Scottish TV channel a non-starter if BBC expected to stump up

The first minister of Scotland addressing the Edinburgh TV festival . Danny Lawson/PA

Whenever Scottish broadcasting is discussed, several issues often collide, and they’ve been colliding again in the responses to Nicola Sturgeon’s Alternative MacTaggart lecture to the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

The first minister’s call for a dedicated Scottish television channel is not new; it was first floated by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission in 2008 and received a broad welcome at the Scottish parliament. Inevitably some commentators always interpret this proposal as an SNP wheeze, but a wide constituency inside and outside the Scottish parliament has acknowledged that a new digital channel would fill a large gap in Scottish broadcasting provision.

There is no TV channel in Scotland which has autonomy over editing and commissioning (with the exception of Gaelic channel BBC Alba). Scotland has opt-out TV only, ducking out of network schedules on occasion, generally not at moments of peak viewing. This makes Scotland an exception in Europe, where regions with a strong identity of their own usually have at least one indigenous TV channel.

Therefore it’s not especially controversial to suggest that the lack of such a channel should be addressed, particularly at a time of political assertiveness in Scottish society. It’s not just the democratic needs of Scottish civil society at stake either: this absence makes it all the more difficult for an independent production sector to flourish, with negative effects on investment and infrastructure in the economy.

Sturgeon, who also called for a second English-language radio station, has nevertheless been accused of wanting to control broadcasting – or of waging a vendetta against the BBC. Yet the idea that the BBC should be in some way accountable to Holyrood as well as to Westminster is, after all, only consistent with the democratic functioning of the Scottish nation. The BBC’s Scottish provision could be scrutinised by a Holyrood committee, for instance. To equate this with SNP diktat, in a parliament with the protection of proportional representation, is facile.

It’s a real pity if a serious debate about the media needs of Scottish civil society gets dragged (further) into the tribal dimensions of party politics, let alone the unhelpful spat between Alex Salmond and Nick Robinson over coverage of the referendum. At a time when the Scottish press, Sunday Herald excepted, continues to face bad news on the circulation front, and London-produced newspapers maintain their large presence in the Scottish market, achieving better Scottish TV provision is yet more important.

Money too tight to mention

The next problem, though, has to do with resource, with no obvious case for suggesting that any of the funding for Sturgeon’s proposals could come from commercial opt-out channel STV. This comes amid growing difficulty for the BBC, currently from the Green Paper on its future at UK level. It’s one thing to argue the need for a new Scottish channel, something else to ask the BBC maybe to help pay for it, and a quite different matter again to ask it to run it.

That’s three different things. And if you were looking at the least feasible option, it’s the third one. By the time such a channel might emerge, we can’t be sure even how the BBC will be funded UK-wide. MSPs don’t seem disposed to discussing funding from other sources. (And do we want the BBC to run it? Will that prove a distinctive Scottish alternative?) So Sturgeon’s suggestion could be the equivalent of leaving discussion about a new Scottish channel in its natural habitat thus far – the long grass.

A pity, too, that three other themes in the first minister’s lecture have received less attention, including her remarks on the sexist treatment of female politicians and sportswomen on TV. A perspective from someone with Nicola Sturgeon’s experience is an antidote to recent meditations on women and TV from a US presidential candidate by the name of Trump.

Her thoughts on the importance of maintaining the strengths of traditional news media are also welcome. As she recognises, social media can transform the fact-checking process by making it possible for untrue statements to be instantly rebutted, though this cuts both ways: facts can be obscured as easily as they can be clarified. But to affirm the need for properly resourced journalism in traditional broadcasting and print is very important, not least in the present fragile situation for the Scottish media.

Closely related is the subject of political impartiality in the media. Nicola Sturgeon’s rejection of the idea of “institutional bias” in the BBC against the Yes camp during the referendum is helpful, in the sense that if there exist deficiencies in media representation, it’s better to complain about actual rather than imagined problems.

But despite interesting questions to ponder in these other themes from the Alternative MacTaggart, it’s the proposals about the BBC which will occupy centre stage. With the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections on the horizon, and the UK debate over the Green Paper well under way, they’re likely to stay there for a while.