In My Opinion: Blair Jenkins: Where now for Scottish broadcasting?

This is a speech given by Blair Jenkins, the chair of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, at a Saltire Society/Scottish Government conference, Where Now for Scottish Broadcasting?, held in Glasgow, on February 8 2010…

SCOTTISH broadcasting can have a fantastic future. And I firmly believe it will have a fantastic future. More great programmes being produced. More jobs created. More talent being developed. Audiences challenged and delighted and entertained and watching in large numbers. An industry transformed beyond recognition and competing confidently in the UK and international markets and in the growing number of multiplatform opportunities.

That can be our broadcasting future. But in my experience very little happens in life if you just cross your fingers and wait for it to happen. So that future has to be fought for, and argued for, and we will need commitment and patience and perseverance and determination and ambition. I hope today will be a landmark on the journey towards that brighter future.

Let’s agree that when we talk about broadcasting today, we use the term in its widest sense – the distribution of audiovisual content on any platform for any device. Let’s also agree that broadcasting, defined in that way, is hugely important for the cultural, democratic and economic health of Scotland.

The [Culture] Minister [Fiona Hyslop, also speaking at the conference] was very generous in her references to the work of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission and what has happened as a result. I think she was right to point out the areas where real progress has been made in recent years. This year the BBC will spend about £20 million more on network productions from Scotland than it did in the year the Commission was set up [2007]. Commissioning editors have been appointed in Glasgow. The BBC has also now adopted the [broadcasting regulator] Ofcom definition of what actually counts as a Scottish production.

These are all positive developments and we’re a long way from the spiral of decline of three years ago. There have also been clear signs recently of STV wishing to make more Scottish programmes. And we had the launch more than a year ago now of BBC Alba, which I’m sure will be moving onto the Freeview platform very shortly. In general, I think the level of debate and the level of aspiration have both been raised.

However, we do need the two public service broadcasters – BBC and Channel 4 – to go further and to go faster in their commissioning of programmes from Scotland.

Our key recommendation as a Commission was the creation of a new public service Scottish Digital Network, an integrated broadcast and broadband service consisting of a core linear television channel with lots of enriched and innovative content on all other digital platforms. We said it was needed to provide secure and sustainable Public Service Broadcasting competition to the BBC in Scotland. It is the missing piece in the UK’s jigsaw of PSB.

We estimated the annual cost of the new service at about £75 million. The industry regulator Ofcom, in an independent analysis, came up with a virtually identical number. Our report – including the key recommendation concerning the new network – was endorsed unanimously by all parties in the Scottish Parliament. So we did achieve a high degree of clarity and consensus. This is a very important point, because consensus is a rare commodity in Scottish politics and we should not squander it when it is achieved. In my experience, all of the parties in Scotland are ambitious for Scotland and Scottish broadcasting, and that came through in their united response to our recommendations.

The debate in the Scottish Parliament which was held about a month after we published our final report was very positive and very well-informed , and I would like to quote from just two of the many politicians who spoke that day.

First, the Labour MSP Karen Whitefield, who is convener of the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee: she said: “The report is one of the most exciting and positive documents that has been brought to the Parliament. It is full of ambition, potential and promise. We should welcome the key recommendations and embrace the opportunities that they offer. Let us ensure that we in the Scottish Parliament do everything that we can to facilitate that work and to ensure that it is the people of Scotland, as both producers and consumers, who benefit.” ….Those were Karen’s words, and several of her Labour colleagues spoke in a similar vein.

And here is the Conservative culture spokesman, Ted Brocklebank, in his summing up towards the end of the debate: “This has been a great day for Scottish broadcasting. Let us all work on how to make the way ahead even better for broadcasters and viewers alike.”

Now those remarks reflect the tone and the spirit of much of the debate. And that tone and that spirit are worth holding on to and building upon.

So what would the new service look like? It should be ambitious, risk-taking, contemporary, bold, original and intelligent. It should transmit programmes that producers feel passionate about and that audiences love. It would be distinctively Scottish but with an outward-looking perspective – as I have said elsewhere, recognisably Scottish but not relentlessly Scottish, which is the way most Scots like to be themselves.

The new Scottish Network would produce drama, comedy, news and documentaries for all digital platforms. It would look towards co-productions with international partners and domestic partners. It will provide opportunities for new faces, new voices and of course for new writers. The new network should maximize its educational and economic impact through partnerships with further and higher education and with Scotland’s wider creative industries.

In our public attitudes survey of more than 1000 adults in Scotland, 81 per cent of respondents said they would be interested in watching this new network made for people living in Scotland. And that’s before a single programme has been made or promoted or talked about. The level of enthusiasm was pretty constant across gender, age group, across different social backgrounds and geographic locations.

There is also a very strong economic argument. Creative audiovisual content will be one of the defining industries of this century and broadcasting is at the heart of that industry. The digital media sector has the power to drive all of our creative industries and be one of our key wealth generators. From an industry point of view, the proposed new Scottish Network would give Scottish independent producers – and perhaps also Scottish video game producers – a valuable new resource for the commissioning of projects.

It would provide the opportunity to develop new ideas and new talent and to build businesses of scale more able to compete in the UK and international markets. There is real potential to grow the contribution of the sector to the Scottish and UK economies, and the network as a new source of funding would help to underpin and encourage that development.

Now television is also the most important mechanism by which we celebrate and reflect our culture in its broadest sense. Through our broadcast media we demonstrate our values as a society. Broadcasting is central and pivotal in delivering our distinctive arts and creative culture to the people and in that sense it’s a vital part of the cultural infrastructure of Scotland, as was made very clear to the Broadcasting Commission by a wide range of cultural organisations. Digital distribution will become a key platform for Scottish artists and creative practitioners.

We’ve just had the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, a thing of joy and beauty. I enjoyed the BBC coverage of the festival, but I could have taken a lot more. And there is in general so much more of our live musical and theatrical performance that could be made available on broadband to enthusiastic audiences nationally and internationally – much as the National Theatre in England started doing last year with NT Live, and as the New York Met has been doing with its operas for several years now.

The Scottish Digital Network will be the biggest and best stage for Scotland’s creative artists. The television channel is the shop window, or the calling card – pick your favourite metaphor – for the richer and deeper supply of creative digital content that lies behind it.

And if there are distinctive cultural needs in Scotland, there are also distinctive democratic needs. Broadcasting, and television in particular, continues to be the dominant medium by which most people in Scotland receive news and other information. It is a fundamental requirement that there should be high-quality news and current affairs programmes which address the democratic needs of audiences in Scotland. And the new network would raise standards here also.

A related issue often overlooked is that of social inclusion, which in some ways is the hardest policy issue to crack in relation to media. In a knowledge economy, or learning society, of all the key skills, surely the most important is the ability to communicate and participate. We have to use the resources and advantages of the digital age to have the maximum beneficial effect on Scottish life and Scottish society. We need to make sure the digital future is genuinely inclusive and that no one is left out. I believe the network has a decisive role to play in that important objective.

Now the Commission was attracted by the idea of the network being an ‘open source’ platform allowing direct access to source code so that there is the potential for users to develop new and experimental software applications as well as remixing and re-editing audio and video. The network also becomes an immediate digital content resource with a wealth of material for our education and higher education systems. And of course, Scotland needs people who can design computer programs as well as people who can design television programmes.

The Scottish Network would lead the way in the UK on what 21st century media should look like, with opportunities for participation and engagement that go far beyond anything currently available from other broadcasters and representing a generational change in how people engage with media and creative content.

With the constant noise of daily announcements about new hardware and new software that will apparently change our lives, it is the underlying and long-term trends that are important. The convergence of content and platforms completes the move towards greater choice, control and convenience for the individual: what I want, when I want it, where I want it.

And this is why strong brands are so important…brands like the Scottish Digital Network. It’s no accident that some of the appointments at the top of British broadcasting recently have gone to people whose most obvious success and accomplishments lie in the establishment and development of strong channel brands. The Scottish Digital Network would become a trusted umbrella brand for Scottish content at home and abroad as choice expands and audiences fragment in broadcasting and broadband. It would be a highly-visible global portal for original Scottish content, enabling it to stand out from the crowd.

The new network will produce more Scottish content than can be achieved under either the BBC or STV models, important though those services are. The opt-out model of broadcasting was a necessary but never satisfactory solution designed for the analogue age, based on withdrawing UK network programmes from the schedules in Scotland and replacing them with Scottish programmes, often producing a very divided response from viewers. The opt-out model is a legacy model from the analogue age.

It still has its attractions but it also has very real limitations and very real drawbacks. There are profound commercial and corporate difficulties with the opt-out model, and a growing problem for both Scottish broadcasters in finding slots which don’t have negative consequences. In the opt-out model, you can’t put in something new without taking away something that is already there and available throughout the rest of the UK. That is analogue thinking, not digital thinking.

I believe the new network should be set up as a proper PSB – that is, under public ownership and operating on a not-for-profit basis. There should be the highest degree of transparency and accountability, under the governance of a board of trustees and within the Ofcom regulatory framework.

As I said earlier, 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.

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.

Digital switchover in 2012 makes it possible for the first time to create a universally available Scottish network without displacing any of the existing UK-wide services. The Scottish Network is supported overwhelmingly by the Scottish public and unanimously by the Scottish Parliament. It is fully supported by the Scottish independent production sector. It will enable us to combine cultural and industrial policy and strengthen our presence in multiplatform and multimedia services. Most of all, it will mean that we are truly entering an age of enhanced choice and not one of digital deficit.

At this stage in the evolution of our national life, Scotland needs a dedicated digital network. We have to transform our view of what is possible in our creative industries. It is also important to say that the new network would not in any sense enable the BBC to do less for audiences in Scotland. On the contrary, I think the arrival of a strong competitor may be just the spark that BBC Scotland needs to raise its own game

I believe the case for the Scottish Digital Network is even stronger now than when we first recommended it almost eighteen months ago. I believe the case is unanswerable, but the fact that something is unanswerable does not mean it is inevitable. It should happen, it can happen, but we need to make it happen. As I said earlier, nothing much changes in life just because you cross your fingers.

The debate has moved firmly into the political arena, and will most likely begin again in earnest after the General Election in May. So if like me you believe in the importance of the network, then you have to make your voices heard. The people who have offered support from within the industry, across all of the political parties, from every corner of the cultural and creative sectors, in our key academic institutions, our leading newspaper columnists and the people of Scotland, now have to help to win the fight.

We need advocacy, discussion and debate. Different people will find different ways of making their voices heard. But if we continue to have clarity and consensus and focus and determination, I am convinced that we can achieve this breakthrough this year, for Scottish broadcasting and indeed for Scotland. A decision in 2010 would make it possible to launch in 2012.

The network should be seen as part of the broader evolution of the UK towards a more dispersed and less centralised model – less centralised both constitutionally and culturally. It’s the point at which broadcasting catches up with devolution. I think the new network would have both symbolic and historic significance, as well as the obvious attraction of giving us more choice and a better service.

The Scottish Digital Network would become Channel 6 in Scotland. It would mean lots more very good Scottish programmes being produced, lots more people getting the chance to enjoy those programmes, and lots more money flowing into our creative economy.

I believe we are very close to a new point of departure for Scottish broadcasting. As I said at the beginning, we can have a fantastic future. And the best way to predict the future is to create it.