BBC leaders grilled by MSPs on funding and commissioning promises

Ross Greer reveals BBC Scotland commissioner post mainly based in London

THE BBC’S NEW PLEDGE to improve its services in Scotland and reverse recent funding cuts was interrogated today (Thursday 23 February) by the cross-party culture committee of MSPs at the Scottish Parliament. 

BBC Director General Tony Hall announced the establishment of a new BBC Scotland channel - for five hours a day - from Autumn 2018, alongside a new funding package for commissioning in Scotland. 

The public broadcaster has faced a decade of criticism for a lack of investment in Scotland, a lack of local control, and concerning its more recent coverage of the Scottish independence referendum. 

A series of cross party proposals in the 2007 Scottish Broadcasting Commission were not implemented - but the announcement of a new standalone channel has reignited hopes that BBC Scotland will be given a better deal as part of the current charter renewal process.

“£30m [amount available for the channel] doesn’t go that far”. Joan McAlpine MSP

Hall said that the deal was “£40m that will transform our offer” to viewers through providing “choice and quality”. Hall added that he was “not saying we’ve reached some sort of destination” but that the three year plan created “foundations” for a better future. 

In 2015/16 the BBC spend £176.5m on content in Scotland, down from £203m in the previous year. The BBC has now announced a £40m increase to reverse those cuts. The total BBC license fee revenue in Scotland is over £320m. 

MSPs questioned whether the funding would be adequate for the channel to succeed, given its offer will be set up in competition with current BBC and private output. 

Committee convener Joan McAlpine raised the concern that “£30m [amount available for the channel] doesn’t go that far”, and that double that amount it spent on a single UK-wide show Match of the Day. Emma Harper MSP also said she was “concerned that £30m won’t stretch very far.”

However, the broad tone of the committee welcomed the intentions of the new BBC funding plan for Scotland. Cabinet Secretary Fiona Hyslop gave the plan a cautious welcome - adding that the plans “must be properly resourced”.

Read more – Richard Walker: BBC Scotland channel a “good move” but containing “dangers” for Scottish media

The new channel proposal also signalled the rejection of recent calls for a BBC1 Scottish Six news show - in favour of a separate nine o’clock version on a different channel. 

However, the most contested part of the evidence session was on the issue of commissioning: who has power to decide what shows are put on air. 

McAlpine raised evidence from a producer that the “green light” on shows could ultimately only be given by four “channel commissioners” - all based in London. Hall admitted that these were the people who decided on a “yay or nay” basis, but that commissioning was carried out in cooperation with voices in Scotland.  

There was confusion among the BBC representatives when Ross Greer MSP pointed out the replacement post for the acting drama commissioner for Scotland would actually spend most of their working week in London, presenting the job description to the committee. 

Concerns about London-focused investment and decision making has contributed to outcry over the ‘lift and shift’ phenomenon, where London-based companies open offices in Scotland to benefit from quota funding.

The managing director of Matchlight productions David Smith previously said the result of BBC commissioning rules was to “undermine and frustrate the purposes of the Scottish quota on an industrial scale”.

Representatives from Ofcom, the government broadcast regulator, told the committee that it would seek to strengthen rules on commissioning. 

Picture courtesy of Scottish Parliament TV

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