Had the recently set up Scottish Broadcasting Commission been, instead, a ‘Commission on Scottish Media and Communications’, its remit would be probably be too wide to be practical.
A commission on broadcasting has several attractions. It is true that broadcasting can still be considered from some standpoints as an activity clearly separable from other media. For example, as a medium it requires some specific forms of investment, including in particular skills, and it is also consumed in ways which to some extent maintain it as distinct, in the forms of TV and radio, even though both can be delivered in new ways.
Broadcasting is comprehensible as a subject for public debate in a manner which a ‘Scottish Communications Commission’ wouldn’t be. If setting up the Broadcasting Commission implies that at some point in the future the Scottish Government may take action over aspects of the broadcasting framework, then no doubt it is easier to address one medium at a time. To attempt to construct a general approach which embraces the internet, the press, telephony and other media would be daunting.
There is substantial political advantage too in concentrating on broadcasting. It’s easy to frame what is at stake for Scottish democracy in a debate about broadcasting, in a manner which might not so easily work for – say – mobile communications; and broadcasting gives especially strong leverage on the Scottish constitutional situation for those interested in developing further autonomy.
It’s easy, however, to frame what’s at stake for Scottish democracy in debates about press ownership and control, too.
If we consider where, amidst developments in the Scottish media in recent times, there has been the most threat to democratic needs, the press would offer itself as a persuasive case.
When briefly it looked, five years ago, as though the Herald and Scotsman groups of newspapers might fall under the same ownership, the absence of any effective power in Holyrood to address the question was all too evident. If it is important to be able to hear a Scottish electoral voice on the subject of how our news and current affairs are produced and distributed, then both the press and broadcasting form part of that subject.
Putting this differently: future devolution of the political oversight of Scottish broadcasting would be interpreted as unblocking a logic governing the setting up of the Holyrood Parliament. If that is so, then the press and other areas of media activity must inevitably feel the impact of any future discussion by the Commission about Scottish broadcasting.
Devolution of oversight of Scottish broadcasting would make Holyrood’s role in relation to the press yet more anomalous than now.
If we turn to media production for the screen, it is true that some products are specific to particular broadcasting forms, but from the point of view, say, of producers of digital media product adaptable to a variety of platforms, the distinction between the internet, telephony, broadcasting and cinema need not be so great.
Therefore, in any debate about media production (and therefore investment, skills training, employment) it is inevitable that discussion about broadcasting becomes involved with other areas of media activity.
It is particularly important that we should have informed debate over the economic arguments both in favour and against devolution of Scottish broadcasting. Debates about the economic consequences of media devolution are likely to have wide implications, so that any outcomes of the Broadcasting Commission’s work which have economic significance will have implications for the broader picture of the media enterprise economy.
Digital culture and the digital economy are still unfolding. There is much that is difficult to predict about future patterns of convergence. DAB radio is an interesting current example of an older media form resurrected in a manner which was not even recently predicted.
Some past predictions held that in a digital culture, niche media activity would guarantee minority representation, so that, for example, the Scottish voice would somewhere find its bandwidth. In fact, there is very mixed evidence of the impact of digital culture on national representation.
Conversely: the fear of so-called ‘parochialism’ is rendered absurd in the digital age. For example, the news audience in the UK can already select from CNN, France 24, Al Jazeera and other English language broadcasters. The question is not about ‘parochialism’ – in any case, that attribution probably overrates both the quality and cosmopolitanism of London-produced programming.
The real questions are over investment in, and the quality of, Scottish media production, and whether the Scottish voice will be heard much at all in the digital age (it will need to compete hard even where given the chance).
The Commission is still to be welcomed if it manages to stick close to broadcasting, but its work will have made much more sense if, from the outset, the several lateral relations broadcasting has with the rest of the media world are part of its deliberations.
Neil Blain is Professor and Head of Department of Film & Media Studies at the University of Stirling. The Media in Scotland, a comprehensive volume on all aspects of the Scottish media, which he has just edited with David Hutchison, will be published next year by Edinburgh University Press. He has worked as a research consultant in the Scottish broadcasting industry. He is co-editor of The International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics. In this article, he sets out some arguments from a paper he recently presented at the Scottish Policy Innovation Forum.
Next Thursday: Kevin Williamson, writer and ‘activist’.