31 October 2002

S1M-3507 Broadcasting and the Print Media

The Presiding Officer (Sir David Steel): This morning we have two short debates, the first of which is on motion S1M-3507, in the name of Michael Russell, on broadcasting and the media in Scotland, and two amendments to that motion.

... ... ...

Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): It is fascinating that David Mundell thinks that the new arrangements, which will see Border Television rebranded as ITV1 and so lose its identity, will be of benefit to his area. The diversity of ownership is one of the things that underpins the diversity of opinion. I suspect that the entire Parliament shares the view that a diversity of opinion should be expressed through our media.

I am fortunate in being able to outbid Pauline McNeill in one sense, as my parliamentary constituency probably has a greater diversity of media than almost any other. We have four weekly newspapers published in the constituency and a further five that are widely distributed. We have three radio stations based in the constituency, one of which broadcasts continually, the others less so. We also have four other broadcasting organisations that beam local news into the constituency.

How does that happen? To use some business language, the reason is that channels to market are available for those media. That is what supports them. However, to use business language again, those people do not have the kind of constructive monopoly that can exist in broadcasting. For example, we cannot magically create the bandwidth that will allow us to have competition in either the Scottish Television or Grampian Television franchise—or, at least, not yet.

Digital broadcasting will provide some opportunities. It is illustrative to consider the difference between Scotland and Wales. The National Assembly for Wales is already carried on digital broadcasting. Despite the constraints of the devolution settlement, the Assembly has taken the initiative to ensure that Wales can access the new media.

One of the new media, to which no reference has been made in the debate so far, is broadband. Broadband will increasingly become one of the delivery mechanisms for new direct-to-home news, information and entertainment channels. Scotland lags so far behind that it barely registers on any world measure of broadband utilisation.

It is a great disappointment that, while we hear colleagues on the Government benches trumpeting the creation of a new committee under the new arrangements, we hear nothing about the abolition of the existing Scottish advisory committee on telecommunications, which has effectively championed the cause of broadband in Scotland. Again, consider the experience in Wales, which has made an investment of £100 million to give access to broadband across the whole of Wales. That contrasts dramatically with what happens here in Scotland.

We are making so little progress because we do not have the powers that would enable us to make more progress. Let me give an illustration of that. Scotland is covered with fibre optic cable, but most of it is in private hands, despite the fact that it uses public wayleaves. The technologies that have been chosen block off public access to that cable, but we cannot do anything about it.

One of the ironies is that my mother spoke no English when she went to school and no Gaelic when she left it, yet today Scottish broadcasting's most effective current affairs programme is in Gaelic. That programme is "Eòrpa". The broadcasters manage to get away with that because the programme is hidden away in what is regarded as a ghetto. In 1966, Radio Scotland started as a pirate station. Today, BBC Scotland is still piratically—like the Executive—abusing its position.

I support the SNP motion.


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