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UK Government’s broadcasting white paper: letter from Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture

Letter from Angus Robertson, Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, in response to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS)'s broadcasting white paper.


Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
4th Floor, 100 Parliament Street
London
SW1A 2BQ

May 2022

Dear Nadine,

Thank you for your letter of 27 April, advising of the publication on 28 April of the UK Government’s Broadcasting White Paper, Up Next. As you will no doubt have anticipated, I have serious concerns about how some of the proposals may impact on Scotland’s creative landscape. In particular, the UK Government’s plans to privatise Channel 4, and proposals to ‘overhaul’ the remit of Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs), could have dramatic, and potentially hugely detrimental, effects on our broadcasting and screen sectors.

There are also a number of proposals in the White Paper, and the subsequent Media Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech on 10 May, which, subject to further detail, the Scottish Government would be likely to support. In particular, we would be in favour of refreshed rules on prominence for Smart TVs, and increased audience protection from harmful content delivered by streaming services.

I do not intend this letter to set out the Scottish Government’s position on every proposal in detail, but I hope it will offer some insight into our areas of greatest interest or concern, and help to inform engagement as your work progresses.

The White Paper is clear on the challenges currently faced by PSBs, primarily as a result of the rise of streaming services. As the Paper says, this changed environment has significant implications for PSBs, and I am relieved to see that the UK Government’s recent strategic review has found that public service broadcasting remains vital in the modern media age.

The Scottish Government’s clear position is that the invaluable contribution made by the PSBs should mean that they are given the support they need to adapt and survive in this new environment. I am disappointed, therefore, that a number of proposed provisions are likely to put the PSBs at risk of being damaged or diminished. Just when PSBs most need to be focusing on key external market challenges, your proposals will instead mean that they need to defend themselves against policies that seek to undermine the positive outcomes they deliver.

Change of remit for public service broadcasters

The White Paper sets out the UK Government’s intention to replace the ‘outdated’ set of fourteen purposes and objectives that PSBs are currently bound by with a new, shorter remit, and greater flexibility in how they deliver that remit. I hope that any revision to the current remit would guard against the risk of a reduced offer to audiences. As the White Paper notes, PSBs currently produce a wide range of excellent content that is highly valued by audiences – any change to their current remit must ensure that these crucial, and beloved, services continue at the same high standard as they are today. It is also vital that the huge benefits that PSBs bring to our screen sector, and the creative industries more widely, are protected, not eroded, by any changes to the remit, particularly in relation to regional quotas and representation.

The White Paper also notes plans to consult on embedding ‘distinctively British content’ into the existing quota system. As I have said before, the Scottish Government is clear on the value of PSBs reflecting the diversity of voices and communities across Scotland and the UK. We will of course respond to any consultation, and we will be keen to see how the UK Government intends to define ‘British’ in this context, noting the importance of reflecting Scotland’s many cultures, including the valuable contribution that New Scots make to our country’s cultural tapestry.

The future of Channel 4

Turning to proposals to pursue the privatisation of Channel 4, I wrote to your predecessor on 14 September 2021, responding to DCMS’s consultation and setting out the Scottish Government’s strong opposition to the privatisation of a much-loved and successful public asset. My opposition to these proposals remains, and I note it is a position shared by the overwhelming majority of the circa 55,000 respondents to your consultation.

It is my committed belief that privatising Channel 4 will damage its current remit to deliver new and experimental programmes, and to reach and represent diverse audiences. Your White Paper notes that other PSBs (ITV, STV, and Channel 5) are already privately owned and are successful. While I agree that these broadcasters offer their own valuable contributions to the wider PSB landscape, this only strengthens the case for maintaining Channel 4’s current public ownership model – it occupies a unique position that allows it to make exciting programming decisions, and invest in distinct talent and content that may well be considered too high-risk for a private company that would, first and foremost, be beholden to its shareholders.

Further, the White Paper is clear that a privatised Channel 4 would be in a position to move away from its current publisher-broadcaster model, and be able to pursue in-house production. As I have said before, the Scottish Government, taking into account the advice of industry experts, is clear that this is likely to have a serious adverse impact on independent production companies across the UK, including in Scotland. The White Paper acknowledges the significant growth in independent production in recent years, and I am clear that any proposed reform to Channel 4’s ownership must prioritise how this valuable growth can be protected and enhanced. Changing Channel 4’s model just as we are seeing the benefits from it seems to be entirely the wrong approach.

I will not repeat at length the points set out in my September letter and elsewhere, but I will say again that even in the current challenging times, Channel 4 continues to return a surplus and see growth in advertising. I am therefore not clear on what basis you consider that privatisation is a necessary step to secure the long-term future of Channel 4. I do not believe that your White Paper, or the evidence at hand, points to any danger to the Channel’s future if it remains in public ownership. It seems to me that privatisation is a very significant and entirely unnecessary risk, and I ask you what assurances the UK Government is able to give that the consequent risks to Scotland’s creative industries will be mitigated.

The future of the BBC

I wrote to you in January this year to express my serious concerns about the UK Government’s plans to freeze the licence fee for two years, and to subsequently review the licence fee model. As I said then, ideologically-driven threats to destabilise the BBC’s funding puts this valuable asset at risk at a time when it is already facing unprecedented competition in a challenging marketplace.

As you know, the BBC have previously said that the planned freeze will result in a shortfall of £285m by 2027/28, which will have a direct impact on outputs across the UK. I am deeply concerned that this will have serious and ongoing implications for the BBC’s investment in Scotland, which I believe should be increasing to better reflect revenue raised in Scotland, rather than decreasing as a response to unnecessary budgetary pressures.

As you are aware, the Scottish Ministers have a role in any review of the BBC Charter, and I hope that we will be given appropriate standing in your proposed review of the licence fee funding model ahead of the next Charter period. I am aware that you are now seeking an independent Chair for this six-month review, which you plan to begin before your Parliamentary recess in July. I share concerns, already expressed by others, that it will be challenging for a meaningful, independent review to be conducted against the backdrop of your clear commitment to abolishing the licence fee. I wish you the best of luck in finding an appropriate, unbiased Chair to take forward this review, and I look forward to engaging with the process where appropriate.

I welcome the recognition in the White Paper of the importance of minority language broadcasting, and the acknowledgement of the valuable contribution that MG ALBA makes to the lives and wellbeing of Gaelic speakers across Scotland and the UK. I am pleased to see that the White Paper recognises the importance of stable future funding for MG ALBA, and I look forward to seeing the detail of these plans as they develop. I also welcome in principle the White Paper’s commitment to making clear in legislation the importance of minority and indigenous regional languages, through inclusion in the new public service remit for television.

Prominence

As we noted in our response to Ofcom’s Small Screen, Big Debate consultation last year, the Scottish Government supports maximising prominence for PSBs, and I am pleased to see the White Paper take on board Ofcom’s recommendation to introduce legislation to ensure that PSBs’ on-demand services and content – as well as their existing broadcast TV channels – are given prominence across a wider range of sources, reflecting the new ways that people consume content. I would expect any legislation introduced by the UK Government to take into account that audiences in Scotland should not be disadvantaged by prominence rules, which must adequately reflect the role of regional broadcasters such as STV.

Reform of the listed events regime

Your White Paper proposes a review of the framework for broadcasting listed events of national interest, which would consider making qualification for the regime specific to PSBs, and extending the regime to include digital rights. I agree with the Paper’s clear position on the importance of access for audiences to listed events, and I have advocated for more Scottish events to be accessible to audiences in Scotland, in particular so that sports fans across the UK have parity to watch their National teams for free. I look forward to further details of the review as it develops, and welcome in principle a refreshed regime that would ensure events continue to be available to a wide audience on a free-to-air-basis.

Radio

I am pleased to see the White Paper’s acknowledgement of the continued importance of radio to the public broadcasting landscape, and to audiences. I will await with interest next year’s consultation on proposals to champion the community radio sector, and look forward to hearing further details on proposed future legislation to reform the regulatory structure for commercial radio. Equally, while the White Paper suggests that thinking is still in its early stages, consideration of the impact of ‘smart speakers’ on radio listening is welcomed.

Content regulation for video-on-demand services

Subject to further information, I anticipate that the Scottish Government would be supportive of the White Paper’s proposals to bring large ‘TV-like’ streamers into line with PSBs in having to adhere to a code to protect viewers from harm, and proposals to give viewers the ability to complain to Ofcom about streamed content. I would hope that, taken together, these new regulations will provide clarity for consumers, and could help to ensure a more level playing field for providers.

As the White Paper notes, any such regulation would require to be carefully balanced against the continued attractiveness of the UK as a market to operate these streaming services - which clearly provide content audiences enjoy - as well as the effects of regulation on future inward investment.

Finally, I would like to thank you for your letter’s mention of the collaboration between Scottish and UK Government officials, and your acknowledgement that constructive engagement must continue as this work progresses. To support that, I would like to reiterate my earlier invitation, originally made in October last year, for a meeting to discuss these matters. I am sure you will agree that there is significant work, both outlined in this White Paper and elsewhere, that would benefit from discussion.

Yours sincerely,

Angus Robertson

Contact

T: 0300 244 4000

E: scottish.ministers@gov.scot

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