; and

* To have the power to add or remove events from the list of those that must be shown live on free-to-air television.

The right to 'establish public service broadcasting institutions' would help pave the way for the long-recommended Scottish Digital Network, a digital TV channel dedicated to Scottish content that was the main recommendation of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission set up by First Minister, Alex Salmond, four years ago.

Being 'involved in future licence fee setting arrangements' would allow the Scottish Government to argue for some of the TV licence fee to be top-sliced to pay for the SDN, which has the unanimous backing of the Scottish Parliament.

When the licence fee was last divided up – towards the end of last year – it was done so quickly and involving so few people that not even the Welsh language channel, S4C, had an input, even though its funding was to become the responsibility of the BBC, as a result of the negotiations.

In a statement issued by the Scottish Government, Hyslop is quoted, saying: “Broadcasting is of vital cultural importance to Scotland. It strengthens our democracy and makes a valuable contribution to our economy. However, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament have virtually no powers in relation to broadcasting.

“That must change. There is a clear need for greater accountability and responsibility for broadcasting in Scotland and it is agreed across the political spectrum that Scotland needs its own distinctive broadcasting space to reflect our society, our culture, our debates and decision-making.

“The Scotland Bill in its present form does contain provisions on broadcasting in relation to the BBC Trust and MG Alba. While these are welcome, they do not go far enough.

“Our proposed amendments to the Scotland Bill will give Scotland a stronger voice on broadcasting. They will enable us to make progress establishing a Scottish Digital Network, which is a priority at Holyrood but an afterthought for the UK Government.

“We firmly believe that Holyrood should have the power to establish the Scottish Digital Network as a public service broadcaster – independent from government – with a focus on producing quality content. It should be publicly-funded, with the television licence fee the best possible source of funding – as recommended by the Scottish Digital Network Panel.

“We want to strengthen, not weaken, Scotland's broadcasting sector which is why we are calling for the right to approve future licence fee settlements. This will ensure Scotland receives its fair share of the £315 million generated each year by licence fee payers north of the border.

“Scotland was short changed by the recent licence fee agreement. It was negotiated in secret and closed off a potential source of funding for the proposed Scottish Digital Network, while providing a top slicing of £95 million of support annually to the Welsh-language channel S4C from 2013. The equivalent spend on BBC ALBA is just £8 million per year.

“Scotland also needs a say on broadcasting decisions which could affect Scottish media companies. It is our view that these decisions require the formal involvement of the devolved nations. The Scottish Government has consistently been supportive of local television and believes the Scottish Digital Network is the best way to support local television services in Scotland.

“We also believe that it would be appropriate for devolved administrations to have the power to add or remove events to the list of those which must be shown on free-to-air television for their nations. In Scotland, this might mean granting protected status to qualifying matches for major international tournaments played by the Scottish men's national football team.

“It is clear that current broadcasting arrangements are not meeting the needs of devolution in Scotland. We are proposing sensible and proportionate changes to the Scotland Bill which will improve accountability and responsibility for broadcasting in Scotland, to the benefit of all.”

The Scotland Bill will be considered by the House of Lords after completing its passage through the House of Commons. It will then be considered by the Scottish Parliament, possibly around October, which has to consent to the Bill before it can proceed to Royal Assent.