Sunday, September 28, 2008

The future of Scottish Public Broadcasting

Last Thursday, Ofcom published its second consultation into the future of Public Service Broadcasting (there's a good summary of the recommendations, including those for Scotland, on the Ofcom website -click on the headline above to view).

The proposals for Scotland
have some concerning aspects. Firstly, Ofcom accepts that the ITV proposed merger between Border and Tyne Tees news should go ahead. For ITV, of course, read ITV England and Wales, and the suggestion of the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway getting its 'local' news from a studio in Gateshead is unacceptable.

No wonder people in the Borders are up in arms about the proposal. Borders LibDem MP Michael Moore said the recommendations were "made by people stuck in London offices who fail to understand the importance of regional news and diversity."

There's one glimmer of hope for the south of Scotland offered in the Ofcom consultation - (to quote Ofcom) -

"In the Evolution model, our proposals mean there could be a single channel 3 licence for Scotland in future. Any Channel 3 PSB licence after 2014 would be likely to cover the whole of Scotland – the Scottish part of the Border region would be incorporated within an all-Scotland service, possibly regionally split into North, Central and Borders."

This seems a sensible route forward but Ofcom floats this as a vague possibility "in the long term."

Meantime, there are other concerning aspects to the Ofcom consultation. Ofcom proposes a reduction for STV of its minimum requirements for non-news programming from 3 to 1.5 hours per week from 2009, a highly deterimental step. As the Scotsman said yesterday (see http://news.scotsman.com/latestnews/Green-light-for-STV-to.4531067.jp) :

"The watchdog recommended halving the minimum output of non-news public service broadcasting (PSB) to 90 minutes a week and reducing day-time news bulletins. It is likely the moves would see programmes such as the late-night current affairs show Politics Now axed. The recommendations prompted sharp criticism from the Scottish Government and other politicians."

The comments made by Vicki Nash, the Director Ofcom Scotland, were around how to "sustain public service broadcasting in the new economic reality of the digital television age." To quote Ofcom:

"In all models additional funding will be necessary to maintain news provision on commercial PSBs. In order to maintain STV’s services at or close to their current level, extra funding from public sources at the UK or Scottish Government level will be needed."

So, the question is - Does Andy Burnham MP, the Labour Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport have the future of public service broadcasting in Scotland uppermost in his mind? Doubtful methinks, but the proof of the pudding will be how the Westminster Labour government reacts to sustain public service broadcasting. Similarly the SNP government in Edinburgh.

Robert K. Avery said of public service broadcasting:

"Public service broadcasting is based on the principles of universality of service, diversity of programming, provision for minority audiences including the disadvantaged, sustaining an informed electorate, and cultural and educational enrichment."

In the environment of the digital age, public service broadcasting faces great challenges and governments must react to protect, preserve and enhance it. Can we trust the London Labour government or Salmond's SNP administration to grasp this particular nettle?