In my opinion: Blair Jenkins: Scottish Digital Network

A former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, Blair Jenkins chaired the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, set up three years ago by the Scottish Government and which recommended, a year later, the setting up of a Scottish Digital Network, a digital TV channel dedicated to high-quality Scottish content, along with a big online presence. He was the keynote speaker at Mapping Futures for News, hosted last night by the Institute for Advanced Studies, at Strathclyde University. This is what he said:

SCOTLAND needs the Scottish Digital Network more than ever. The arguments we put forward almost two years ago are not only still compelling, they have become stronger and more pressing. And journalism – news and current affairs – is right at the very heart of the proposition. This is about better broadcasting, a more robust democracy and a stronger society.

Let me briefly explain what exactly the Scottish Digital Network is and set out the case that we made for its creation. Our vision was for Scotland for the first time to have its own dedicated broadcasting service, providing a wide range of public service programming including extensive news and current affairs. This would consist of a linear television service, but crucially also a very dynamic and multi-layered online presence – which is why I always talk about a network rather than a channel. We saw it as an integrated broadcast and broadband service – highly interactive and inclusive, with a strong emphasis on education and participation.

So when I speak about broadcasting, I use the term in its widest sense to encompass the production and distribution of audiovisual content for any platform and for any digital device.

At the heart of the argument for creating the new network is the need to have secure and sustainable competition in public service broadcasting in Scotland, rather than a BBC monopoly. There is a large deficit in PSB in Scotland. There is also a clear public demand for more Scottish content, and for more choice and competition. The Scottish Digital Network would mark the point at which broadcasting in this country finally catches up with devolution.

And if there is one thing I want to stress as much as anything else, it’s what we said right at the beginning of our final report:

“Broadcasting is important to the economic, cultural and democratic health of the nation. At its best, it has a unique power and impact which can enrich our imagination and our thinking, and our space to share, discuss and challenge as a society.”

I believe that very strongly. And in this lecture, I would like to focus particularly on the last part of that quotation – “our space to share, discuss and challenge as a society”. I don’t think that kind of space really exists right now in the Scottish media and I think we need it more than ever.

One thing that a keenly-contested General Election campaign reminds us of is how divisive and tribal politics can be and how difficult it is to secure any kind of agreement in most policy areas. And yet, in the extremely contentious area of broadcasting policy, the recommendations of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission were supported and endorsed right across the political spectrum, with every party in the Scottish parliament backing our proposals and singling out for particular approval the creation of the new Scottish Digital Network.

I think that Scotland has reached a stage where the political parties, while they certainly have differing views about the best constitutional future for Scotland, can all agree that, as a distinctive nation within the UK, we have reached a point where we have an economic, cultural and democratic need to have our own dedicated broadcasting service for the first time. I have talked to all of the political parties, and to people at all points in the spectrum of views on Scotland’s constitutional future, and found acceptance of this argument is more or less unanimous.

So the argument has been made and accepted, Scotland is ready, the digital capacity is available, the politicians are agreed and the public is waiting. All we need to sort out now is the funding. How is it going to be paid for?

It’s a very good question. They say timing is everything. We published our final report on the future for Scottish broadcasting in September of 2008. The idea of a new, publicly-funded public service network attracted wide support, including, as I said, unanimous support from all of the parties in the Scottish Parliament. Then just one week later, on September 15, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in the United States, the global financial crisis was well and truly underway and suddenly any new form of public investment in anything apart from the collapsing banking system looked increasingly unlikely.

But you can’t be lucky with everything….

I think we got most things right in our report apart from the misfortune of publication more or less coinciding with worldwide economic meltdown. I will return to the important subject of funding and timing a little later. What is very clear, however, is that as the need for the new network has grown stronger the funding has become more problematic.

Normally, the immediate aftermath of a General Election campaign is usually NOT the best time to try to persuade people that what we really need is more news and current affairs on television. By this point most people probably feel they have overdosed. But maybe things are different this year. It was a fascinating General Election and one that was dominated by broadcasting events. What we witnessed perhaps more convincingly than ever before was the power of broadcasting to set the agenda – to influence the opinions of voters, the level of engagement of the electorate and ultimately the outcome of elections. That is one reason why it is such an important source of news and information and debate.

There is of course another reason why the aftermath of this Election marks an interesting point at which to raise questions about the future of broadcast journalism in Scotland. It now looks as though the proposal to use public money to support regional news on ITV – through the independently-funded news consortia (IFNC) – will NOT now go ahead. That includes here in Scotland, where the preferred bid for the contract consisted of an unprecedented collaboration involving the core indigenous titles in what we might call serious Scottish newspaper journalism. We have had no definitive announcement about the IFNCs, but there is, to put it mildly, a high degree of uncertainty about what happens next.

The most obvious thing to say about the future of news in Scotland is that standing still is not an option. We have witnessed so much change in society and in media over the last 10 years, and right now just about everything that could be changing is changing: the economy, the technology, the political landscape, consumer behaviour, the regulatory environment.

Most of what I want to say is about audiovisual news, distributed over both broadcast and broadband networks. But you can’t discuss those parts of the information landscape in a coherent or complete fashion without also making some reference to the printed media and the attempts by newspapers to evolve their business models in this very demanding digital age. I think the participation by the quality Scottish titles in the bid by the Scottish News Consortium has to be seen as part of that wished-for strategic move into more substantial digital development.

There are many concerns about the health of serious Scottish journalism, some of them no doubt overstated but many of them genuine and substantial. While it is incorrect to say – as some people do – that quality journalism is ‘dying’ in Scotland, I think most of us would certainly like to see it with a stronger pulse. We recognise the symptoms of deeper underlying problems. Financial constraint has hit newspapers particularly hard, with an increased focus on cost control. Redundancy programmes now seem to be a familiar pattern across news media, in this country and overseas. Newsrooms seem to be cutting staff while increasing output. Not many of us would honestly say that the quality of the journalism has improved as a result.

Personally, I do believe most newspapers can reinvent themselves and find new digital business models that keep them as part of the future. Almost certainly the model will be different for different titles, and the exact mix of revenue from advertising, subscription and transaction will vary in each case. I would join in the general praise for the look and feel of the new Times website, but I would also join in the general uncertainty about whether paywalls will work. In Scotland, we cannot underestimate how important it is to preserve the future of the serious core of Scottish newspaper journalism.

But broadcasting remains uniquely powerful and impactful. Already there are some clear major trends in digital media which seem to favour the news operations which are based on broadcasting rather than newspapers:

Speed is the most obvious one. Everything keeps getting faster and there is no going back on the priority of immediacy. We all want to know the important stuff right away. News broadcasters – on air and online – are just editorially, technically and culturally better set up to do this than newspapers. And we are seeing more and more live video streaming of key news events. This is a very hard competitive disadvantage for newspapers to overcome.

Participation by individual consumers or audiences is of course increasing across all news media. It’s reflected in things like the blogs, the posting of comments on social networks and the sharing of links to interesting video and audio. Again, it seems to be milestone television programmes or high-impact video clips which trigger the biggest response – as I’m sure Susan Boyle would confirm, or even Alastair Campbell and Adam Boulton.

And the growth in on-demand platforms just means all of this stuff is easier to get – through video on demand, catch-up services, digital recorders and downloads. This trend will be enormously enhanced by many more television receivers and set-top boxes having internet connectivity, to a point where this becomes standard over a few short years. And the quality of content and services that can be brought to smarter mobile devices is also changing the industry. There will be more and more audiovisual content – including material with journalistic qualities – produced and distributed by more and more people and (in theory at least) viewable by more and more people.

These are strong underlying trends and big changes in media use and consumption. For professional journalists, I think the right combination is to use the new tools, but to preserve the same enduring values. Great new technology means you leave some old technology behind, but there are some things you must take forward. The underlying principles of good broadcast journalism remain the same. But the consumer now has more choice, more convenience, and more control and that particular trend is both welcome and irreversible.

In my view, irrespective of what happens to the IFNC proposal, there are overwhelming arguments for the Scottish Digital Network. The crucial objective is to have that secure and sustainable source of competition for the BBC in high-quality public service content produced for Scottish audiences. Those audiences want that choice of a greater volume and range of Scottish programmes – not just news, but entertainment, documentaries, history, drama, the kinds of things they just don’t see enough of because not enough Scottish programmes are made.

I am in no doubt that the intensity of debate surrounding some Scottish programmes is directly linked to the relatively low levels of production in this country. Because anything that stands out in the schedules is comparatively rare, it tends to provoke an unusually amplified level of praise or criticism.

The most recent example of this is the BBC Scotland observational series The Scheme – which is not in itself a particularly original concept. There have been very similar series filmed elsewhere in the UK over the last ten years and more. The first one I recall seeing was called The Estate and it was filmed by ITV in London in the early nineties. It was very similar in intention and approach to The Scheme.

I think we could also point to the big recurring row over the History of Scotland series in the last couple of years. There have been umpteen British or European history series transmitted by the main UK networks but none of them has provoked the same level of scrutiny or criticism as the Scottish series, in which everything was being questioned: the style of presentation, the academic methodology, the alleged editorial perspective.

And as a final example, we can recall the tabloid outrage over the Chancers series some five or six years ago, which actually led to the withdrawal of funding for the rehabilitation scheme for young offenders which was featured in the series.

I am not assessing here the merits of the arguments made for or against any of these factual programmes. What I am saying is that there is, in relative terms, very little Scottish content on television. It is so rare for any television series in Scotland to stand out from the usual fairly predictable bill of fare, and landmarks whether good or bad are so few and far between, that these programmes when they do come along trigger a much higher level of scrutiny and soul-searching than their network equivalents. The burden of expectation is greater, the passions provoked seem to run deeper. If there is only one History of Scotland, then every editorial decision made takes on a significance and symbolism that seems disproportionate and maybe even unfair. But in a general context of such slim pickings in Scottish broadcasting, it is entirely understandable that the stakes are raised for any noteworthy programme.

The demand for more Scottish content is strong and heartfelt. And in our public attitudes survey, the highest levels of demand for programmes on a new Scottish network were the 58 per cent who wanted more news programmes and the 52 per cent who wanted more documentaries. There was of course overwhelming public support for the general idea of the Scottish Digital Network, with more than 80 per cent of people saying they would watch.

Television is the dominant platform for public access to news and information in Scotland, being regularly used for that purpose by more than 80 per cent of the population – way ahead of anything else. You do need more than just news to reflect a nation’s sense of itself, but the importance of news is difficult to overstate. All the evidence suggests that the Scottish public values competition and choice in the provision of news and journalism, which is also important for a healthy Scottish democracy.

I always hesitate to be critical, but I do believe our broadcast journalism in Scotland needs more originality, more energy and more ideas. I haven’t seen any new ideas in what feels like a long time. There is an absence of programmes that are ambitious or clever and offer some kind of new interpretation of what is happening in Scotland and the wider world. When was the last time you saw something challenging or inspiring or even mildly surprising? There is very little Scottish news and current affairs content that jumps out of the schedules at you.

In particular, I think we need new editorial models for holding governments to account and indeed others entrusted with public responsibility and public money. We need to investigate and scrutinise more, because that is serving the public interest. That doesn’t mean being cynical about politics or politicians, which I would never endorse. You need to strike the right balance between scrutiny and challenge on the one hand, and a sense of mutuality and common purpose on the other. It can be a difficult balance to find.

When the Scottish Broadcasting Commission looked into news and current affairs, a frequent criticism from many of the people we spoke to was of the lack of opportunity for serious and in-depth examination of important public policy issues. This included the perceived omission of any attempt to connect policy debate in Scotland with what was happening elsewhere in the world or even elsewhere in the UK. There is a tendency not to join up the dots, to see debates in Scotland as happening in isolation whereas they are usually very similar to debates happening elsewhere in Europe and beyond. I believe it is important not to underestimate audiences or indeed their appetite for this kind of approach.

For me, that would represent a real breakthrough – to focus on the causes of change rather than just reporting the symptoms: whether it’s the financial crisis in the banks and the wider economy, or the continuing debate about the right way to tackle Scotland’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol, or what lessons we need to learn from the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. At this point, I believe Scottish newspapers are doing this job rather better than Scottish broadcasting. But, as I argued earlier, I think good journalism has more impact and resonance and genuine reach in a broadcasting framework.

The Scottish Digital Network would commission and broadcast serious investigative journalism, perhaps in a funding partnership with others such as not-for-profit entities with an interest in promoting a free and open society. That kind of collaboration to support good journalism needs to be further explored. We need funding for new voices and not just to sustain the existing ones.

We need documentaries that become major talking points and help to stimulate debate: authored programmes by our leading thinkers. We need clever and ambitious programmes made by clever and ambitious writers and producers.

We definitely need decent discussion programmes every week in Scotland in which audiences challenge and question the people in power. There are stories and issues that benefit from this approach, as Question Time proves repeatedly to the wider UK audience. We need that form of democratic engagement and opportunity in Scottish broadcasting.

So just checking that list, which is by no means exhaustive: more journalism that is challenging and original; more speaking truth to power; more depth and analysis; more context; more and better investigations; provocative documentaries by some of our leading thinkers; and debates and discussions which allow audiences to challenge the politicians.

There is a reason why the kinds of programmes I have described are not available very often under the present broadcasting arrangements. It is because BBC One and BBC Two in Scotland, and indeed STV, operate on the opt-out model of regional broadcasting, where they struggle to find decent slots or sometimes any slots at all for Scottish programmes. For STV, the obstacles tend to be commercial; for BBC, the obstacles tend to be corporate.

The opt-out model is a legacy model from an analogue age of limited capacity and limited choice. It still has some value, but it also has very real limitations and very real drawbacks. Look at the history and example of Newsnight Scotland, a programme with which I am very familiar. There’s nothing wrong with a lot of the journalism, but the structure and scheduling are just wrong. The Newsnight opt-out continues to be technically inelegant, editorially compromised and ultimately unsatisfactory. And I say this as the guy who was brought in to launch the programme more than ten years ago and as someone who is very conscious of the good work that Newsnight Scotland has done over the years.

Back in 1999, the idea of doing a 20-minute opt-out from the final section of Newsnight was reluctantly accepted by BBC Scotland as being better than nothing. It still is better than nothing, but that is hardly a valid benchmark. The answer should be to give the programme its own identity and its own half-hour slot on BBC Two. But in spite of best endeavours that has proved impossible to achieve, there just seem to be too many problems in opting out of any other parts of the BBC Two evening schedule.

In general, there are profound commercial and corporate difficulties with the opt-out model, and a growing problem for both Scottish broadcasters in finding opt-out slots which do not have negative public relations consequences. In the opt-out model, you can’t put in something new without taking away something that is already there and which is available throughout the rest of the UK. That is analogue thinking, not digital thinking, and it removes choice rather than extending choice.

From a Scottish perspective, there is obviously an even deeper problem with the structure and future of ITV. There is no doubt that ITV under its new leadership will be more and more commercially driven – leaving uncertainty about whether there will be room for STV at all in that commercial framework, let alone as a significant supplier of Scottish journalism.

By 2014 at the latest (when the current licences end), ITV will almost certainly have moved out of public service broadcasting entirely and will be positioned as a purely commercial broadcaster, much to the relief of its shareholders. As the industry regulator, Ofcom, has concluded and accepted, we cannot rely in future on ITV staying within the framework of public service broadcasting. And there is no formal period of notice for handing back the Public Service Broadcasting licences. I think Scotland is very exposed in the middle of all of this uncertainty.

Things are already very difficult. The importance of choice and competition is widely recognised. Yet in the Scottish Parliamentary elections coming up next year, it is entirely possible that Scotland could be left in a position where only the BBC would be providing more than basic news coverage. The Corporation could be a monopoly supplier of anything more substantial, such as campaign programming, leader debates or in-depth interviews of leading politicians. This would be good neither for the BBC nor for democracy.

That is not a criticism of the current STV management. They have broadcast decent campaign programmes and a leaders’ debate during the recent general election campaign. But the point is that there is now no licence obligation on them to do so. They have a clear commercial priority and, indeed, duty to shareholders to maximise profits. They are also a plc, subject to takeover in the market, so we have no guarantee at all as to who will be making these decisions next year and what they will decide to do. The current Scottish licences offer inadequate protection of the public interest but that reflects a hard reality. As the value of the current Channel 3 licences declines, there is no leverage and no realistic basis for strengthening them, as the most recent review of public service broadcasting, by Ofcom, made very clear.

We need more guaranteed and more substantial competition for the BBC’s Scottish journalism. At the UK level, we get this diversity from ITV, Channels 4 and 5, and Sky. We do not have Scottish equivalents of these services. What also seems clear in Scotland is that there does not seem to be a market-based solution. There is just not enough new television advertising revenue to be won by any new commercial entrant.

I believe we need an injection of change to the public service model. We need broadcasting that has a social purpose and not just a commercial purpose. Public service broadcasting guarantees standards in terms of fairness and accuracy and accountability. It is an investment in our democracy, an investment in our creative economy and an investment in our culture and our confidence.

I also believe most people in Scotland wish to have a cohesive and tolerant society with as many shared values and as much mutual respect as possible. To achieve that as a nation, we have to take responsibility for our own media just as we do for our own health. Arguably, we are not doing too well on either front at the moment. Strong public service broadcasting can help to determine the tone and the spirit in which our major debates are conducted and help us to define ourselves as a decent and open community. As a civilised society, how we make our important decisions – especially the difficult ones – can be just as significant as the outcome itself. In the end, what unites us should always be more important than what divides us.

We also need to be aware of the dangers of the growing isolation of the poorest and most marginal people in society. That is a current reality and a future threat, particularly if large numbers of people remain excluded from the benefits of the digital age. There are questions here of guardianship and responsibility to future generations. Social inclusion in this context means the ability to communicate and participate in digital media. The Broadcasting Commission thought that the Scottish Digital Network should be an open source platform so that users of all ages and backgrounds could make use of the video and audio for social and educational purposes. I think that should be true of the journalistic content just as much as anything else.

We will always need good professional journalism. Newsroom leaders – the people trusted with positions of editorial and financial authority – have a responsibility to provide not just the resources but also the values to allow journalists to do their job. They must encourage good journalism and protect their teams from unreasonable demands. Anything else is a failure of leadership.

I hope greater scrutiny will be applied to all of our key news providers in Scotland – how well they are performing their jobs and whether or not journalists are being given the resources and the operating principles that they need. We too need our whistle-blowers, like any other industry. We need the diggers. We need the watchdogs. We need the awkward squad.

We need also to pay close attention to the craft of journalism, which has not changed in essence but only in the means and speed of delivery. So as we embrace the new platforms and the new technology, let’s remember we also need some timeless principles. And those are the principles on which I would base the Scottish Digital Network.

And so, unavoidably, we return to the question of funding: where does the money come from? For the reasons I have given, 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 firmly located within the Ofcom regulatory framework.

The SBC estimated the annual costs of the Scottish Network at £75 million. A separate and independent analysis for Ofcom by a well-known media consultancy estimated £77 million, so the figure is probably about right. It is a lot of money, but justified and proportionate when you place it in context. My preferred option was always to get the funding from the proceeds of the auction of cleared broadcasting spectrum once digital switchover is completed in 2012. That auction is expected to raise billions of pounds for the Treasury and, of course, the bandwidth is a public asset belonging to all parts of the UK.

However, there is no point in denying the severe pressures on the public finances over the next five years at least, probably longer. If there is to be no additional funding for public service broadcasting, as seems likely, then we have to consider funding the new Scottish Digital Network out of the television licence fee.

The revenue from that source is now about £3.6 billion every year and rising. £75 million doesn’t look like such a big number in that context – in fact, it’s not much more than two per cent of the total licence fee income. In those circumstances, it is just not credible and not acceptable to say that the Scottish Digital Network is something we can’t afford.

As we know, the previous UK government was keen to use part of the licence fee to fund the continuation of regional news on ITV. That now looks highly unlikely. Perhaps the really important point is that for the first time we had a UK government saying very directly and explicitly that the BBC has no exclusive rights to the licence fee and that it can be used for other public service purposes. That 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.

The BBC has already started the campaign for its next licence fee settlement. The strategy review announced by the BBC Trust is due to conclude in the autumn of this year. At that point we will have some idea of the shape and size proposed for a newly refocused and reprioritised BBC and of whether or not the Trust goes along with the recommendations made earlier this year by director-general, Mark Thompson, and his executive team.

The Scottish Broadcasting Commission said in its 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. Let me switch the metaphor away from construction. Can we really afford to continue putting all of our PSB eggs in one basket? And it is after all a pretty lavishly-funded basket.

The previous UK government started saying last year that the BBC probably had reached the limits of reasonable expansion. That now seems to be a universal opinion, shared even by the BBC itself. So in future there is bound to be a surplus in the licence fee revenue of money which is not required by the BBC. I don’t believe we should just allow that money to disappear out of the industry and out of public service broadcasting with a reduced licence fee but with no competition for the BBC.

The Scottish Digital Network should be seen as part of the broader evolution of the UK towards a more dispersed and less centralised model – less centralised constitutionally and culturally and journalistically. It’s the point at which broadcasting begins to catch up with devolution. And as we know, the devolution model is about to undergo some further change with more powers coming to Scotland. In that context, 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.

I think the new UK government and the Scottish government should collaborate to invest in the Scottish Digital Network. They should jointly review the funding options in detail and without any pre-conditions, looking at the ideas which have been adopted in other countries and trying to reach agreement. At this point, both governments are making complex decisions about public investment. We live in difficult times where imaginative thinking is required and old certainties need to be re-examined in all areas of policy. So we should see some of that new politics being applied to Scottish broadcasting. There is real common ground here on which all of the political parties can make progress.

There is probably no perfect broadcasting solution in Scotland or indeed anywhere else, but there is the chance to have decent and dedicated media. I believe we have to take a long-term strategic view of the public interest, and not just abandon key parts of our democratic aspirations and journalistic ambitions.

We don’t really know what the media landscape will be like in two years, let alone in 10. But for Scotland to have healthy media and a healthy democracy, the Scottish Digital Network has to be a major part of that future. It would represent an investment in the kind of people we wish to be and an opportunity to shape our journalism and our civic society for generations to come.

Thank you.