Story from Guardian Media:
Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC, has indicated the corporation will set up a new online TV channel for Scotland as part of a UK-wide shakeup of its spending and programme-making.
Hall told a Scottish parliamentary committee the corporation was also reviewing its news services for Scotland, including the potential for a “Scottish Six” flagship news programme, after he admitted the BBC had been too slow to match the shift in political power from Westminster to Holyrood.
As part of its wide-ranging charter review, the BBC also plans new Scottish homepages for its on-demand iPlayer services, for its online sports pages and for its main website, to strengthen its digital offering, Hall added.
He said the BBC was reshaping how it made programmes across the UK, including the English regions, which would lead to far more drama, current affairs and light entertainment coming from Scottish producers.
He had closely followed a vigorous debate over the BBC’s spending and its autonomy in Scotland, after one senior figure in independent TV, John Archer, chair of the industry body Independent Producers Scotland, claimed last week BBC Scotland was the “branch office of an empire, subject to the imperial rule of the centre in London”.
The corporation came under intense criticism from Alex Salmond, the then first minister, and yes campaigners during the Scottish independence referendum for its alleged bias. There was an angry mass demonstration outside BBC Scotland’s Glasgow headquarters after Salmond clashed with Nick Robinson, the then BBC News political editor.
Cross-examined by MSPs for the first time, Hall dashed hopes building within the Scottish media and among Scottish politicians – fuelled by speeches by Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, that the BBC would create a new Scottish terrestrial channel, including flagship news programme with UK and foreign news.
Hall indicated those plans – drafted by BBC Scotland executives earlier in 2015, had been shelved in the wake of £700m spending cuts after the last licence fee settlement in July 2015, when the BBC was forced to fund free licences for over-75s.
He told the education and culture committee the latest wave of cost savings the BBC faced meant it had to switch its focus away from traditional “linear” television services towards making original programmes and online, on-demand services such as iPlayer.
Hall said: “Rightly, there has been proper debate and criticism of the BBC.” Following the licence fee deal, “we said what are the priorities we have got for the BBC in Scotland, for production from Scotland, drama and other things for the network – we thought put our money more in that than other things like a linear channel.”
The BBC also had to think about the future of broadcasting and respond to changing audience tastes, particularly amongs younger viewers, for on-demand and digital services.
“In so far as we can prioritise our spending, how can we ensure audiences of the future can have the content that they want wherever they want it, [so] in that sense building an online channel seems to us important,” he said. Because of the deep cuts, “we’ve put our priority on getting our news right and also our production and commissioning right”.
Hall said ambitions put forward by BBC Scotland executives to expand TV and radio services, including that new channel on Freeview, had depended on the licence fee increasing by more than inflation – an ambition dashed by the chancellor, George Osborne.
But Hall and Anne Bulford, BBC Scotland’s managing director of finance and operations, resisted calls from Scottish National party members of the committee for the BBC to consider introducing a new federal structure.
The SNP has raised the option of guaranteeing that all £323m raised from Scottish licence fee payers should be kept in Scotland. SNP MSPs on the committee insisted the BBC had failed to honour its promise to ensure spending in Scotland was equivalent to its population share.
Hall said the BBC needed to remain a fully integrated body, which shared resources and talent. He said Doctor Who, made by BBC Wales, had a Scottish director, a Scottish star, and its main writer was also Scottish. That director and writer also made Sherlock Holmes for the BBC.
“One of the strengths of the BBC is that it should be integral and part of the nations which make up the UK and at the same time be global, and that is the enormous strength for Scotland. It’s an enormous strength for the UK,” he said.
Nicola Sturgeon, speaking at her monthly press conference, said after Hall’s evidence she would continue pushing the BBC to get far closer to spending the full £323m raised from Scottish licence fee payers in Scotland, and for a more federal structure.
But she added: “I certainly welcome what he said as progress and as a step forward. And from what I have heard from the committee session this morning I welcome the tone and the seriousness with which these issues have been considered.
“We want to see much greater influence for BBC Scotland over a greater proportion of the revenues raised from the licence fee in Scotland.”
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