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First Minister's harsh words for corporation

Sturgeon accuses BBC of ‘lapses’ and calls for restructure

Nicola SturgeonFirst Minister Nicola Sturgeon today called for a federal BBC to better reflect modern Britain and claimed that it had “lapsed” in its objectivity during the referendum campaign.

Ms Sturgeon told an audience of media representatives and politicians that the charter renewal process is an opportunity for a “bold and ambitious BBC that better reflects the rich and varied political and social realities in the UK”.

Delivering the Alternative MacTaggart lecture at the EICC, the First Minister said that broadcasters, and in particular the BBC, are yet to catch up with the consequences of devolution, with radical reform required to maintain the trust of people in Scotland.

She was openly critical of the coverage of the referendum coverage, but fell short of accusing the BBC of bias.

“I know that some people might choose to interpret what I say as me accusing broadcasters – and, let’s be frank, the BBC in particular – of being biased in how they covered the referendum,” she said.

“So let me be clear. I am not saying there was institutional bias in the BBC’s referendum output.

“However, there were occasions when its coverage – through oversight, apparent ignorance of the detail of an issue or as a result of simply following the agenda of openly partisan print media – lapsed from the objective output the referendum deserved into what could seem partial and, at times, pejorative.

“I don’t doubt the effort and integrity that went into the Corporation’s coverage. And, for the record, I think that the BBC, and BBC Scotland in particular, has some of the finest political journalists in the land. But that was undermined on occasion by those lapses, some of which have been recognised and flagged up by the BBC’s own internal processes subsequent to the vote.”

Ms Sturgeon used the keynote address at the Edinburgh Television Festival to call for consensus on reform and say that the current financial landscape should not be a barrier to the BBC doing things differently.

She set out a series of proposed reforms that the charter renewal process should consider:

• The renewed charter should see the BBC move to a federal structure, with separate governance boards for each of the home nations sitting under a UK-wide board.

• A second English language channel should be introduced on BBC Radio Scotland to provide a better variety of programmes for the radio audience in Scotland.

• A dedicated mainstream television channel should be established in Scotland, helping the independent production sector and improving the range of content for Scottish audiences.

The First Minister’s address follows the BBC’s annual review findings that the broadcaster is failing to meet the expectations of the people of Scotland.

She said she had “significant concerns” about how the UK Government has approached the process  of Charter Renewal.

“Five years ago the coalition government essentially reduced the BBC’s annual budget by more than £300m, by forcing it to take on responsibility for the World Service, for S4C and for the expansion of broadband services. It made the decision in secret, over the course of a few days, and announced it as part of the Chancellor’s 2010 Spending Review.

“That method of decision making was widely criticised. In fact, the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee – which at that time was chaired by John Whittingdale – went so far as to say that it “undermined confidence in both the government’s and the BBC’s commitment to accountability and transparency”.

“So it is mystifying that within a month of being appointed as Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale has supported a new licence fee settlement which is equally far-reaching in its consequences, and was again negotiated in secret.

“That represents a serious breach of the terms of the UK Government’s memorandum of understanding with Scotland. So too does the UK Government’s decision to appoint an advisory panel without any prior consultation.

“So a key message from me is that the rest of the renewal process needs to be much more transparent.

Referring specifically to her call for a more federal set-up at the BBC she said: “The UK has changed dramatically since devolution; but broadcasters are still catching up with its consequences. And although that poses questions for all public service broadcasters, the issue is maybe most acute with the BBC.

“We’ve seen progress in recent years. For example the share of network commissions from Scotland is far above 2006 levels. But that progress has been slow – it’s time to be ambitious.

“Scotland, the BBC and all the nations and regions of the UK have the right to expect something truly radical from the charter review. A tight financial settlement cannot be a reason not to do things differently.

“A BBC that puts forward a bold proposal for Scotland, for the nations and regions, and for the UK will have in us a strong and willing ally. A BBC that offers piecemeal solutions will fail to meet the demands or restore the trust of Scottish audiences.

“I believe the BBC should move to a more federal structure, with separate boards for each of the nations and each of the national boards represented on the UK board.

“Those changes would have important long term benefits but they need to go alongside improvements to programming. Scotland is an outward looking, internationalist country, intensely interested and active in the world around us – but we also want to see ourselves, our daily experiences and our national story, more fully reflected on our radios and television screens.

“For example, Radio Scotland currently has an almost impossible job – it’s one station trying to reflect the life of an entire nation. And it does it well. But a second English-language radio service would provide a greater variety of programmes. And because the two channels could specialise more than Radio Scotland does, they would have stronger and more distinct identities.

“And it is essential that we look at television services for Scotland. The BBC has a very successful partnership arrangement with the Gaelic broadcaster, MG ALBA. BBC Alba reaches an audience of 700,000 people across the country. When you consider that census returns suggest that there are just 60,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, that’s a hugely impressive performance on a very limited budget. And it demonstrates a much wider demand and desire for Scottish content.

“So we believe that a distinct BBC Scotland TV channel should be created – empowering BBC Scotland as never before. It would help to secure the sustainability of the independent production sector in Scotland, it would see more of the licence fee spent in Scotland, but more importantly, it would by some distance, be the best way of making a wider and richer range of content available to viewers in Scotland.”

The First Minister concluded:

“One of the things the last 12 months has demonstrated, is that the old model of public service broadcasting – important though I think it is – doesn’t work well enough. It no longer reflects the complex, varied and rich political and social realities of the UK.

“And so any BBC Charter Renewal which does not respond to the different needs of the nations and regions simply won’t be sustainable between now and 2027.

“That’s why the Scottish Government wants to build a consensus behind constructive change. We will encourage the widest possible level of debate within Scotland on charter renewal. And we will work with the UK Government and the BBC to achieve the best possible outcome for viewers in Scotland and across the UK.”

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