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Thursday, September 29, 2022

Profound Concern Over UK Government’s Actions Over BBC

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Cabinet Secretary for Culture Angus Robertson (pictured) has expressed his profound concern about the UK Government’s decision to freeze the BBC licence fee for the next two years.

In a letter to Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries, he writes that the freeze, and the plans to review the licence fee model, appear to be an attempt to undermine and threaten public service broadcasting.

The Cabinet Secretary said he is concerned that these actions will have serious implications for the BBC’s investment in Scotland, particularly as the BBC has historically spent a lower proportion of licence fee raised in Scotland in the nation compared to all other UK nations.

Mr Robertson adds:

“Scottish Ministers are meant to have a role in any review of the BBC’s Charter and I seek your assurances that you will commit to meaningful consultation to ensure the views of the people of Scotland are reflected.

“It is extremely important that the BBC continues to be properly funded to ensure the protection of essential public services and maximum benefit of investment in high-quality, original and authentic content for audiences in Scotland and across the UK.” 

The full text of the letter is below:

Rt Hon Nadine Dorries MP

Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Dear Nadine,

I am writing to express my profound concern about the recent UK Government announcement to freeze the BBC licence fee for the next two years and plans to review the licence fee model. These apparent attempts to undermine the BBC, and also recently Channel 4, threaten public service broadcasting in the UK and the distinct and essential services the broadcasters provide to audiences and the creative production sector in Scotland and across the whole of the UK.

The Scottish Government wholeheartedly supports public service broadcasting and the important role the BBC plays in British society, which we believe delivers valuable cultural and social outcomes in Scotland and across the other UK nations. The BBC’s cultural status as a UK media brand showcases our creative outputs and enhances our cultural diplomacy and capital. The BBC already faces unprecedented competition, and ideologically-driven threats to stable funding risk destabilising this valuable asset and damaging the wider system. 

You said that you believe that the licence fee settlement for the next two years is fair, however the BBC argue that this will leave them with a shortfall of £285m by 2027/28, which will have a direct impact on outputs across the UK. I am deeply concerned that this will have serious implications for the BBC’s investment in Scotland, particularly when the BBC has historically spent a lower proportion of licence fee raised in Scotland in the nation compared to other nations. Funded public service broadcasting has an integral role in our creative economy and we want to see further progress and a greater share of that investment here in Scotland, not regression.

While you point to the effect on over-75s in the reasoning for the decision to freeze the licence fee, I argue that this is misdirected since it was the UK government which shifted responsibility for the free licence fees over to the BBC, shirking your responsibility for what is a welfare policy. We said at the time that those funds should be spent on developing new programmes and supporting our creative economy and the UK Government should recognise its responsibility and fund free licences for over-75s.

A strong publicly funded BBC in the public service broadcasting model is vital to maintain investment in Scottish produced content to support the production sector. The UK’s creative economic success has been in part built upon the stability provided by the financial framework which supports long-term and inward investment, allows providers to take creative risks and in turn maximises social benefits such as developing skills and employment across the UK. Funded public service broadcasting gives an outlet and platform to a wide range of output on TV, radio and online that would not otherwise have found a home and an audience. This will be undermined by any reduction in BBC funding.

I share your view that increased global competition and changing audience habits pose increasing challenges to linear TV broadcasters. However, I do not think that a different funding model will necessarily deliver the stable funding required to enable the BBC to fulfil its purposes to serve all its audiences and drive sustainable creative growth. While the current licence fee model for the BBC may not be perfect, stable funding for our broadcasters is essential and the current model provides the best option at the moment to ensure its future success and sustainability as a public service broadcaster and its continued contribution to the UK’s creative industries.

I believe that there is a misconception that the narrow shareholder-focused model of streaming companies can replace a public service broadcaster like the BBC. The two are very different and only the BBC has responsibility to audiences of all ages, in all our communities, in all genres, including children’s content and radio. As Ofcom’s recent review found, the public service broadcasters still provide the greatest amount and range of first-run original UK programmes. The PSB channels collectively made approximately 32,200 hours of first-run UK content available in 2018, compared to just over 210 hours of UK-produced content available on streaming services Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, and approximately 22,900 hours on commercial broadcast channels such as Sky and UKTV.

As you are aware, the Scottish Ministers are meant to have a role in any review of the BBC’s Charter and I seek your assurances that you will commit to meaningful consultation to ensure the views of the people of Scotland are reflected. It is extremely important that the BBC continues to be properly funded to ensure the protection of essential public services and maximum benefit of investment in high-quality, original and authentic content for audiences in Scotland and across the UK.

ANGUS ROBERTSON

Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture

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