Television executives have accused the Scottish culture secretary, Fiona Hyslop, of making bizarre and preposterous claims about BBC spending in Scotland in an escalating dispute over broadcasting policy.
Backed by Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, Hyslop has accused the BBC of underspending on Scottish programming. Pointing to the £323m raised in Scotland from licence fees, she has asked the BBC to triple its spending to £100m, including new, dedicated Scottish channels.
Hyslop has made a series of speeches rebuking the BBC for spending only about £35m on television specifically made for Scottish audiences and has told the corporation it needs to focus far more on “indigenous” companies – language seen as singling out Scottish over UK or global firms.
Senior television executives in major independent companies have vigorously challenged her analysis. They have accused her of misrepresenting and downplaying the substantial commercial and industrial value of the £90m the BBC spent in Scotland on making mass appeal shows broadcast across the UK such as Question Time, the Weakest Link, Waterloo Road, the Real Hustle and Homes under the Hammer.
“I would say it’s being minimised,” said Nicole Kleeman at Firecrest Films, which specialises in current affairs and works for BBC Panorama and Channel 4 Dispatches. “My feeling is that the value of television production in Scotland to the Scottish economy and to the Scottish viewer is significantly more than £35m.”
One senior executive who makes programmes for UK broadcast, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “We’re using local companies, we’re doing our editing here. I’m employing Scottish producers, assistant producers and journalists. Doesn’t that benefit the Scottish economy? It’s bizarre. It just doesn’t make sense. The amount, the value of productions made here for the network is so much higher than that.”
The controversy will come to a head this month when Tony Hall, the BBC’s director general, appears for questioning for the first time at the Scottish parliament, where Hyslop’s proposals will be central to his evidence to Holyrood’s culture committee.
Hall wrote to the UK’s three devolved governments on 18 December to confirm that the BBC was preparing to diversify its news and current affairs production around the UK and create more bespoke programming.
Sturgeon and Hyslop are pressing for sweeping reforms of the BBC into a more federal, decentralised structure. BBC sources say that one leading option under consideration is an extended Scottish Six news programme with far more UK and global news.
“As devolution continues, we believe that the BBC may need to adapt our services to ensure that they fully reflect and report the increasing divergent policies of the UK, with more aspects of public policy devolved,” Hall told ministers in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
Hyslop’s proposals are supported by senior BBC Scotland staff and some smaller Scottish-owned independent companies, who believe London-based firms have too much sway over spending in Scotland, but they have unnerved senior TV executives working at larger independent television companies.
They fear Hyslop’s campaign could force the BBC to cut spending on UK programme-making in Scotland in order to increase funding for regional shows in an effort to placate the Scottish government after last year’s independence referendum and the surge in support for the Scottish National party.
Hall has to cut BBC spending by £700m and control costs, which could prevent him from protecting UK spending in Scotland at the same time as increasing local spending. “You can’t increase the £35m to £100m and not expect to do without something else,” said another TV executive, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Independent producers argue that BBC policy from 2008 onwards of relocating UK network programmes around the country has led major companies such as Mentorn, Lion, the US-owned company All3Media and others to set up Scottish offices.
The Scottish TV production industry has grown 9% year on year, according to figures from the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, the trade body for independent media companies, largely because of BBC commissioning has increased markedly.
A BBC briefing paper to MPs on the Scottish affairs select committee, seen by the Guardian, said the number of BBC “network hours” made in Scotland had jumped from 323 a decade ago to 944 in 2014-15. It also told MPs that 88% of all the BBC’s content watched by Scottish audiences was of UK-wide television and radio. Only 12% was of dedicated Scottish content.
Katie Lander from Finestripe Productions, which makes documentaries, said the £35m figure for BBC Scotland programming was “completely crude”. It ignored the significant impact that BBC network spending had on training and employing Scottish editors, producers, camera crews and technicians, often working to the more exacting standards needed for network television, she said.
Another senior TV executive agreed. UK-level shows involved more lucrative secondary broadcasting and distribution rights and were a shop window for Scottish companies at the UK and global level, which regional-only shows could not offer. It had led to commissions for Scottish firms from Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky and high-spending US companies such as the Discovery Channel, they said.
That meant production crews became expert in valuable formats. Basing Homes under the Hammer in Scotland had led to Channel 4 commissioning Lion, the firm which makes it, for a similar show. Producers and crews working on the Weakest Link learnt specialist skills that had led to commissions for other quiz shows on commercial television.
Lander said the BBC still had to address significant issues with the range and type of shows reflecting Scotland that it made. “There have been times that the portrayal of Scotland has just been shooting grouse or shooting up,” she said. “In portrayal terms, yes, it could be better but don’t tell me that people in Scotland only want to watch Scottish music on BBC4.”
A third executive, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “It’s unfair to suggest that anything other than regional [programming] has value to the industry. That is preposterous, particularly when you see our industry has grown 9% year on year. I would suggest that network programming is much more valuable than regional.”
A Scottish government spokeswoman said that far more commissioning from indigenous Scottish companies would be more economically beneficial. “BBC Scotland must have control over a much more representative share of the licence fee collected in Scotland, which could see an additional £100m available for production in Scotland, supporting an estimated 1,500 jobs and contributing around £60m to the Scottish economy,” she said.
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