Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

When reading with enormous interest the report of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, in which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, played a prominent role, I was struck by what he referred to as an interesting proposal for a new digital Scottish network. I can see the attractions of that, but I hope that I shall not sound too cynical if I also pick up the point about funding and say that I can see all too easily that this will be a pretty acrimonious business and probably rather long drawn out. One therefore asks oneself the question: if that new proposal does not get off the ground in the near future, what could be done with the present system that could make it work better? There is surely a great deal that could be done. I notice that the report refers to Radio Scotland. Here, Scotland has its own Scotland-based, directed-at-Scotland radio programme, which does a very good job. The commission noticed that there had been a good deal of criticism about it, but it is surely up to the BBC to deal with those points of criticism, to deal with the questions of funding and content of those programmes and to make Radio Scotland a better service.

The commission also made the point, which the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, referred to, that the BBC has committed itself to significantly

25 Feb 2009 : Column 275

higher spend on creating programme material in Scotland. Indeed, if the BBC stuck to its original proposal of doing so by 2012 instead of 2016, and if it used the newly devised methodology on funding, the benefit to Scotland of the increased spend would be considerable, with all its knock-on effects. Similarly, if, as the report points out, Channel 4 was less metrocentric and put more effort into programme making in Scotland, that, too, would have a beneficial effect. I would be very interested in the views of the Minister on those points and whether he would support them.

My final point is simply that I have been struck recently by the increasing divergence in the way in which news and newspapers treat Scotland and the rest of the UK. I can sit down having breakfast in Edinburgh and read, for example, the Scottish edition of the Times and think that a great deal of material in Scotland is covered. However, when I come down to your Lordships’ House and look in the Library, I find that there is hardly anything about Scotland. This divergence is dangerous. I hope that, in any public broadcasting arrangements that are made, a national broadcaster will cover Scotland not just as an add-on and that a Scottish system would not be too Scotocentric.

7.56 pm

Lord Gordon of Strathblane: My Lords, I join the general welcome for this debate and the congratulations offered to the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, on it. It is not only timely but critical given the situation in Scotland. I shall start, however, by raising an aspect of public service broadcasting that is frequently ignored: universality of provision. We all recall how engineers from both the BBC and ITV painstakingly expanded at huge and, I would freely concede, in some cases unreasonable cost, and over a long period, the terrestrial transmitter network to ensure that 99.7 per cent of the British population could receive television programmes, a figure that is not likely to be equalled by either satellite or digital terrestrial broadcasting. It was therefore with great pleasure that I read the recent report, Digital Britain, and the Minister’s commitment to introduce a universal service obligation for broadband at a minimum of 2 megabits a second throughout Britain by 2012. That is hugely good news, because, in addition to the vital role that broadband could serve in rural areas such as telemedicine, it could also be a major provider of broadcast programme content. More important perhaps, it could provide content aimed directly at local communities, which could be done only at huge, wasteful cost on satellite.

The scarcity of time this evening reminds us that money also is scarce. It is quite easy to reach the conclusion that Scotland could do with a new digital network; it will be lot more difficult to find the £70 million to pay for it. The first heretical question to be asked is whether Scotland would give up the funding of Gaelic broadcasting to provide some of the money for it. I suspect that that would split it right down the middle.

Let us start, however, with the BBC as the cornerstone of public service broadcasting. I do not want to be dismissive, but, by and large, it is all right; it has a licence fee settlement that was pretty generous and which makes it immune to advertising recessions or

25 Feb 2009 : Column 276

potential migration to the internet. The problem is much greater, as the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, outlined, for commercial television, because STV has the normal problems of ITV exacerbated by higher public service obligations due to the separate nature of life in Scotland and compounded by a potential dispute with ITV over the rate at which it pays for network programmes. I have seen figures from both sides and they disagree. I can say only that I suspect that there is a subsidy, largely because there ought to have been a subsidy, but I echo the plea of the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, that we get somebody from Ofcom to act as honest broker and try to deliver the goods.

I disagree with the noble Lord slightly on the digital service for Scotland. Let us not make matters worse by creating a competitor for STV. It certainly could not take money from advertising, because there is not enough advertising revenue to go around. The service therefore has at minimum to be publicly funded and, preferably, to be latched on to STV so that it can become part of this network and provide a spine of programming for STV if the dispute with ITV went sour.

My own background of commercial radio is due a word. The situation there is quite simple: there are far too many radio stations. Recognising that you cannot turn the clock back and that we will still have a lot of radio stations, I believe that the answer is to drastically alter the ownership rules. To put it very simply, if you have eight separate owners owning eight separate services in the one area, it is unlikely that any of them will be able to afford the good local news service and they will all end up producing programmes that compete with one another and are broadly the same. If you put one owner in charge of eight services, you will certainly get a good local news service and, not only that, you will get separate and different programming because it is in the owner’s own interest. When you get self-interest and public interest coinciding, that is the best way forward.

8 pm

Lord Steel of Aikwood: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, for initiating this debate, as it gives me the chance to speak on just one topic to which he made a passing reference: the future of news broadcasting coverage in the Scottish Borders. As my noble friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness pointed out, this week sees an end to the local programme that we have enjoyed from Carlisle studios and Border Television for very many years. During the time that I served as a non-executive director of Border Television, we were very pleased at the fact that that evening programme from Carlisle had the highest viewing figures of any local news programme on any channel in the United Kingdom. It was quite a remarkable achievement.

One reason for that success was that the news was local, which was very welcome. During the time when our noble friend Lord Bragg was our chairman, we managed to improve that by having split news coverage for the Scottish transmitter and the English transmitter. That helped greatly to encourage the localness of news coverage. Granada Television, when it took over Border

25 Feb 2009 : Column 277

Television, continued the programme but, now that it is part of the ITV conglomerate, from this week the local news about the Scottish Borders will come from Gateshead and will attempt to cover an area from Scarborough to Stranraer. The mind boggles. I do not think that it will work.

I wish those involved well. They say that they are going to have opt-outs, that they will have people sitting on a sofa in Gateshead talking about issues in the Scottish Borders and that they will have a cameraman here and there to send pictures down to Gateshead. It may work but, as we say north of the border, Ah hae ma doots. If it does not work, there is an obligation on Ofcom in relation to the continuing discussions between STV and ITV. I have attended meetings in this House with Rob Woodward, the chief executive of STV, and Michael Grade, the guru of ITV. They both agree that something should be done, but they cannot agree on the financial set-up. Ofcom will have to sort this out, as we do not want to lose in one part of Scotland the quality of local broadcasting that we enjoyed over many years. There is a real danger of that happening.

Moreover, if the commission of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Fraser, is to come to fruition, as I hope it does, it does not make sense to start off looking at an alternative channel to the BBC in Scotland, with one chunk of Scotland missing and being covered from Gateshead. This issue has to be sorted out. I am well aware that it has financial implications and that STV and ITV have failed and will continue to fail to resolve this issue between them. Therefore, I look to the Minister to give some indication that this matter is being taken seriously. Okay, it is a small matter dealing with just one part of Scotland that I used to have the privilege of representing in the Commons, but it is a matter of great importance to us. I hope very much that the Minister will give some assurance that Ofcom will pay attention to what happens to news coverage in that part of Scotland.

8.03 pm

Lord Hope of Craighead: My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, for initiating this short debate. I have to confess, however, that my reasons for saying this are not entirely altruistic. I am motivated in part at least by self-interest. As your Lordships will be aware, the time is fast approaching when, as a serving judge, I will be disqualified from sitting and speaking in the House. For various reasons, even now, it is hardly ever possible for me to take part in public business, but this evening's debate, because of its timing and its subject matter, provides one of those rare opportunities when these constraints that apply to me do not apply. So I thought that I ought to take advantage of it, and say just a few words on this occasion, before it is too late.

My own particular interest in the future of public service broadcasting in Scotland is based on my experience of working with the broadcasters during my seven years as Lord President of the Court of Session in Scotland. I saw it as part of my function to try to demystify the judicial process and to provide the Scottish public with a greater insight into the workings of the courts in their own country. Television was the obvious

25 Feb 2009 : Column 278

medium for achieving this. In contrast to the position in England, where photography of any kind in a courtroom was, and still is, prohibited by statute, there is no such prohibition in Scotland. We are all familiar with courtroom dramas based on practice in the English and American courts but, apart from one brief appearance by a sheriff during an episode of “Dr Finlay's Casebook”, Scottish court scenes were never shown. I was able to take advantage of the absence of regulation by statute by permitting the televising of proceedings in Scottish courts so that the Scottish public could have a better idea of what goes on there.

The first documentary programme of a criminal trial ever to appear on television in the UK was broadcast by Scottish Television. It was of a trial which took place in the Sheriff Court in Glasgow of a man who was accused, and later convicted, of stealing a bus. This was not the most serious of crimes that had ever been committed in Glasgow, although it turned out, when his previous convictions were revealed, that the accused was a serial bus thief. But it was a very well made and very entertaining one-hour programme. Later, five documentaries of cases in the High Court and the Sheriff Court in Edinburgh were made and broadcast by the BBC.

This initiative would not, of course, have been possible without the co-operation of the broadcasters. Two things in particular were of the highest importance in making the thing work. The first was the mutual trust with I was able to develop with them, based on close personal contact, because they were in Scotland, close to where I was. The other was the ability which they had to find time in their programming schedules for this kind of activity. Showing Scottish judges in their own courts, wearing the distinctive robes that Scottish judges wear, makes an important contribution to public awareness of our own distinctive legal system. I wish that more was being done to make use of the opportunities that exist for making documentaries.

My successors have, I think, shown rather less enthusiasm for engaging with the media than I did. Devolution, too, has changed the focus of attention from what it was in my day. But the facility has not gone away, and I would welcome and encourage more use of it. I hope, too, that Scottish producers will make use of the television facilities that are being installed in the new Supreme Court. The prohibition of photography in the courts of England and Wales does not apply to that court. The delivery of judgments there will be available for public broadcasting, as will the hearings that will be taking place there. It is important that use is made of this facility for broadcasting north of the border. This is a court which will serve all parts of the United Kingdom. We believe that the public in all parts of it should be aware of its existence and of what it does. I hope that the Minister will feel able to encourage this.

Each Thursday evening I go home to Scotland, as most of us here do, and to the pleasures of our own musical and cultural tradition. We have our three languages—English, Scots and Gaelic—and we have our music too, such as no other part of the UK has, from fiddle music to piping, from dance bands to pipe bands, from classical to traditional. These are the

25 Feb 2009 : Column 279

sounds of Scotland, which hold our community together—and there is the landscape and the cityscape. This is a rich cultural tradition for broadcasters to draw upon. The universities—and I declare an interest as the Chancellor of the University of Strathclyde—play their part in keeping this tradition alive.

Public service broadcasting in Scotland has a part to play in this, through the investment that it brings and the opportunities that it provides to those who have developed their skills as actors, artists, musicians, producers or technicians in Scottish universities to put them into practice in such a stimulating environment. I warmly support the noble Lord's desire to see more Scottish-made programming appear on television screens throughout the United Kingdom.

8.09 pm

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, it is now clear that the whole House not only welcomes what the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, has done in obtaining this timely debate but also strongly supports on all sides most of the points that he has made, which are matters of very great urgency and require a government response. I hope that we will hear from the noble Lord, Lord Carter, tonight some answers to some of the points.

The current economic situation is putting immense pressure on the commercial sector, as, indeed, is the switchover to digital broadcasting, and the structure of broadcasting is appropriately considered at this time. In addition, we have had three very notable, thoughtful reports: that of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission; Ofcom’s second public sector broadcasting review, Putting Viewers First; and the report of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, Digital Britain. We cannot possibly cover all these subjects tonight but I hope that the noble Lord will address the most urgent issues.

The independent sector, which is very strongly valued in Scotland, as the Ofcom research showed, provides necessary competition to the BBC. There are differences of interest between ITV plc holding 11 licences and STV holding only two, but they both recognise that change is now required since the cost of ITV plc licences as a whole will exceed the value of these licences by 2011, even with the recent Ofcom regulatory relaxations. Both recognise the need for an alternative method of finance for public sector broadcasting news and non-news programmes in the devolved regions of Britain. But whereas ITV plc advocates that the networking arrangements with the devolved country licence holders should move on to a commercial basis, STV, because it cannot influence ITV network scheduling and commissioning, seeks assurance from the Government and Parliament that they will maintain,

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, will feel able to give that assurance tonight.

It is most welcome that Ofcom’s January report has recognised that the needs of the nations of Britain are different and, as my noble friend Lord Wallace said, that no single situation can fit all. For STV in particular it is important that it should be recognised that its news broadcasting is not merely theoretical competition

25 Feb 2009 : Column 280

for the BBC. In the past five years its viewing share has increased by 13 per cent. It is now watched by 2.1 million people per week. Of not least importance in the Ofcom review—it is a treasury of objective information—is the acknowledgement that Scottish viewers value plurality, choice, domestic production and quality of output. Ultimately, we need a structure that enables co-operation with the creative industries and the exploitation of new technologies but does not result in monopolistic provision either at the United Kingdom level or at national or regional level. Therefore, it would be helpful if the noble Lord, Lord Carter, could indicate his thinking on the model proposed by Ofcom of a Scottish digital network sustained by a competitive fund to support a series of interconnected Scotland-wide TV, local television, online and radio content. In particular the financial aspects of the provision of regional news must be addressed since, as STV has pointed out, the cost of providing 600 hours of high-quality news across Scotland is approximately £7 million, and will very soon outweigh the benefit of holding a PSB licence.

8.13 pm

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, we on these Benches thank the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, for securing this debate on this vital topic and for the very knowledgeable and good collection of speakers that it has attracted. I am grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser of Carmyllie for giving us such an informative picture as regards the outcome of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission. We are all most grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for giving us the benefit of his wisdom, which, as he says, will not be available for very much longer.

I am a keen consumer of radio output in Scotland. In so far as I might have an interest to declare, I have been a latent supporter of BBC Scotland’s effort to establish BBC Alba, stemming from my life membership of Am Comunn Gaidleach.

Many here will probably be aware that during Channel 4’s political awards programme last week, Jon Snow said, “We will now take a break, provided we can find six advertisers”. This highlights the challenge faced by commercial broadcasters in the UK. The financial crisis calls into question whether this sector can survive effectively, let alone make a public service broadcasting contribution that matches the BBC’s, in Scotland or anywhere else.

Another challenge that has run through this discussion is the need to develop genuine local TV news. We believe that much of the national and regional coverage provided by ITV is not totally what audiences want. People do not identify with regions that are based simply on where the old analogue transmitters are, let alone the new ones to which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, referred. The basic message should be that in the long term to satisfy audience demands for local news we need to encourage Ofcom to do all it can to help foster a market with local channels. I understand that this means relaxing cross-media ownership rules so that newspaper groups can invest in community TV channels, and making sure that the interleaved spectrum that they are auctioning goes to companies which will use it for local TV. Will the Government give Ofcom

25 Feb 2009 : Column 281

any encouragement in this regard? The commission in any case calls for a review of existing structures. This is all the more urgent because of the sharp decline in the UK economy since it published its findings in September last year.

DCMS and BERR state in their interim report, Digital Britain:

“In the final report we will examine measures needed to address the challenges for digital content in more detail, including opportunities ... to foster UK creative ambitions and alternative funding mechanisms to advertising revenues”.

Can the Minister enlarge on this theme tonight? One has to sympathise with the STV position as depicted in the Ofcom recommendations in Putting Viewers First. It states:

“Instead of four channels, there are over 400, and viewers are increasingly using the internet to watch TV-like content. STV’s advertising revenue has fallen as it has lost audience share, and one area where it can make significant savings is in news. Even with other reductions”—

as the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, reminded us—

I hear that Ofcom has now given permission for STV to reduce its news output, as that is its most expensive item. In the digital satellite age, news has become more a matter of idiosyncratic choice across the world. For instance, the BBC and other British broadcasters have been banned from Zimbabwe for some years but have resorted to a cunning invention to circumvent this. Al Jazeera English TV has been allowed to have a resident reporter in Zimbabwe, providing at times exclusive pictures for British viewers concerning the suffering in that country.

The issue concerns whether the right regulation framework can be put in place to allow the ingenuity of the Scots to come up with a new forum of Scottish news and creative output that will be authoritative, genial and affordable.

8.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting (Lord Carter of Barnes): My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, for initiating this timely debate and for bringing these critical questions for the Scottish nation to a debate in Westminster, not least given the quality of the discussion and analysis of these issues that we have seen in Scotland and the Scottish Parliament.

Speaking personally and as the relevant Minister, an opportunity to discuss how the issues which we are looking at across the United Kingdom relate to Scotland is very welcome. As has been said, the Government’s Digital Britain interim report, which covers the strategic issues facing the converging communications industries and the increasing importance of this sector, tries to address some of the specific questions that have been raised this evening. Indeed, that report was published hot on the heels of Ofcom’s own exhaustive second public service broadcasting review.

I welcome the entirely appropriate underscoring of the importance of universality on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Gordon of Strathblane. He said that

25 Feb 2009 : Column 282

often universality is achieved at uneconomic cost but that the commercial, cultural, social and political contribution of that universal provision of broadcasting is profound. I think that we all agree with that. It seems to me, therefore, a statement of the obvious that there is an equal level of importance in the universality of provision of broadband connectivity.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page