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Opportunities for Broadcasting - Taking forward our National Conversation

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3 Options for greater devolution of power over broadcasting

Chapter Summary

  • There is scope to retain the major UK-wide broadcasting institutions while devolving greater powers to Scottish Ministers.
  • Other countries in Europe (i.e. Spain and Germany) have devolved a greater level of responsibility for broadcasting than the UK Government
  • There are a number of measures which could be adopted to strengthen accountability for broadcasting in Scotland - in particular granting the Scottish Government the ability to establish public service broadcasting bodies, such as a Scottish Digital Network.

1. There is some scope for devolving far greater broadcasting powers to the Scottish Government while still remaining within the United Kingdom. One model for doing this would be to retain the major UK-wide broadcasting institutions (notably Ofcom and the BBC) while strengthening their obligations to cater for Scottish audiences, and devolving powers to ensure that the framework is set and scrutinised by Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament.

2. This would be in line with the arrangements made in a number of other European nations and regions. The Catalan Government, for example, has responsibility for broadcasting, and establishes the legislative and regulatory framework within which the Corporacio Catalana de Mitians Audovisuels operates. The CCMA is responsible for the television network Televisio de Catalunya, which has six separate television channels. At present, 52% of the funding for CCMA's television network is provided by the state Government of Catalonia, and the rest is provided by advertising - the level of funding is agreed periodically, based on the public service functions carried out by the network 23. The Spanish Government, by contrast, is responsible for broadcasters who operate across the whole of Spain - it partially funds Spain's national public service broadcaster, Radio y Television Espanola (which is also partially dependent upon commercial advertising, although from 1 January 2010 it will instead by partially funded through industry levies 24) and is responsible for the regulatory framework for national television channels.

3. The Catalan Government has recently taken some responsibilities for the electro-magnetic spectrum, although the bulk of this is still reserved to the national Spanish Government, reflecting the extent to which spectrum use increasingly requires cross-border agreement. 25

4. There are so many different components to Scottish broadcasting that there are numerous possible permutations for devolving additional responsibilities, with associated funding, to the Scottish Government. One package of measures which would strengthen the Scottish Government's powers responsibilities for broadcasting within a UK framework is as follows:

  • Responsibility for MG Alba to be devolved to the Scottish Government.
  • The Scottish Government to be granted the power to establish public service broadcasting bodies, such as a Scottish Digital Network, and to set the remit for those bodies. Clearly, any Scottish Government would need to ensure that the independence and impartiality of such broadcasting bodies were safeguarded.
  • Creation of a separate legal "personality" for BBC Scotland.
  • Greater power for Ofcom Scotland, including a recognition that licensing decisions for Scottish networks/channels and MG Alba, for example, should be taken by Ofcom in Scotland. Ofcom Scotland to assume greater responsibility and develop greater capacity for handling complaints for "Scottish" content. Appointment of a specific Scottish member of the Ofcom Board, as recommended by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission.
  • Immediate move to a Scotland-wide Channel 3 licence, to be regulated in future by Ofcom Scotland.
  • Assigning Scotland a share of broadcasting revenues (i.e. from spectrum sales and licence fee), with the ability to vary the licence fee for Scotland.

5. Under this framework, important regulatory and Governmental responsibilities for services with a specifically Scottish dimension ( BBC Scotland, stv, BBC Alba and the digital network that was recommended by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission) would be transferred to Scotland. This would increase the choice of programming reflecting Scottish life which is made available to viewers, while retaining the wide range of programming available to viewers in Scotland through the UK broadcasting system. An increased focus on Scottish broadcasting from within Scotland would help to meet the needs of Scottish viewers and the interests of Scottish broadcasting industry. In doing so, it would help to meet the concerns highlighted by viewers in research commissioned by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission over a lack of Scottish content in some key areas- particularly factual, historical, arts and comedy programming.

6. Channel 4 and Five could continue to be UK-wide broadcasters under this system. Ofcom currently requires Channel 4 to commission 3% of its programmes from the devolved nations. We would expect this obligation to continue, and we would wish it to increase. Under a "devolution max" arrangement, it would make sense for Ofcom's Scottish office to make a significant contribution to the discussions about Channel 4's nations and regions obligations, or even to set any obligations specific to Scotland, and for it then to be responsible for assessing whether Channel 4 was delivering against these objectives.

7. The suggestion that Scotland should have the power to establish its own public service broadcasting channels raises the question of how additional channels could be funded. At present, the main way in which public service broadcasting is supported in the UK is through the television licence fee (currently for BBC services) and granting spectrum to broadcasters (for BBC, ITV/stv, Channel 4 and Five). In addition, the UK Government provides £98 million of central government funding annually to support S4C in Wales (broadcasters also provide an additional subsidy of approximately £25m of programming for S4C) 26. Equivalent support is not made available to support public service broadcasting in Scotland. Scotland clearly suffers a deficit in public service broadcasting provision which has grown up under existing arrangements, and there is a significant disparity between current UK support for broadcasting in Wales and support for broadcasting in Scotland.

8. Clearly, under a broader "devolution max" model, Scotland may well gain control over a much wider range of fiscal levers than it currently has, which could add to the options for resourcing public service broadcasting in Scotland. In principle, however, a significant transfer of responsibility in a policy area should lead to a transfer of funding.

9. There would be several options for transferring powers and funds:

  • A proportion of the television licence could be allocated (or "top sliced") to support specifically Scottish services; or
  • Scotland might receive a proportionate share of revenues from auctions of the radio-magnetic spectrum and apply this to a broadcasting fund.

10. Assigning Scotland a proportionate share of revenue from spectrum auctions is entirely possible. Spectrum auctions are not a steady source of funding, but can on occasion yield significant sums of money. The UK Government's auction of "3G" licences in 2000, for example, raised £22.5 billion 27, although this level of revenue may not be repeated at future auctions. The next major sale of spectrum in the UK is likely to take place after the analogue television signal for the UK has been switched off in 2012.

11. Clearly most other developed countries of a similar size to Scotland are faced with similar issues. All manage to provide robust and effective public sector broadcasting systems which attract strong national support. Scotland would be no different, but of course all those countries have their systems established and scrutinised by their national parliaments. Consequently independence would seem to provide the best context for strengthening and improving our broadcasting infrastructure.