The UK Government's plans to sell off Channel Four, alongside regular hints that they want to scrap the BBC licence fee, reveal their unwillingness to support the idea of public service broadcasting. It also exposes Scotland’s marginal status and lack of decision-making power when it comes to how public sector broadcasting is regulated and funded.
Programme-makers like Alan Clements of Two Rivers Media and Dorothy Byrne have said selling C4 will damage Scotland’s independent production sector. However, Scotland gets only 4% of C4’s spending and it has a much weaker television industry than most similar-sized EU countries.
An independent Scotland would be in a much stronger position to support public service broadcasting. An overwhelming majority of Scots (75%) according to a recent poll would like to see power over broadcasting move from Westminster to the Scottish Government.
C4 Spends A Smaller Proportion of its Production Budget in Scotland than even the BBC
Channel Four may be widely respected for its nightly news, but actually spends a far smaller percentage of its content budget in Scotland than the BBC does - less than 4% in 2020, half a UK population share. The BBC spent 6.5% of its production budget in Scotland in 2020 and was still criticised for failing to meet its charter obligation to spend 8%.
C4’s news team has won plaudits for robust questioning of Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries over Partygate, replacing Boris Johnson with an ice sculpture at a climate debate and so. But they have little presence in Scotland - covering it like a foreign country with just one Scotland Correspondent Ciaran Jenkins. No other member of the news team is based in Scotland, according to the C4 website.
More C4 Employees Live in Vietnam than in Scotland
According to LinkedIn, more C4 employees live in Vietnam than in Scotland. Also according to LinkedIn, only about 3% of C4 employees graduated from Scottish universities. C4 has committed to spending half its production budget outside the M25 next year, but more than half of its 1,700 UK employees still live in London. Of the 57 job opportunities it currently lists, the vast majority are in London with a handful in Leeds. None is in Scotland.
C4 doesn’t make any specific Scottish content - the best-known show produced in Glasgow is Location, Location, Location. But it did open a Creative Hub in Glasgow in 2019 and the £19 million it spent on content in Scotland in 2020, despite being a small part of the £550 million total, was nevertheless important funding for production companies in the city.
Channel Four actually makes much specifically “British” content - for example, the Great British Bake Off (although that show was criticised for lacking a Scottish contestant last series), The Great British Dig, The Great British Truck Up, The Great British School Swap, Great British History Hunters etc. Arguably, in an age where the sense of Britishness appears in decline, C4 is an important engine of Unionist cultural identity.
Rethinking How Broadcasting is Funded
An independent Scotland would be in a position to rethink how public service broadcasting is regulated, funded and supported. It could consider creative suggestions, such as replacing the licence fee with a universal broadband package which could include funding for content production.
Scotland possesses a much smaller broadcasting base than most EU countries. All the Scandinavian countries have thriving broadcasting sectors. The largest is the Norwegian which turns over more than 600 million Euros annually. It was formerly funded by a licence fee but in 2020 that changed to funding through general taxation.
Denmark is introducing a Netflix tax, mandating that 5% of turnover is re-invested in Danish content and that the streaming service provides insight into how its algorithms serve up suggestions. In France, rules that gave producers rights over TV shows have been extended to streaming services and companies like Netflix are being forced to invest 20% of turnover back into French content.
France gives independent producers rights - and companies must reinvest
The FT reported that Call My Agent (Dix pour cent) was first commissioned and financed in France under a regime where producer rights for traditional television were protected by law. This meant ownership of the show eventually returned to its producers — in contrast to most Netflix originals. After years of heavy lobbying from producers, France extended the Call My Agent model from traditional television to global streaming services, bolstering local producers who want to retain rights to their work.
Using powers under an EU directive adopted in 2018, France has required big global platforms to invest at least 20 percent of their French turnover in European productions. As a result Netflix, Amazon and Disney have in total committed to invest at least €250mn in France every year from 2022. Furthermore, 85 percent of those productions must be in the French language — and most must be “independent” works where producers retain rights.
French public sector broadcasting is currently funded by a licence fee - and a debate about its future is part of the current election campaign with President Emmanuel Macron promising to scrap it if elected in order to help with the cost of living squeeze. There is no clarity over how this would be replaced.
Wales of course, has SC4, a national Welsh-language channel that was launched at the same time as C4 in response to widespread direct action by Welsh protestors who occupied TV studios, picketed and refused to pay the licence fee. It was originally funded by the Department of Culture but that has now been transferred to the BBC.
Scots producers and viewers rely on scraps from UK companies
At the moment, the Scottish Government has no say over how broadcasting is funded, regulated or supported. Scotland must rely on scraps from the UK broadcasters who spend less than a population share of independent production north of the border. They also have often been guilty of a London-centric perspective which has often failed to serve Scotland.
During the 2014 independence referendum, crowds of protestors gathered outside Pacific Quay to protest BBC bias against the case for Scottish independence. Channel Four was not subject to those kinds of protests - but it did not produce much coverage.
Veteran BBC journalist Alan Little has reflected on the ignorance of London-based BBC decision-makers about Scottish affairs and the assumption many of them made that the “Yes” side was chippy, foolish or simply wrong in 2014. In the next independence referendum, Scots will probably have to share less well-funded content on social media rather than rely on broadcasters.
It’s is not unreasonable to suggest that after independence the TV broadcasting sector in Scotland should at least double in size and become a strong pillar of a dynamic Scottish culture.