Broadcasting and Devolution
A submission to the Smith Commission
by: Kenneth Fraser, St Andrews
In the discussions over possible extensions of devolved powers, economic issues have naturally claimed most attention. However, I wish to suggest that the pressure for constitutional change in Scotland over many years has its origin in the existence of a distinct Scottish national identity and culture. This concept, I believe, is not a controversial one: it was recognised by both sides in the referendum debates, for example in speeches by Mr. Gordon Brown.
As it is generally recognised that broadcasting has a powerful influence on culture, it would therefore be reasonable to suppose that your Commission might consider the potential for devolution in broadcasting. This principle has, indeed, been conceded for forty years in the case of radio broadcasting, by the establishment of BBC Radio Scotland. Should it not also be conceded for television?
I have no need to devise a proposal of my own or to explain it in detail, as this has already been ably done by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission in its interim and final reports: in particular, one of its interim reports, in March 2008, dealt with the cultural aspect of the question.
In its final report (“Platform for success”, 2008) the Commission recommended the establishment of a digital public service television channel for Scotland, together with an associated online platform, to include “news and current affairs covering Scotland and international issues, and innovative and ambitious cultural content” (4.19-28).
A motion (SBM-2671) welcoming the Report and in particular its recommendation for a dedicated Scottish digital channel was debated in the Scottish Parliament on October 8th, 2008, and was passed with the support of all parties.
However, the Westminster Government, which had the power to act upon the recommendation, ignored it. The Calman Commission (Final Report, 5.63-5.70) referred to broadcasting only in the context of possible accountability of broadcasting authorities to the Scottish Parliament, and made no significant comments on the Scottish Broadcasting Commission’s proposals. In the present situation I suggest that it is time to look at them again.
The Commission (4.20) estimated the annual cost of the project as £50-£75 million. Presumably this would be significantly reduced if the digital platform was omitted. They recommended that this sum should be found from public funds. However, in the Parliamentary debate, some members proposed that other sources of funding (especially advertising) should also be considered.
For comparison, BBC Alba in 2008/09 cost £14 million a year, of which £10 million came from the Scottish Government and £4 million from licence fees. S4C in Wales cost £86 million in 2012, of which £83 million came from licence fees or directly from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.
Advantages and disadvantages
The advantage to Scotland of a dedicated television channel scarcely requires to be explained further. Provided a satisfactory financial arrangement can be reached, there would seem to be no disadvantage to the rest of the UK in this proposal, any more than there already is in the existence of BBC Alba and S4C. I urge your Commission to look seriously at this proposal.
October 7, 2014