In My Opinion: James Aitken: Time for a Scotland-wide Channel 3 licence

LAST week, just after News at Ten on Thursday, television viewers watching ITV Border were treated to a screening of an episode of the new sitcom, Vicious.

At exactly the same time, those tuned in to ITV across the rest of Scotland were watching a special edition of STV’s Scotland Tonight, featuring the first in its series of big referendum debates between Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore.

Next year’s vote on independence is a vital one, and this live political joust between two political heavyweights commanded huge attention across Scotland before and after the event, as well as during it.

Yet for ITV viewers across a large swathe of the country, from St Abbs in the east, nearly 200 miles across to to Stranraer in the west, this hugely important debate might as well not have existed. It simply wasn’t shown.

This is but one example of the illogical way the ITV network is organised, which – in Scotland at least – is now looking utterly out of touch and anachronistic.

Most of this country receives its Channel 3 programming from STV, which has regional accommodations for east, west and north. But the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway continue to be served by an entirely different operator, ITV Border.

This latter franchise is a hybrid which broadcasts simultaneously across the south of Scotland and a large tract of Cumbria (strangely, its production centre is in Gateshead, which isn’t even in its own coverage area, but to stop us getting distracted from the main point, we’ll ignore that further oddity).

This completely irrational coverage area places ITV Border in the schizophrenic position of trying to serve totally disparate and disconnected English and Scottish communities. Its bosses are trying to square an impossible circle.

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious, as stories from Kendal are punted to viewers in Kelso, and vice versa.

But it has never been more serious. Next year’s referendum in Scotland on independence is the latest manifestation of a process which has been taking place for more than a decade now since the re-establishment of our own parliament: the assertion, politically, culturally and economically, of a confident and distinctive Scottishness.

Within this changed landscape, ITV’s cross-border franchise looks ever more ludicrous. It’s like a bad comedy Western where the cowboy tries to ride two horses which are gradually moving apart.

There is rich irony in the fact that one of the two protagonists in last week’s STV referendum debate, Michael Moore, actually represents a Borders seat. So, while a healthy near-200,000 people saw him on the programme, they didn’t include most of his own constituents, who couldn’t watch him because of where they lived.

It’s not just about politics, either. The south of Scotland has its own distinct regional identity. Rugby is the dominant sport here, yet we cannot see our players taking part in professional games in Glasgow or Edinburgh as we don’t get STV Rugby. And the recent Young Scots awards programme from Glasgow featured a Borders winner – we didn’t see that either.

There’s also the important issue of influence. Despite being only a relatively short drive from the Central Belt, the south of Scotland often feels ignored by national bodies and institutions. If the opinion formers could hear and see what we are doing here more via another all-Scotland broadcaster, it would help address that problem.

It just isn’t good enough. We’re not just TV viewers but, like everyone else under the UK system, stakeholders. Our TV licence (paid for, let’s remember, to legally receive all programmes, not just to fund the BBC) down here costs as much as anyone else’s, and we have the same right to representative programming.

Nor is it acceptable to argue that STV can be received on Sky or via the internet. Sky costs money, and many people don’t want it. And broadband is still a major issue in the Borders – in some places, it’s still desperately slow and quite unsuited for streaming video.

We are, though, now presented with a golden opportunity for change. The UK broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, has just finished a consultation on Channel 3 licences from 2015. It has recognised that there are specific issues with the Border franchise and wants to make it more relevant to Scotland.

Bizarrely, however, it is only offering two limited options, both still only paying lip service to covering Scottish current affairs, with programming decisions still taken south of the border. One option will only provide just over 13 hours of dedicated Scottish political coverage a year. It’s difficult to listen to proposals like this with a straight face.

The obvious answer is to scrap the existing system and allow the auction of an all-Scotland licence, in which STV would presumably be the lead bidder. In the Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce response to the consultation, that’s what we’ve asked for, though it’s been ruled out so far.

Given that the new franchise won’t become effective until after the referendum, we’ve also requested that STV and ITV Border should open discussions to ensure that the run-up to the vote is properly and fully covered and Scotland Tonight is aired in the south of Scotland on a regular basis.

We have to date, received no response from any of the relevant bodies to indicate that any of our suggestions will be seriously considered.

At least three local MSPs – Joan McAlpine, Aileen McLeod and Christine Grahame – are demanding change, while the much-respected independent leader of Scottish Borders Council, David Parker, has called the current situation a “hodge podge”.

Whichever way next year’s referendum vote goes, few would doubt that Scotland has found its feet in recent years as a distinctive and maturing nation. Our polity is increasingly thoughtful and exciting, and all Scots should expect to be fully able to engage with it.

For that basic right, the loss of carpet shop adverts from Cockermouth is a price we are willingly prepared to pay.

James Aitken is convener of Scottish Borders Chamber of Commerce and co-author of the chamber’s Ofcom consultation response, along with Andrew Collier, a director of SBCC and director of creative and content for the media consultancy, Written Words.

Aitken is also joint founder and partner in Legal Knowledge Scotland and co-author of Reform Scotland’s ‘fiscal powers’ and ‘devo plus’ papers. Collier, meanwhile, is also a regular contributor to allmediascotland.