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Devolved Scotland needs devolved broadcasting

IT SEEMS the devolution settlement is not yet quite fixed in concrete, maybe it never will be. However, the fact that responsibility for railway infrastructure has recently been passed from Westminster to the Scottish Executive to join the responsibility for the trains which we already had means that Scotland can now plan its rail network in a systemic manner. It also clearly demonstrates that responsibilities can still be shifted from Westminster to Holyrood.

 

So how about pressing for a much more significant part of our national infrastructure to also be ‘sent North’ the responsibility for broadcasting. This might be a good time to do this, with the BBC’s charter currently up for renewal and Ofcom’s review of public service broadcasting well under way.

 

For Scotland must be unique in the modern world. It is a nation of five million people, with its own spanking-new legislature, but without a single indigenous television station. Ireland, with a population of only four mil lion, boasts four TV stations. Even Wales, with a population of fewer than three million, has its own TV station, S4C.

 

Ofcom, in its review of public service broad casting, identifies that Scotland, with almost 10 per cent of the UK’s population, con tributes only 2 per cent of first-run network TV programmes. Its Phase 2 report identifies the view that ITV regional non-news programming is becoming financially quite unsustainable and it looks likely that Ofcom is preparing to relax the targets for regional programmes that it places on the ITV companies.

 

Ofcom is reacting to ITV in England now being provided by a single company. However, its acceptance that non-news regional pro gramming also cannot be economically sustained in Scotland, where the independently owned SMG provides the ITV service, would indicate that even Ofcom feels that it is only a matter of time before ITV buys SMG and puts its shareholders out of their misery.

 

Ten years ago, Scottish Television pointedly transmitted a Scottish programme to its audience at 7pm each evening. Lucrative network shows were displaced which must have cost SMG valuable advertising revenue, but it gave the station a distinctive Scottish feel.

 

The BBC, currently building its brand-new headquarters on Glasgow’s Pacific Quay, is committed to moving more staff out of London, but has yet to announce any significant boosting of its Scottish programming. Jack McConnell’s ambition currently seems to be limited to persuading the BBC to move its digital children’s channels, CBBC and CBeebies, to Scotland.

 

Surely we need to be much more ambitious than that. The arrival of digital TV means that most people have hundreds of channels to choose from, and the decision by the BBC to broadcast its satellite channels ‘in the clear’ means that people who still want to watch the network programming can easily get them. There is no longer any excuse to restrict the number of locally made programmes transmitted on BBC1 or BBC2.

 

And Ofcom must be told that Scotland needs a powerful, independent, TV station based on the ITV1 service, but with a considerably stronger strand of local programming. Currently S4C in Wales receives around £84m in subsidy directly from the Department of Culture Media and Sport. I wonder what SMG could do if we had a similar amount to spend on Scotland’s TV?

 

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