Westminster snub for Scottish Government over future of the BBC


By a Newsnet.scot Reporter

The UK Government has breached an agreement to consult its Scottish counterpart on the future of the BBC, despite agreeing a memorandum of understanding on the subject just a month ago.

Scottish Ministers are furious that the Departure of Culture, Media and Support is publishing a Green Paper on the future of the BBC later this week, without any consultation.

In particular there has been no consultation on the appointment of a reform panel, whose details leaked last weekend. None of the panel members are Scottish.

Fiona Hyslop MSP: Furious at lack of consultation
Fiona Hyslop MSP: Furious at lack of consultation

Last week’s Treasury deal with the BBC, forcing the corporation to take on the cost of free licence fees for the over 75s, was done without the Scottish Government’s knowledge. The deal is reported to be costing the BBC around £600m a year, although that will be offset by new income as the iPlayer is drawn into the umbrella of the TV licence.

The Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament are supposed to be consulted on the BBC as part of the Smith Commission settlement which supposedly underpins the current Scotland Bill as it passes through the Commons, and later the House of Lords.

The BBC’s annual report today revealed that public confidence in News and Current Affairs programming, at 48 per cent, is lower in Scotland than in any other part of the UK, where confidence in England and Northern Ireland is 61 per cent and Wales 55 per cent.

Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop said:

“The UK Government and BBC are continuing to sell Scotland short on broadcasting.

“When the BBC has failed to meet the expectations of its audience, the answer is to seek positive reform which protects the corporation’s independence, not seek to slash and diminish it.

“We’re committed to protecting publicly funded public service broadcasting and we’re very concerned that the UK Government seems determined to undermine this.

“The Scottish and UK Governments agreed a Memorandum of Understanding last month guaranteeing the Scottish Government will be consulted in the whole process of charter renewal, so it is extremely disappointing that the UK Government has failed to seek the Scottish Government’s view on the appointments to the BBC reform panel, and also did not consult the Scottish Government on the licence fee settlement in the budget last week.

“As a result Scotland’s views appear to be, at best, underrepresented on the panel advising on BBC Charter renewal and funding. This comes as the BBC’s own annual report today shows that that not only is Scotland the only part of the UK where more than half of the people do not believe the broadcaster is properly reflecting life in their nation, but that Scotland’s share of network production has also fallen.”

Whittingdale: snubbed Scottish Government
Whittingdale: snubbed Scottish Government

Hyslop has written to UK Secretary of State John Whittingdale MP to protest at the lack of consultation.

She added: “While the Scottish Government has been consulted on the terms of reference for charter renewal but, like with the licence fee settlement and the advisory panel, the UK Government has not consulted us on the content of the green paper on the future of the BBC expected this week.

“The UK Government’s actions demonstrate that Scotland is not yet being fully consulted on matters relating to charter renewal, and represent a clear breach of the Smith Commission Agreement on the BBC.”

The reform panel named by Whittingdale include:

Dawn Airey, former CEO of Channel 5 and now a senior executive with Yahoo; Dame Colette Bowe, lifelong civil servant and former head of OFCOM, Shazam chairman Andrew Fisher, Arts Council England head Darren Henley, Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield, former Shine Group chief executive Alex Mahon, digital entrepreneur Lopa Patel and journalism professor Stewart Purvis, a former editor-in-chief of ITN.

The Government’s Green Paper – which sets out options for the renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter in 2016 – is expected on Thursday.

BBC polls lowest with audiences in Scotland

The BBC annual report contains mainly implicit acknowledgment that the corporation faced difficulties during its coverage of the Scottish referendum.

It said: “The BBC has a key role to play in ensuring it represents the nations in news, drama and entertainment, and our research shows that over half feel that the BBC represents their nation or region in its content, and supports minority languages.

“Nonetheless there is still some way to go, particularly in Scotland. People are accessing content using a variety of platforms where only around 50% of the audience feel that their nation is effectively represented.”

In the same document, the consultative body Audience Council Scotland praised some documentaries on the referendum, but added: “Members questioned whether, overall, the coverage had captured the popular nature of the campaign and the increased role of social media.

“The council also felt that BBC network programmes, overall, did not engage with the issues until too late a stage, and that some had been less well informed, and that this diluted the value of the coverage at both Scottish and UK levels.

“There was some audience perception that network correspondents were increasingly used in place of BBC Scotland correspondents in the final weeks of the campaign.

“Some council members believed BBC coverage had focused too much on the official campaigns, at the expense of the wider civic and community engagement; and that certain network programmes had appeared to adopt what was described as an ‘Anglified’ perspective.”

Without saying so, this will be taken as a reference to the BBC’s parachuting-in of London correspondents, including the now out-going political editor Nick Robinson, who became embroiled in a row as a result of his coverage of a news conference by then First Minister Alex Salmond.

Robinson is shortly to replace James Naughtie as a presented of Radio 4’s Today programme.