Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 191)



  180. The BBC said in its evidence that there was no technical reason why we could not have a programme like that. Obviously, there may be other reasons why we are not getting them. How do you see ITV reacting to that? One of the concerns many of us have about the forthcoming Broadcasting Bill is that there may be an extension of the likes of Granada, to take over one ITV network along the lines of ITV 2. But ITV also indicated that to change this present structure, we would need a change in primary legislation. Have you any comments on that?
  (Mr Hutchison) This is because of the Broadcasting Act's requirement to offer a national news service. There are two points that are quite interesting. Ten years ago, I can remember on the BBC's General Advisory Council that there was some discussion about ITV moving in this direction. When I read the evidence of the people from the BBC, I must admit that I smiled when I saw one of the BBC people saying, "it is now almost technically possible to do this." They have been saying this for a very long time. I believe that it has been technically possible for some considerable time.

  181. I think they accepted that.
  (Mr Hutchison) Yes, they did. They could have done it several years ago. I would have thought that it would be desirable for the major ITV companies - the two major ITV companies—to think hard about how they package news in different parts of Britain. There was a very interesting remark made by the last American ambassador, Mr Clinton's ambassador, when leaving Britain; he talked about us moving to asymmetrical federalism. I think there is some truth in that. I do not think the process is over. This is more of a constitutional matter, but broadcasting has got to find a way of adapting to asymmetrical federalism rather better than it has managed.
  (Mr Smith) One of my interests in pursuing the BBC on this is because I think it would provoke a response from the other broadcaster, and I also think it would provoke a response from the newspapers in Scotland in their own way, by changing the media quality, as it were. It has always been recognised that the Act would have to be changed, but it has never been regarded as any sort of problem; it is just a fact of life. It could be done; the technical means is available to ITN, as it is to the BBC. It is a question of will and competition.
  (Professor Schlesinger) I agree that if things change in the BBC, the change would also be forced upon ITV. I think this means that the regional provisions that are policed by OFCOM, following on from the ITC, become absolutely crucial. Guarantees, or at least indications, have been given that these are not going to be weakened. It is essential that they are not because the way in which broadcasting speaks to various parts of the UK community, in the nations and regions, is of growing importance rather than of diminishing importance. Running across that is the increasing tendency towards concentrations of ownership in ITV, and it is going to take some serious determination to ensure that that carries through.

Mr Joyce

  182. The evidence we had from Scottish Media Group on the very subject of ITN and an opt-out or something being produced specifically for Scotland by ITN, was that it could completely be ruled out on commercial grounds. They said it could not possibly be made to pay. Do you want to see a constraint placed on Scottish Media Group so that they would have to accept something that was essentially uncommercial?
  (Mr Smith) As a businessman, I am quite happy to leave it to the market because I know that they will have to judge a response and will draw an audience. Their problem at the moment is that they are losing audience share. I do not feel any sort of compulsion on that score, and I would leave it to the market in this case.
  (Mr Hutchison) I think it is very difficult to leave it to the market because the right to broadcast is not given to everybody. There is a limited amount of space in the airwaves even in the digital world. If you do have this right, which STV did not pay an awful lot for the last time it actually put in a sealed bid—£2,000 a year—they were fortunate on that occasion, but matters are changing of course—I would have thought that the idea that a public service broadcaster—and ITV companies are very fond of describing themselves as public service broadcasters—should be able to argue that the nature of provision of news and current affairs should be entirely dependent on the market, rather than perhaps part of the overall package, which obviously has to be market successful. I think that is rather a strange position.
  (Professor Schlesinger) I would like to add to that. If it is left purely to the market, to what extent would commercial broadcasting be regulated in the public interest? It seems to me that that would be an abandonment of any principle there.

Mr Sarwar

  183. Mr Smith, you have said that perhaps the most revealing action comes from English people newly posted to Scotland. Within a few months, they will robustly criticise the coverage of Scotland by BBC London News. What research on the attitudes towards brand new broadcasting in Scotland by people recently moved to Scotland has been undertaken? My second question is this. You said that all the evidence suggests the audience would respond to it. To which survey do you comment on audience reaction?
  (Mr Smith) The BBC does its own corporate surveys, which repeatedly show that as you move away from London the BBC is less popular with its audience—so this is not just a Scottish thing; it is a north of England thing, and so on. If you compare that with ITN, you do not see that. In other words, the local audiences are pretty committed and on an equal regional basis. Another survey by the Scottish Consumer Council, along with the National Consumer Council, found exactly the same evidence. Both of these are about three years out of date, I would say, but both picked up this reaction from the audience. To be honest, the BBC itself has never denied it and went into the last Charter review describing itself as "the London Broadcasting Corporation". I do not think we would regard this as a matter of dispute. The evidence shows that the audience discerned it.

  184. You said that the objections that Scotland does not have the skill or enough news to make an hour-long programme can be met. Is there any suggestion that Scotland suffers from a shortage of news or broadcasting skills?
  (Mr Smith) No, there is not. We have a healthy export business in journalists and television journalists, as you know. The point I am trying to make here is that once the BBC decides that it wants to do an integrated news edited in Scotland, then the BBC, to protect its brand name, will prepare, train and provide the resource in Scotland, to make sure that is done in a way that is consistent with its brand image. I have absolutely no doubt that we have the journalists in Scotland to do that. The only problem they have, as Mr Hutchison says, is that they have been operating in many cases with their hands tied behind their backs, and with a deliberately restricted agenda. This could obviously change.


  185. Would you expand a little on Mr Mohammed Sarwar's first point? Your memorandum states that the most revealing reaction comes from English people newly posted to Scotland.
  (Mr Smith) This is just one of these little anecdotes that one likes to put in, but during the devolution campaign I met so many people around Scotland—and surprisingly there were a lot of English people involved in the campaign in one way or another. Obviously, we met all sorts of people. That was their reaction, and one cannot say more than that; that they noticed the difference from living in Hertfordshire to coming to Scotland. I suspect they would have noticed a difference if they had gone to live in Hexham because a lot of the surveys show the same problems in the north of England.

Ann McKechin

  186. Gentlemen, you have all alluded to the size of the press and media lobby at Holyrood. Is there any sense that the working arrangements at the Scottish Parliament and the number of journalists presently located there have created an over-large media microscope which, in pursuit of a story, might tend to magnify devolved issues at the expense of the wider picture, particularly European and international issues which are part of Scottish affairs?
  (Professor Schlesinger) I am not quite sure how to answer that question because I think that the Scottish media core that has grown up around Holyrood has been there principally to report on Holyrood, and that is its aim; it is not orientated towards the Westminster or European Parliaments. If it gives honest exclusive attention to Holyrood, that is not surprising—it is a relatively large group of people. The last time I looked into this, there were about 200 accreditations, a lot of which were technical staff, but nonetheless there seemed to be around 40 to 50 regular political correspondents, which is a large number, for example, compared to Westminster. The accreditation of active correspondents is something like 80 to 100 at Westminster. It is a very competitive environment, and there is no doubt that stories do get played up and sought after quite fiercely, and that has its effects in the press and in broadcasting.
  (Mr Hutchison) It is certainly the case that there is a debate going on in some parts of the Scottish media about the relative importance of Westminster and Holyrood. There is a view in some quarters that too much attention has been given to Holyrood, and these numbers may suggest that that is the case, because people have to file copy and it is quite difficult to see sometimes where the copy is going to come from. I would be surprised if over the years there was not some kind of adjustment. You could argue that one of the attractions of covering Holyrood is its relative ease for the Scottish journalists; you can go home at night on the train, if it is functioning. The criticism that one has always made over the years of Scottish newspapers, particularly the broadsheets, is the lack of coverage beyond Scotland. This pre-dates devolution when we have been looking at Scottish broadsheets and asking how many foreign correspondents they had. I think that the lack of coverage of affairs beyond Britain remains the weakest area in Scottish journalism, particularly during the week, but not so much on Sunday. We are often told that there is a Scottish perspective of the world. Canadians use the same argument, that their perspective of the world is different from the American perspective. Like Scottish newspapers, Canadian newspapers do not spend much money sending people abroad. Perhaps some of those that are devoted to Holyrood could be re-directed.

Mr Joyce

  187. Can you give an example of that? How would a story be covered, for example the recent African volcano?
  (Mr Hutchison) I was not actually saying I believe this. I was saying that they often argue that there is a Scottish perspective in the world. It seems to me that if you are going to argue that, you have to back it up by spending money on journalism. I think you can argue, for example, that stories connected with the fishing resource issue resonate more strongly in Scotland than they do in certain parts of England. I am not convinced about this distinctive Scottishness, to be absolutely honest with you. I would argue that since most people in Scotland buy newspapers that are produced in Scotland, although the figure has been going down in recent years compared to ten or fifteen years ago, something like 60-63 per cent of the papers bought this morning were Scottish-produced, whereas it was 70 per cent ten or fifteen years ago. Since most people in Scotland get their news from Scottish-based newspapers and that the foreign coverage tends to be the weakest aspect of that coverage—although it has been better over the last few years—my argument would be that we should spend a bit more money on that.

Mr Weir

  188. Is there any evidence that particular types of European stories would have a different aspect in Scotland, perhaps the obsession with the euro that we see in other parts of the UK? Fishing is a perfect example and farming is another example of where the impact of Europe is seen differently in Scotland than perhaps the south of England.
  (Professor Schlesinger) I do not know of any evidence that there is a major difference in perspective in the media on European matters. The only area that I could discern would be at times of greater interest in what is going on in other small countries, perhaps in regional affairs, which does find its way in from time to time. I do not discern any fundamental difference which would lead you to suppose that there is a divergent foreign policy perspective emerging in Scotland.

  189. That is not the point I was making. Interest in European affairs by the Scottish public may be different because of the structure of the Scottish economy and society.
  (Mr Hutchison) I think there is some evidence of that. There are opinion polls telling us, for example, that the Scots are not as hostile to the euro as people elsewhere in Britain. Historically, one can think of major crises where the Scottish attitude was slightly different for example during the Falklands war there was a lot of polling evidence that suggested there was more enthusiasm south of the border, whereas in Scotland people felt we just had to get on with it. There are these differences. As to whether one could construct some kind of Scottish perspective in Europe, I think that would be a difficult thing to measure. Again, we would be into finding the evidential base. My hunch would be that Scotland is much more relaxed about Europe because it does not look at Europe in quite the same way as England does. For all that we were up to our ears in the British Empire, I do not think the residue of Empire has quite the same place in the Scottish psyche as it has south of the border, and I think that does affect the way we look at Europe, and indeed the wider world.

Mr Duncan

  190. We have looked at the challenges and the problems of broadcasting post devolution. Can you project forward into the effect of the digital age on broadcasting? What additional problems do you see it creating, or what solutions do you think it might present in the manner in which news and current affairs are presented in Scotland?
  (Professor Schlesinger) We are urged to think that the digital age is on us, but the evidence is not absolutely conclusive on that. I think we are being ushered towards it, perhaps somewhat reluctantly. One obvious possible consequence of the further fragmentation of the broadcasting market and small audiences for more channels—we do not know if that is really going to happen but it is a possibility—is that the economic basis for producing high quality journalism across a wider range of channels would be weaker. That is one thing that one would have to consider. One way round that, I guess, would be to syndicate material across channels, just as radio, for example, buys in IRN's material. You could get that kind of arrangement reproduced across more channels. It is clearly not going to be the case that more channels produce more and better journalism. We do not really know how audiences will react to increased choice, or increased availability. It is a reasonable assumption that you might get some erosion of the present overwhelming tendency to watch the main channels, but it may not be absolutely undermined. The answer is it would be a guess, but you would need to think quite carefully, if you want to talk to a national audience, how provision could be made available right across a range of channels. That implies some kind of regulatory regime if news and current affairs are to be thought of as a crucial part of broadcast provision.
  (Mr Hutchison) I agree with what Professor Schlesinger said about the dangers of fragmentation. The danger is not just to news and current affairs; what the people watch most, if you look at the ratings, is drama and the soaps - Touch of Frost, Heartbeat. That is what people want to watch. Half a million pounds an hour, on average, is what it costs, and you cannot provide that in digital channels watched by a handful of people. I do think that the British Government runs a risk of being pushed into a switch-off in a digital world which actually produces rather less good broadcasting than we now have. Another danger is about social cohesion. We live in an age where the agencies of social cohesion, whether political parties, churches or trades unions, are not as powerful as they once were. Broadcasting is an agency of social cohesion, and if you undermine the major public service channels, then we run quite serious risks, which we ought to think long and hard about. I am not persuaded that we are going to have 95 per cent of the population digitalised by 2010, unless the Government will provide, free of charge, digital conversions not only for one television set but perhaps for two or three. The economics of that are, to say the least, doubtful.
  (Mr Smith) This is one area where the BBC has chosen to move ahead of public opinion. It has been top-slicing their budget for the last five years, and now 10 per cent of broadcasts monies are going into digital. The share of audience is under 1 per cent, and Gerald Kaufman has described this as an absolute gross waste of the licence fee. Whether that is fair or not, it does show that the BBC has taken a position on digital which has yet to be borne out by a response from the audience. It has provided technical advantages, and one of them will help integrated news. By handling virtually everything digitally, it has made it easier to produce integrated news, so in that sense I welcome it.


  191. Gentlemen, we have not so much run out of questions but of time. If there is nothing else you wish to say, I thank you sincerely for coming along this morning and giving your evidence to the Committee. I can assure you that it will be very helpful to us in making our report.

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