In My Opinion: Graham Bryce: Why we don’t Need the Scottish Digital Network

I AM hesitant about raining on anyone’s parade, but, unlike some well-established figures in the Scottish media scene, I have grave doubts about the level of support in this country for a dedicated Scottish Digital Network – a digital TV channel dedicated to Scottish content, supported by a strong online presence and the recommendation of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, chaired by former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, Blair Jenkins.

Jenkins’ recent lecture at Strathclyde University argued that now, more than ever, Scotland needs its own SDN, but I suspect the idea of such a channel stems more from what politicians and ‘the great and the good’ want for the country rather than the needs and desires of local viewers and listeners.

As our political landscape has shifted in recent months, so has our broadcasting and local news landscape required to develop – but a brand new public service linear television channel is not the answer in this fast-moving digital age and, I fear, would be doomed to costly failure.

As part of the Scottish News Network (SNN) consortium which bid to run the Independently Funded News Consortia (IFNC) pilot in Scotland, I know that high quality, up-to-the-minute news is a key priority for the Scottish public. The model of news delivery put forward by both bidders – the other being the Scottish News Consortium comprising newspaper publishers, Johnston Press, Herald & Times Group and DC Thomson plus TV production company, Mentorn Scotland – was forward-thinking, progressive, multi-platform and would, I believe, have transformed the quality and breadth of news provision in the commercial broadcast sector, at a relatively small cost to the public purse.

The idea of setting up a brand new dedicated digital channel for Scotland is worthy and not without merit. However, we need to be realistic. The channel would, I fear, get lost in the multi-channel world and end up as a costly, elitist operation viewed by a tiny minority and have no impact on the wider news consumption of the general public.

Mr Jenkins argued that the creation of a new network was necessary as a competitor for the BBC and public service broadcasting (PSB).

The argument rests around plurality of high quality journalism and the need for a sustainable alternative in Scotland, rather than a BBC monopoly.

In my view it seems ridiculous to spend the amounts of money we do on the BBC and then say “it’s too strong – let’s set something else up in competition to it”, when there are already well-based, popular and local alternatives.

For me, the first challenge to be addressed is to compel the BBC to provide more Scottish output, maybe even a dedicated channel – more than possible in the digital world – and which could be easily funded from within their current budgets. There is a genuinely strong argument that Scotland is under-served by the BBC and should do more to provide dedicated Scottish output in line with a more devolved nation.

Furthermore, there is already BBC Alba and BBC Radio Scotland – why not make these outlets work harder, for example making the radio service a full-time news/documentary station; thereby creating a stronger voice for Scotland, embedding the kind of news and current affairs programmes Blair Jenkins talks about and leveraging the UK’s most trusted brand for news.

The current mix of news, music and sport is clearly not delivering for audiences and the music and sport elements can easily be provided within the commercial sector.

This idea surely must have far more mileage than a highbrow, stand-alone channel for Scotland, competing to be heard in an increasingly competitive, brand-driven world.

Trust in the provision of news is paramount and the idea that a new, untested channel can gain viewer trust without many years and many millions of pounds investment is simply fantasy. I firmly believe that setting up a brand-new, dedicated, linear television channel would be doomed to failure. It will have no brand equity, no meaningful constituency and in all likelihood, very few viewers.

The BBC constantly says it needs to be popular, not only to justify the £4 billion of public money it spends every year but also to provide the base of viewers for its higher quality output.

But I fear a stand-alone Scottish channel like the one being mooted will quickly degenerate into an elitist outpost, far off the radar of most Scots. Clearly, to have any impact on the wider viewing public, this type of programming needs to be embedded within a strong channel that delivers strong audiences – the BBC or, indeed, commercial counterparts.

As Blair Jenkins said right at the end of his lecture, the model in Ireland is that seven per cent of the license fee is used for PSB content on commercial channels – this is the way to ensure a strong alternate voice to the BBC.

Moreover, spending a fraction of that fee on content within the commercial sector would achieve so much, eg instead of £80 million on a dedicated channel for example – £7 million would buy you a multi-platform, integrated, high-quality news output as put forward by our SNN (STV/Bauer/ITN) consortium.

Simply put, if more money was available to STV/Bauer/Newspapers to develop high quality content, I believe it would have a far greater impact than on a stand-alone channel relegated to the end of the TV menu.

I can see no good reason as to why the Irish model could not also work here. Just a fraction of the billions of licence payer’s money the BBC is handed every year could be put to great use in going toward PSB outwith the Corporation.

Finally, in the SBC lecture and in its various reports, there is never a mention of radio – a startling omission.

In a recent report by broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, radio was cited by the public as the most trusted source of news, above television and newspapers.

In all this debate, radio can play a much more pivotal role – whether that be BBC Radio Scotland or commercially. In my view, a stand-alone dedicated channel would be an enormous waste of public money at a time when every penny is being rightly scrutinised.

The answer surely lies in investing a small proportion of the BBC funds into PSB content in the commercial world, enabling genuine innovation and a move to real-time multi-media news journalism dedicated to the Scottish market, nationally, regionally and locally, whilst at the same time developing a stronger creative industry that creates jobs, and supports a vibrant and important sector of the Scottish economy.

Graham Bryce is managing director of Bauer Media Scotland.

Pic: Peter Devlin