In My Opinion: Blair Jenkins: Broadcasting in Scotland

At the start of a Scottish Parliament committee examination of broadcasting within the UK Government-proposed Scotland Bill, chair of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, Blair Jenkins, was asked to provide a few opening remarks, ahead of giving evidence. This is his presentation …  

IT is hard to imagine that we will move much further into the age of devolution without at least some of the responsibilities for broadcasting policy in Scotland being transferred to this Parliament. To be honest, even if nothing else at all were changing in relation to the current devolution settlement, I believe we would still need to reconsider how and where the key decisions affecting Scottish broadcasting are made.

I realise that the Scottish Government has tabled five particular proposals in relation to the Scotland Bill and I’m very happy to discuss those with the committee in more detail and give you my own views. But it’s probably more helpful to begin with a few general observations.

There are big decisions coming up in the next few years, including:

* By 2014, the renewal (or not) of the Channel 3 licences in Scotland – and on what terms those are renewed;

* the number and scope of any new local television services in Scotland and where they are located; and

* the next BBC Charter and agreement in about five years’ time.

These matters will require constant attention and detailed scrutiny in Scotland. I think we need a permanent parliamentary capacity for monitoring, challenging, asking awkward questions and getting the right answers for the Scottish public interest in relation to broadcasting and indeed media and communications more widely. I believe that the capacity and suitability for that kind of detailed engagement and close scrutiny is here in Edinburgh. It’s exactly what this parliament was set up for and it should be your responsibility.

We need only look at the evidence of the last 12 years to see that Scottish broadcasting issues just don’t get onto the radar very much at Westminster, where the focus is – perhaps understandably – on the bigger picture for the whole of the UK. But this has had unfortunate consequences in Scotland.

One notable and regrettable example would be the decline in the services offered in the STV and Border television licences. I cannot believe, if this parliament had had overview of the matter, that STV in central Scotland would now have licence obligations that equate to about 25 per cent of what they were before devolution, and that the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway would find their local news service further diluted and dislocated and now emanating from Gateshead – something which I believe is opposed by every political party in this parliament.

But there were other serious issues which also went neglected until this parliament started taking a closer interest in broadcasting: the steep decline in network television production from Scotland; the carelessness of the UK news programmes in their reporting for Scottish audiences; the fact that our independent producers were not getting fair and equal treatment by the major broadcasters. The improvements we have had in these areas were driven from Edinburgh and not from London.

Devolution has been a monumental change in Scottish life, but the broadcasting response has been minimal and marginal. That probably does stem in part from the fact that broadcasting was not devolved – a decision that was misinterpreted by broadcasters as meaning that nothing much had to change.

The most obvious thing to say about television in Scotland is that there is a need for a greater volume and range of high-quality Scottish content. That is not going to happen under the current arrangements. Scotland needs a more complete portrayal of itself on television than news alone can provide. That is why the Scottish Broadcasting Commission proposed the creation of a new dedicated Scottish public service broadcaster, the Scottish Digital Network, as an additional service for audiences in Scotland. That proposal was keenly -indeed unanimously – supported in this parliament, but has been largely ignored at Westminster.

The existing Scottish broadcasters, BBC Scotland and STV, face real challenges with the old-fashioned model for Scottish broadcasting – that is, the analogue model of occasionally opting out from the network schedules of BBC and ITV. The problem is: how do you find decent slots for Scottish programmes without taking off air the UK programmes that Scottish audiences also want to see? Scottish politicians have become familiar with the West Lothian question; Scottish broadcasters deal with what could be called the Downton Abbey question.

Broadcasting is inextricably linked to cultural development and increasingly linked to economic development, both areas that are already devolved. It also has a profound social and democratic significance that justifies priority treatment by politicians.

There has never really been a distinctive policy framework for Scottish broadcasting under any UK government and there is no sign of one coming along any time soon. This parliament needs to take more interest and have more influence. We need a fresh and honest appraisal of the broadcasting arrangements, to agree on what is best dealt with at Westminster and what is best dealt with here at the bottom of the Royal Mile. There would be a lot of detail to work out but it is vitally important that we get it right in future. And it might even mark the point at which broadcasting finally begins to catch up with devolution.

Blair Jenkins is a former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland. More recently, he chaired the Scottish Broadcasting Commission.