Blair Jenkins, the chair of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission achieved the impossible last week: he got all the parties in the Scottish parliament to agree on something. What was even more remarkable is that they agreed to support something which many have thought of as an impossible tartan dream: a dedicated Scottish television channel.
Yes, wall to wall William Wallace and the news brought to you by Alex Salmond – at least that’s how the idea has been pilloried by some members of the Scottish broadcasting community. Jane Graham a Glaswegian independent producer summed it up in a piece in the Guardian last week when she announced that the idea of a dedicated Scottish digital channel: “sends a shiver up my spine…the vision for this channel exposes all that is small-minded and parochial about the SNP mentality.” It was a classic expression of the Scottish cringe: that uniquely Scottish sense of revulsion at anything, well, uniquely Scottish
The cringe runs deep. During the drafting of the devolution bill, the late former Scottish Secretary, Donald Dewar, agreed that broadcasting should be reserved to Westminster largely because he feared a “kailyard” broadcasting corporation. Many Labour MPs in Westminster believe a Scottish channel to be an intrinsically nationalist concept, designed to rip Scotland out of the union by getting Scots to see the world through a tartan prism.
All the more surprising then that Labour in the Scottish Parliament has hailed the Scottish Broadcasting Commission’s report as “excellent” and seem to be backing the idea to the full. Even the Scotland Office has been broadly sympathetic. The Scottish Conservatives have been vying with the Scottish Liberal Democrats to say who thought of a ‘Channel Scotland’ first. Alex Salmond has almost been elbowed aside in the rush to support “SNPTV”.
So, how did this happen? Well, largely it was down to the political skills of Blair Jenkins, who carried out a highly effective lobbying operation among the Scottish political classes, all of whom were left feeling they had ownership of the report. By side-stepping the issue of a Scottish Six, and by not calling for immediate devolution of legislative responsibility for broadcasting, Jenkins asserted his independence from the Scottish Government, which had set up the Commission, and created political space for a unique political consensus on the future of broadcasting.
Labour are understandably jubilant that the report says that “We do not believe, at the present time, that broadcasting should be devolved” and evidently regard this as game set and match. Though the report goes on to recommend that “the Scottish Parliamnet takes an active role in considering the broadcasting industry”. Alex Salmond is astute enough to accept concessions to the greater goal, which a Scottish television channel undoubtedly represents. As a result of the report, all the parties are committed to it and when the matter is debated, will almost certainly vote for it. Blair Jenkins is confident that this consensus will make it virtually impossible for Ofcom and the government in Westminster to reject the proposal, despite the vagueness about funding. He envisages the £75 million or so coming from the revenues released by the switch off of the analogue service by 2012.
But is he getting carried away with the success of his own presentational coup? The political success is undeniable and the report – largely written by himself – has certainly made a major intellectual contribution to the debate about broadcasting in Scotland. However, he may still underestimate the forces of small ‘c’ conservatism in Westminster. It is no mere technicality that the Scottish parliament does not have legislative oversight of broadcasting. This was why Scottish broadcasting was allowed to wither on the vine in the early years of devolution because the Scottish parliament didn’t feel it has any responsibility for it.
Lack of legislative authority does not mean that Holyrood cannot try to make its voice heard, but there is no guarantee that Westminster will listen. The Welsh Channel S4C may well be a model for a regional not-for-profit service, but metropolitan critics may argue that Scotland is already getting a publicly-funded language channel – MG Alba -which launches later this week, and that there is no justification for putting resources into funding a another one. I have already heard it suggested that there could be some token English-language programmes on the Gaelic service.
The unionist parties are able to support the Commission report because many think it will never happen, or that if it does, it will be a parochial switch off. Of course, it needn’t be – lots of small countries have their own television channels like Sweden and Holland. Ireland had six at the last count, so population size is not barrier to quality broadcasting. But whether we will see a Scottish television channel short of an independent Scotland remains to be seen. In the meantime, the risk is that the focus on the ultimate dream of broadcasting autonomy diverts attention from the matter in hand: how to improve the quality of existing BBC Scotland output, which is chronically under-resourced and relegated to the dismal nether world of the opt-out. With STV likely to retreat from public service broadcasting altogether, this is a pressing problem. We can all agree on the desirability of a Scottish channel, but we also need to get existing broadcasting into shape before Scotland can go live.