Leader comment: New BBC channel welcome but not a game-changer

The licence fee is set to increase in April. Picture:  Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
The licence fee is set to increase in April. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
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The announcement that the BBC is to launch a new channel in Scotland is to be welcomed – but let us get it in context.

The channel, which will begin broadcasting in autumn 2018, director-general Tony Hall said, will have a budget of £30 million. We are told that is the equivalent to the amount spent on BBC4. And presumably that comparison is meant to make us feel good about it. Well it doesn’t.

Lets look at that a bit more closely. That £30m comprises £19m in new money and £11m from programmes currently made for BBC Two in Scotland.

According to the BBC Full Financial Statements 2015-16, the corporation’s consolidated income for the year ended 31 March 2016 was £4.827 billion. If you take the new money coming to the channel, that represents 0.4 per cent of the BBC’s income (assuming 2018 is not hugely different from 2016). Even the new BBC Scotland’s entire budget amounts to 0.6 per cent.

It is good news that the director-general also announced an increase of about £20m a year for Scotland to make UK-wide programmes.

Lord Hall described the plans as the biggest single investment in broadcast content in Scotland for more than 20 years. Again, that was probably meant to make Scotland feel good. Instead it just highlights how poor the investment has been in 20 years.

It is easy to see why there was criticism of the funding revealed yesterday.

The financial statements tell us that the BBC’s expenditure in Scotland during 2015-16 was £176.5m across all services and platforms and that that represented a decrease from the previous year. The same figures say the BBC gets £320m annually from the licence fees paid in Scotland.

Another part of the package announced yesterday was a Scottish news hour at 9pm which will broadcast stories from Scotland, the UK and the world.

This was in response to the pressure for a Scottish Six o’clock news bulletin instead of the current UK one at that time. With more powers coming to Scotland and different approaches in key areas, it was felt that some of the stories focussed on by the six o’clock news were of little relevance to Scotland. Certainly in recent weeks its major focus on the problems of the health service and the prison service in England would lend weight to the argument for a Scottish Six.

But instead Lord Hall as come up with the compromise of a main Scottish bulletin on BBC Scotland at 9pm. Not easy to see why it is at that time given the main news bulletin on BBC 1 has relatively recently been moved from that time to 10 o’clock. Perhaps it is to allow people to watch both, although given the Scottish hour-long programme will also report UK news there is the risk of duplication.

All in all, it is not possible to say with any conviction that these moves will mean the BBC will better reflect the lives of those living in Scotland and better reflect modern Scotland to any significant degree.