Scottish broadcasting: Business as usual will not do

Former stv managing director, Sandy Ross, is the current chair of the Salford Conference on Television from the Nations and Regions. One of the major sessions at the 15th conference held in Salford on Tuesday was the one on the SNP’s proposed devolution of broadcasting regulation to the Scottish Parliament. Ross watched the deliberations from the conference floor. This is what he witnessed…

IT was ironic that the first major public debate on the proposed devolution of broadcasting should take place in England, but given that the ultimate decision on whether it will happen or not will take place in London perhaps not inappropriate.

During a very lively discussion David Cairns, Labour’s Minister of State at the Scottish Office, the SNP’s Peter Wishart, and the Scottish Broadcasting Commission’s chair, Blair Jenkins, were in clear agreement on one thing at the Salford Conference: “business as usual will not do” for the future of broadcasting in Scotland.

The debate took place on the day that the independent producers association, PACT, published their latest report which showed that network commissions from broadcasters had declined dramatically in Scotland between 2004 and 2006.

Peter Wishart, the SNP spokesperson for Culture and Media, defended Alex Salmond’s call for the devolution of broadcasting.

Everyone agreed he said that devolution was “a process not an event” and all the parties at Holyrood were in favour of greater powers being devolved. In these circumstances and because of its importance to the culture, the democracy and the industrial development of Scotland, it was absurd to leave the control and regulation of Scottish broadcasting in the hands of Westminster.

Broadcasting was a vital industry, yet no-one was dealing with its strategy and development from a Scottish perspective.

Wishart believed it was a gross insult to journalists and programme makers in Scotland to imply that they could not run a broadcasting industry independent of the rest of the UK. BBC Radio Scotland, he claimed, was a clear example of what could be achieved. The case for control of broadcasting by the Scottish Parliament was unanswerable.

David Cairns MP, Minister of State at the Scottish Office, claimed that the SNP proposal was “an analogue solution to a digital problem”.

He agreed that there were commissioning and other problems but none of them were related to regulation. Scottish Enterprise should be taking a more active role in the development of this crucial part of Scotland’s cultural industries.

He argued that BBC was too slow to commission new programmes to replace those network programmes lost by Scottish production companies.

Cairns accused the SNP of “grubby politics”, of repeating a nationalist mantra and following a narrow political agenda that was as irrelevant as nationalism itself. He suggested that the SNP proposals would lead to a ‘Balkanisation’ of broadcasting in the UK and that the SNP had not thought through what the far-reaching implications of this would be.

For him, Scotland already had a competitive edge in the development of new broadcasting initiatives. He cited the development of video games in Dundee. The essential aim he said should be to speak to the world and to compete at a global level. The regulatory framework was not the issue. The SNP proposal was based on an image of broadcasting which dated back to the 1970s.

Blair Jenkins, chair of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, underlined the independence of the commission but insisted that consideration of broadcasting devolution was not the starting point for change.

Jenkins praised the Salford Conference for giving an opening platform to what was a very important issue for future broadcasting policy.

However, he believed this was not yet a mature debate. What would “broadcasting devolution” mean?

Jenkins also announced that the broadcasting commission would publish its first results on Monday – January 28 – but would not disclose ahead of this what they had found, other than to say it was clear that change was needed. Network production in Scotland had collapsed. This was the most urgent problem.

The Commission’s next report would be on what changes audiences wanted to see and how the concept of public service broadcasting for Scotland should be developed. A key issue is the lack of plurality in media provision in Scotland.

Listening to the debate in the conference hall were producers from Northern Ireland and Wales who echoed the concerns being expressed about the problems of programme commissions in the nations. Phil Morrow, of Wild Rover, in Belfast, pointed out that there were no network programmes from Northern Irish companies and the situation there was far worse than Scotland.

Aled Eirug, constitutional adviser for the presiding officer of the National Assembly of Wales, said that the European dimension was being ignored. Regulation was not the problem. There needed to be a change in economic and industrial policy in Wales as well as Scotland and in Northern Ireland too.

Deborah Forrest, head of production at Studio Scotland, said that companies like hers were having success abroad but not in the UK. They increasingly had to sell programmes and ideas internationally without the support of their home broadcasters.

David Strachan of Tern Television said it was not good enough to make broadcasting a political issue. It needed to be freed from politics and there had to be a process which would establish a programme making infrastructure that will last and enable new talent to emerge and flourish in Scotland.

Also listening to the discussion was Ian Hargreaves, the Ofcom partner with specific responsibility for broadcasting in the nations and regions and when he spoke later in the day he made it clear he had taken on board many of the issues raised in the discussion and they would be considered as part of the broadcasting regulator’s forthcoming review of public service television provision.

It may have been the first public debate on the issue since Alex Salmond’s establishment of the commission, but it raised many questions which will have to be addressed over the next couple of years.