Scottish BBC viewers send £100m licence fee ‘subsidy’ to London HQ

The National, by Kathleen Nutt 

13.11.18

BBC licence fee payers in Scotland supported the broadcaster’s programming operations in the rest of the UK by more than £100 million last year, according to a report published by Holyrood’s research unit.

It also found there was a drop in the percentage of the licence fee raised north of the Border spent here despite a pledge to increase the proportion.

The issue has been a source of tension between the BBC and the Scottish Government which has repeatedly called for more money raised in Scotland to be spent in Scotland.

A new BBC Scottish channel being launched next year is part of the broadcaster’s attempt to address some of the criticism.

The analysis, published by the Scottish Parliament’s Information Centre (Spice), found the BBC raised just under £324m last year from licence fee payers in Scotland, but spent £223m – 69% – in Scotland with the remaining £101m directed to headquarters. The percentage was down from 72% during 2016/17.

In comparison, Wales and Northern Ireland saw 92% and 89% respectively of their licence fee revenue spent directly in those nations during 2017/18.

The Spice figures were published for Holyrood’s culture committee which held a session at the end of last week to examine the BBC’s annual report published in July.

“It is shocking that Scotland is still the poor relation in the UK with regard to BBC investment and expenditure, subsidising London to the tune of £101.1m last year. Our headcount [of employees] is lower even than Wales, which has barely half our population, at 2132 whole time equivalents, compared to Wales’ 2158,” Kenneth Gibson, an SNP MSP on the committee, told The National:

“Is it any wonder that, according to Ofcom’s annual report on the BBC published on October 25, only 52% of people in Scotland had a favourable overall impression of the BBC, compared to 64% of all UK adults.

“Clearly, a rebalancing is needed but it is slow progress. A new Scottish channel to launch early next year will have a budget of £32m but, as yet, no high quality drama commissioned to fill any of its five hours a day of broadcasting.”

He added: “BBC executives said they hoped to eventually increase the share of licence fee expenditure in Scotland to 80% of that raised, leaving us still well behind the other nations of the UK.

“This lack of ambition matters. TV production keeps talented people in Scotland, attracts more to work here and boosts the Scottish economy. I would urge the BBC to raise its sights higher – to 100%. Investing more in the new TV channel and committing to the delivery of high quality output would be a start.”

Joan McAlpine, the SNP MSP and the culture committee’s convener, pressed BBC board member Steve Morrison on the spending matter when she quizzed him last Thursday and asked why the situation was not improving. Morrison insisted the situation was getting better, and said that in 2015-16, the percentage of the licence fee spent in Scotland was 65.9% and that in 2018-19 it would be 76.7%. By the time the new channel has transmitted for a year, the percentage will be almost 80%, he added.

McAlpine asked Morrison why the percentage spend figure for Scotland was 68.8% and for Wales is 92.3%. He said Wales had been chosen by the BBC as a “federal centre for drama” with network programmes such as Casualty, Doctor Who and Sherlock all produced out of Cardiff.

Morrison added he believed Scotland should contribute towards funding the coverage of major network programmes such as Blue Planet as well as international newsgathering. “I think people in Scotland appreciate big national and international services and programmes such as the BBC World Service and Blue Planet. None of those programmes count in the funny way in which programme hours are calculated, even if, as in the case of the European athletics championships, half of the programmes were actually produced in Scotland. We have to allow for certain major programmes to be funded throughout the UK, which includes Scottish participation.”

A BBC Scotland spokesman said: “Network television spend in Scotland continues to exceed the 8% target set by Ofcom and we are anticipating an increase in the next financial year. There was a reduction in value after some programming aired outside the financial year in question due to schedule changes and as a result they were not included in those accounts. The money had been spent but could not be counted until the programmes had been broadcast. The next financial report is expected to show a rise with dramas such as the acclaimed The Cry being included.”

He added the new channel would “feature a broader range of compelling content reflecting modern Scotland will also be part of the increased amount of licence fee spend” and at the end of the first financial year accounts should show around 80% of the licence fee collected in Scotland will have been spent here. He said increased investment would create around 270 new posts, adding programmes from Scotland, such as Scotland’s home games at the Six Nations, were not formally recorded as BBC spend in Scotland.