Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. In your earlier answer you were talking about the cost of setting up an independent ITN contract. But there again I think there was the suggestion that you could slot bits in from the existing ITV. So if you deemed it was commercially useful to do so, there is a possibility it could be done. I am not asking you to say it will be done.
  (Mr Emslie) Anything is possible. In a news programme anything is possible. There are resources out there to buy. I am not saying it is not possible, that is not what I meant. The access we get from ITN will be all the stock footage they acquire on behalf of ITV which we can then use. The vast majority of it will not be relevant to us. They are sending pool crews here to interview UK Ministers and we then have to send a separate crew to interview different people to have a Scottish perspective on it. The cost of it in terms of starting from scratch would be quite considerable.

  101. That takes us back to the earlier question about how much editorial influence you have and how ITV covers stories at a national level. One of the things the BBC told us that they tried to do when covering a national story was to try to get perspectives from different areas of the UK. Does ITN make any effort to do that for an individual ITV company?
  (Mr Emslie) No. That is not within the terms of the tender of the contract. The contract for ITN is to supply a half-hour lunchtime news to the UK and a 23-minute evening programme for ten o'clock and various bulletins. The ITN contract is to supply UK and international news.

  102. Is that the standard contract throughout the ITV network?
  (Mr Emslie) Yes, it is.

  103. Is there an option for the Scottish companies to have an amendment in any way to that contract?
  (Mr Emslie) No. It is underneath the Act that the nominated news supplier must provide a simultaneous transmission of UK and international news at six o'clock so that the content is standard throughout. Whether you watch ITN in London or whether you watch it up in Scotland the content will be exactly the same. That is the way the contract has been set up and that is the intention of the obligations underneath our news output.

  104. Are you telling us that if there were to be any change it would have to be done by primary legislation?
  (Mr Emslie) Yes, as it stands at the moment.

Mr Duncan

  105. We were talking about Scottish Six there but one of the interesting perspectives on the Scottish Six is that we have a regional television company which actually gives regional coverage which crosses the border. It would be quite interesting to hear how you perceive the change in devolution to be affecting your output which is perceived to be regional but also crosses the border.
  (Mr Robinson) Border Television is tremendously popular and editionalising our news output has allowed us to stay at the forefront with ratings. Last year across 2001 there were times when our news programme was watched by more than 60 per cent of the audience. That is 60 per cent of the audience in Scotland as well as the English part of our region. Our competitors, principally the BBC, were far behind. Within the Border region BBC TV would have reached perhaps late 20 per cent of the audience. Border Television works because it is very local. One of the things we have noticed across the years is that we are very close to our audience and our viewers in many ways cherish what we do. To give you an example, sometimes we are seen as the local station and the BBC is seen as something alien to our viewers. For instance, the BBC are fine broadcasters and do many good things with their Children in Need appeal but there are times when activities are taking place locally and we will be called by viewers who will ask us whether we can cover their event. We tell them that it is a BBC initiative. They say, "Yes, but you're the local TV station". That is an example and illustration of how close we are to our viewers and how important we think we are to them and to their lives.

  106. There is no adverse reaction to a viewer in Workington seeing an interview with a Member of the Scottish Parliament and similarly no adverse reaction to a viewer in Stranraer seeing an interview with David Maclean on an English transport issue. They are still perceived as one local news team.
  (Mr Robinson) Some people are critical of what we do; a small number. The number of complaints we officially have to report to ITC is very small, handfuls really. On the particular issue of balance between England and Scotland there are some, but we never get very many complaints. Yes, many of our viewers can feel empathy across the border because it is a rural region and the closure of a village school in Cumbria is something which viewers in southern Scotland can see and can understand the pressures that will have upon the community. Yes, our viewers do watch news stories from either side.

  107. I had a specific question about output. I think it was Donald who said in his introductory remarks that you had staffed up to cope with devolution. There is no doubt that devolution has been the biggest single event in terms of news in the Scottish perspective over the last few years. You mentioned the number of hours you are broadcasting news and current affairs and you gave figures for your respective companies. Has there been increased output from this increased body of journalists and programming capacity?
  (Mr Emslie) Underneath our obligations in terms of the licence we applied for, and we are awarded licences by the ITC, Scottish have to make 16½ hours a week, which is just under 900 and Grampian have to make just over 7½ hours a week, which is 400 and Border 300 hours. The quantum of our hours will not change because that is what we have to make. Recently, in the move towards more self-regulation within broadcasters, we have agreed how these hours are split out in that we are now mandated to have a minimum number of hours for news and current affairs. The two Scottish licences, Scottish and Grampian, have an undertaking for Gaelic and then the rest is quantified as other. We have some scope, if we want to do more sport or more religion or more education or more drama, to do that. News and current affairs are fixed as a minimum. There has been no overall lift in terms of the hours we have done. One of the reasons certainly for the Scottish licence to increase its establishment was that we had to move through to make sure we were covering Edinburgh with the Scottish Parliament being there and we made a conscious decision to increase our news and political team in Edinburgh in order to be able to resource that properly.

  108. Given that the quantum is fixed and also the fact that you are commercial businesses—you were talking about renegotiating contracts for the future—is there a pressure to increase that number because there is a perception that increased news and current affairs broadcasting would provide your companies with extra revenue? Or is there a downward pressure in that new and current affairs broadcasting is perhaps less profitable for you to do than more populist television?
  (Mr Emslie) There are two answers to that. It is not always possible to have commercial advertising within our news and current affairs output because there are restrictions in terms of what we can do. What the news and current affairs output does is give us a point of difference. Neil has very eloquently explained that the ability of Border to achieve a 60 per cent share of the audience is because it provides something that nobody else in that regions is providing and that is localness. To a lesser extent Scottish and Grampian are the same. Our submissions to the Communications White Paper and the discussion and consultation process has been that regional news and current affairs are of paramount interest to our viewers and that ITV is the only real broadcaster in the United Kingdom which will replicate news and current affairs across 15 different regions of the United Kingdom. That is a very special offering that we make to viewers. That will not diminish and if, in the new settlement going forward, ITV in total are making fewer regional programmes, the percentage of news and current affairs at least will stay the same if not slightly rise because that was a very special offering to the viewers that they really cannot get anywhere else. BBC Scotland covers the whole of Scotland and we all appreciate the job they do and it is very important to have a well-resourced and challenging BBC in our marketplaces. The combined resources of Scottish, Grampian and Border in their respective regions are much greater than that which the BBC puts into Scotland and the same is true for Tyne-Tees and Yorkshire and indeed Anglia and Meridian.

  109. Is there more pressure within Scottish companies to increase news and current affairs' proportion in the future because of devolution than there perhaps is from the undevolved regions of the UK?
  (Mr Emslie) It is not just because of devolution. As Scottish broadcasters we realised that we have perhaps got different standards and obligations to meet because we are a separate country. Therefore education and academia and sport and professions and religion are all different from some of our colleagues in the ITV region. There is more pressure, I suspect, from within the Scottish companies to protect and enhance the regional service as we go forward into a different world where there are 300 channels and everyone is on digital communication. We believe that our offering is very special and is actually our USP. It is the point of difference we have from all other broadcasters.

Mr Carmichael

  110. We have spoken about Scottish staffing up to meet the advent of devolution. What happened at Grampian? Can you tell me particularly whether there has been a shift upwards or downwards in terms of output and resources produced in Aberdeen and Inverness since devolution?
  (Mr Thomson) There has been no change in Inverness. The number of hours at Grampian stays exactly the same. Along with Scottish we have jointly resourced the Scottish Parliament. Where Grampian have added to that is that we have also taken on a new programme called the Week in Politics which last year accounted for some 18 hours of the 30 hours of current affairs that we do. To put that in perspective, the total number of hours that Grampian does is 400 hours; out of that 237 currently cover news and current affairs. We have jointly staffed up to cope with the advent of the Parliament. May I pick up what Neil said about Border's perspective? Grampian has a very special place in the hearts and minds of the viewers of north Scotland; very much so because of the geographic area we cover. It is huge. There are 1.3 million people, we have two different languages and at least nine different dialects involved in all that and I have to say we are the one broadcaster who reaches the parts others do not quite make it to. That is reflected in the figures: 34 per cent average share over last year, which for our region is a phenomenal share of the viewership.
  (Mr Emslie) Derrick does himself a disservice here actually. Perhaps the question is not so much about devolution but since the merger between Scottish and Grampian. Grampian's original licence hours were seven hours 29 minutes a week. That was what they actually applied for in their original application for the licence back in 1990. At the time of the merger, Grampian were making seven hours 40 minutes a week and underneath the Broadcasting Act, as the company who were effectively acquiring Grampian Television, Scottish had to agree to commit to their last year of output, which was seven hours 40 minutes a week. We have more than achieved that every year since 1997. In addition, because of what we wanted to do in terms of re-allocating resources, both Scottish and Grampian needed to put significant investment into their digital technology in order to be able to transmit on the digital multiplex. To be able to do that within our own resources, we sought permission from the ITC to resource a central transmission area in Glasgow which handles the transmission for both Scottish and Grampian. That necessitated some job reductions in the Grampian region. What we were able to say in return was that Scottish would transfer some of the production of Scottish regional programming up to the Aberdeen studio in order to make sure that production jobs were protected. We have done that and in some years Grampian has made up to 100 hours of Scottish Television's programme, which previously Scottish had made. I must be clear here: it is not Grampian's programmes they are making it is Scottish Television's original licence programmes that are made in the Grampian studios by Grampian technicians and Grampian staff.

  111. So we still have the same level of staff in Aberdeen that we had.
  (Mr Emslie) Yes.

  112. Because you will recall that was a concern a couple of years ago.
  (Mr Emslie) Yes.

  113. Your own memorandum states that devolution has transferred to Edinburgh the political issues of concern to viewers causing improvements in scrutiny, accountability and access to Ministers, thereby leading to significant changes in programme content. Can you tell us first of all what these significant changes in programme content amount to? Secondly, where do you or your audience research results place matters such as taxation, employment, social security, energy, defence and foreign affairs—and you will see there is a common theme to these subjects—in terms of political issues of most concern to viewers?
  (Mr Emslie) As we say in our submission, generally there are more political stories in our news programmes now than before. While the Scotland Today, North Tonight, Border's Look Around programme, Crossfire, Platform, are still there, within our news agenda more political stories are covered than perhaps before devolution. We have also added a programme called Seven Days which goes out on a Sunday, which has been added to our current affairs output. There has been some editorial shift but the quantum has not changed.
  (Mr Robinson) There has certainly been an increased awareness of political issues. There is certainly more legislation which needs to be reported. That is finding its way into our news programmes as far as the affairs in the Scottish Parliament are concerned. Most news stories emanating from there appear in the split edition of Border. I do not know what the situation is at STV.
  (Mr Thomson) At Grampian the other programme we have added into the mix is a programme called Grampian Midweek which runs in the peak seven thirty slot every Tuesday night. It champions the people's causes and a lot of issues, most of which have been devolved. Where appropriate it will pick up on UK stories and follow them through too.

  114. And the point about audience research?
  (Mr Emslie) We do not specifically research our audience to ask them specific questions about devolved and reserved matters. The research we do will be more about programme concepts, programme ideas, whether they like the programme or not and indeed the majority of our research is into identifying the size and profile and structure of our audience. We do not specifically research these programmes. In terms of coverage of the reserved powers, on certain occasions we will carry special programming to cover the issues that are affecting the reserved matters. For example, during budget day we will have special programmes. During the Afghanistan crisis we sent crews out there, we had stories coming from there and we covered that quite extensively.

  115. When you say that it is the issues of most concern, it is what you or your editors perceive as being the issues of most concern. There is no objective support or contradiction of that?
  (Mr Ross) What you have to appreciate is that what we do is monitor our output against the output of all other news organisations and all other newspapers. What we want to ensure is that we are not missing anything, that the agenda which we have at six o'clock and the importance we place on stories tend to mirror what the main stories of the day are. From that point of view we do monitor what we do on a daily basis and make sure that we have not missed anything of importance, whether that be in Europe, Westminster, or elsewhere.

  116. Whether it is your journalists or somebody else's journalists, it is all journalists who are setting the agenda. Fair comment?
  (Mr Ross) Come and look at our logs from our viewers which we are more than happy to share with you. They make very interesting reading. Our viewers tend to be more upset about the fact that High Road does not appear at seven o'clock on a Sunday night because there is a live phone-in for Pop Idols than they tend to be about many of these issues.

Mr Joyce

  117. Probably most politicians would agree that delivery issues come to the fore in most people's minds in an immediate everyday sense and they tend to be issues which are devolved. Do you think you get the right balance when you interview people about delivery issues, education, health and so forth between the MSPs and in most case the people who actually do the delivering which is local authorities and councillors?
  (Mr Ross) The answer to that, to be bluntly honest with you, is no at the moment. That is an issue which we are very aware of. We set objectives for journalists each year and we are just in the process of completing that at the moment for the year 2002. In the case of a specific journalist in our Glasgow newsroom and a specific journalist in our Edinburgh newsroom, one of the objectives they have been set is to make themselves much more aware of what is happening at a local authority level because we have been very conscious in the last year that we perhaps have not paid the attention to local authorities that we should. I hope that is something where there will be a change in the next year in the way we look at that.

Mr Lazarowicz

  118. On the issue of how you judge the audience's concerns, let me say from the start that I fully accept that comments about High Road are more likely to feature than comments about some of the current affairs programmes. I recall that last week the BBC told us that one of the major factors which they use to judge whether or not they are meeting viewers concerns on news and current affairs was audience figures. If you are also using audience figures as a primary test of viewers concerns, then you are really just comparing with another channel which is also using the same basic approach to find out what viewers' concerns are. This raises the issue of how far viewers' real concerns are really reflected in the product range of television in Scotland. Do you not think there is a case to try to have some kind of independent way of assessing viewers concerns rather than simply relying upon comparative audience figures?
  (Mr Emslie) We do not just rely on audience figures.

  119. But you rely primarily on audience figures?
  (Mr Emslie) Over the last few years we have employed companies like System 3 and Market Research Scotland to get more qualitative data rather than the quantitative data. The quantitative data we get arrives on our desk every morning at eleven o'clock which will tell us the number of people who watched our programmes last night compared to watching Channel 4 or all the satellite channels. We get updates on a weekly basis. We have analysis and tracking research which is delivered on a monthly basis. We have more quantitative data in terms of being able to analyse the quantum and the profile of the audience, as much as we require on that.
  (Mr Robinson) In a less formal way journalists do not live in isolation. We are very much part of our communities and our children go to the schools, we shop in the supermarkets when we buy our bread, we travel on trains, we drive on the roads. We meet as many people as you do, so we are aware of concerns which are brought to us directly from the people we know.
  (Mr Ross) The ITC, the body which regulates us, has a viewers and listeners panel and as broadcasters, Border, Scottish and Grampian, we meet quarterly with the ITC. One of the items on the agenda always at that quarterly meeting is feedback from the ITC's local viewers and listeners panel. One of the things they do is to ask viewers in the Borders region or the Grampian region or the Scottish region to watch specific programmes, including our politics programmes and our news programmes and to feed back information to us on what they think about these programmes. We get that information back from the ITC, we take it very seriously and we act on it. The ITC is very jealous of that panel and keeps us very far away from it. We have no direct communication with that panel, so it is quite an independent minded panel in terms of the information it feeds back to us.

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