Robert Beveridge: A missed chance over STV

STV's new Edinburgh team of Juliet Dunlop, right, and Caroline Henderson. Picture: Graeme Hunter
STV's new Edinburgh team of Juliet Dunlop, right, and Caroline Henderson. Picture: Graeme Hunter
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Robert Beveridge argues that by offering a channel 3 licence to cover the whole of Scotland, Westminster could have widened competition with BBC

If WE were, for the first time, setting up regional licences for channel 3, who could doubt that there would be an all-Scotland licence rather than the two and a half chosen about 60 years ago – the half being the very small Border television, which still broadcasts south of the Border?

BBC Scotland's Jackie Bird and Sally Magnusson

BBC Scotland's Jackie Bird and Sally Magnusson

But does ITV meet the needs of viewers in the south of Scotland? How good is the coverage beyond news into current affairs and cultural portrayal etc? Are the citizens of Kelso able to access equivalent television-based information about the referendum, for example? Is there a potential democratic deficit here?

Maria Miller, the Secretary for Culture Media and Sport, has decided to renew the existing channel 3 licences without the costs and dangers of going to competitive bidding.

Given this government’s incompetence in the West Coast rail fiasco, that might seem sensible. It does give some security to the companies, though one might ask what happened to the Conservative insistence on the benefits of competition?

However, this move also means the loss of an excellent opportunity to redraw the licences to allow STV to broadcast across the whole of Scotland and thus provide more direct competition for BBC Scotland as a national broadcaster.

Miller has recently agreed to the potential separation 
of the Wales and West channel 3 licence region. Why should Scotland be treated differently? Why not separate the two parts of the Border licence as a solution to concerns about public service television in the south of the country?

Instead, she has asked the regulator Ofcom to address the needs of viewers in the south of Scotland by finding a “way forward with ITV plc which …addresses concerns about the quality and plurality of news provision, which are of the utmost importance”.

What might this mean? Is ITV really going to invest in current programming for the very small audience in the Scottish Borders, given that it has already substantially reduced provision for the whole Border region? One cost-effective way would be for ITV to transmit STV news and current affairs programmes, but then why not an all-Scotland licence? Can viewers in Dumfries look forward to watching Scotland Tonight and if not, why not?

Further, why can’t STV broadcast a southern Scotland edition of its regionalised News at Six, thus addressing the problems identified by Ofcom and acknowledged by Miller in relation to the particular value placed by Border viewers on news about their area?

As a citizen of the capital, I already find myself turning as a matter of course to the Edinburgh version of News at Six with the excellent Juliet Dunlop et al, not least because I find the BBC’s Reporting Scotland too Glasgow-centric for my taste and I believe that, as the capital city, Edinburgh is poorly served by broadcasting in Scotland.

Reporting Scotland averages about 500,00 to 520,000 viewers and STV’s overall versions of the News at Six garner a similar performance. If we added in viewers in the Borders, then the competition would be more intense and that might make good commercial, as well as democratic and civic, sense.

We need to ask why Westminster has ducked the question of having an all-Scotland licence for STV. Might it be afraid of laying a foundation for STV to become a Scottish digital network in the longer term?

In any case, it is still open to ITV to buy up STV on the market and turn STV into ITV Scotland. Despite the political controversy, this could happen – especially as ITV is now secure in its licence for a further ten years.

If ITV bought STV, the problem would be solved immediately by the new ITV Scotland broadcasting in the Borders. Why would ITV invest more into coverage for the relatively small number of viewers in the south of Scotland when the solution is so evident?

The tension between definitions of public service broadcasting and the race to the celebrity bottom in populism and popularity continues, but as Scotland heads towards the climactic referendum in 2014, an all-Scotland channel three licence would make no more than good sense and perhaps no more than devolution max for STV.

If BBC Scotland is to be met by a competitor on a level playing field and we want the best for STV and for Scotland and – crucially for viewers in Scotland – then this is a missed opportunity and more.

It is – and not for the first time – London doing what feels right for London and letting down viewers in the south of Scotland. It is a sticking plaster attempt at a solution and reflects the short-termism typical of this UK government.

We can only hope that more strategic thinking informs the coming debates over the charter renewal for the BBC due in 2016, just after the UK and then Scottish general elections, never mind the referendum

It would be perverse in the extreme to renew the channel 3 and 5 licences for ten years and then not the BBC charter. But there will be – as before – intense debate about the size and scope of the BBC itself.

The BBC has not proceeded with providing better localised provision and, indeed, has been forced to accept top-slicing of the licence fee to help pay for former culture media and sport secretary Jeremy Hunt’s vanity project of local television.

In January, Ofcom is due to award the local TV licences for Edinburgh and Glasgow. How much better would it have been if the south of Scotland region had been included in the areas to be awarded such provision?

Meanwhile, the appointment of Tony Hall as the director-general of the BBC is more than putting a safe pair of hands in charge. Hall has the experience and track record across cultural, political and business issues to steady the ship and help the BBC prepare for the process of charter renewal.

I have argued for BBC Scotland to have control over it’s own finances, for Pacific Quay to have fiscal autonomy, spending the licence fee raised in Scotland as it sees fit and operating with an opt-in rather than opt-out approach to UK network schedules. Devo-max for BBC Scotland and – perhaps – a federal BBC might be one way of preparing for a revised charter.

In such a scenario, it might well be that the BBC Scotland jobs losses in news and current affairs would be reviewed and, with the increasing need for authoritative and nuanced reporting of the referendum debates, we could be looking at increased investment rather than cuts in provision and jobs.

Therefore the new director-general should have these matters near the top of his in-tray (already full though it undoubtedly is) and make a quick visit to Edinburgh, with BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten, to appear before the Scottish Parliament – in the interests of the BBC as well as both the Union and Scotland.

They could then demonstrate that the BBC is listening to, as well as broadcasting in, and, hopefully, for Scotland.

In developing regional news for Edinburgh, STV has shown that it listens to its audience. It is to be hoped that its bid for local television is successful – but even better would have been an all-Scotland television licence.

• Robert Beveridge is a visiting Professor at the University of Sassari, Sardinia. He is currently a tutor at the Scottish Media Academy and was previously a board member of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer organisation