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Chamber and committees

Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, September 29, 2022

Agenda: BBC Annual Report and Accounts, Pre-budget Scrutiny


BBC Annual Report and Accounts

The Convener (Clare Adamson)

Good morning. I give a warm welcome to the 21st meeting in 2022 of the Constitution, Europe, External Affairs and Culture Committee. We have received apologies from Donald Cameron MSP.

Our first agenda item is to take evidence on the BBC annual report and accounts, which the committee undertakes annually. We welcome to the committee Steve Carson, director of BBC Scotland; Louise Thornton, head of commissioning at BBC Scotland; and Rhodri Talfan Davies, BBC director of nations. I invite Mr Carson to make an opening statement.

Steve Carson (BBC Scotland)

Thank you, convener. After several years of virtual appearances before the committee, I am pleased that my colleagues and I can attend in person. I am delighted to have alongside me Louise and Rhodri, as you have noted.

Those virtual sessions are a reminder that the year under review in the annual report and accounts that have been laid before the Scottish Parliament cover a time when we were all still working and providing vital broadcast services under Covid rules and regulations. Those services included in-depth coverage and analysis of the parliamentary elections in May last year.

The report and accounts also cover the time when Scotland hosted the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—and BBC Scotland staff and infrastructure were at the heart of global coverage of the climate change conference. As well as our news programming, we heard from Scotland’s innovators in “Our Planet Now”, we looked at Scotland’s engagement with North Sea energy in “Black Black Oil” and we shared the remarkable story of a life of solitude in the documentary “The Hermit of Treig”.

Although the report covers the previous financial year, it is important to note that, in recent weeks, when the eyes of the world were once again on Scotland following the death of Her Majesty at Balmoral, BBC Scotland’s teams were at the heart of bringing those historic events to a national, United Kingdom and global audience.

Through the past year, our strategy “The BBC Across the UK” has seen an increase in network commissions and co-commissions, with some of the BBC’s biggest drama titles, including “Shetland” and “Vigil”, set and produced here. “Vigil” was the most watched new drama launch on UK television in the past three years and a second series is now confirmed.

Last autumn, we also saw the return of the critically acclaimed, award-winning drama “Guilt”, with a third series now in the works. At the end of this year, we will be welcoming “Granite Harbour” to the schedules, which is a new Aberdeen-based drama. This week, we have been celebrating 20 years of “River City”, which is an audience favourite that makes a significant contribution to our creative economy, developing talent on screen and off.

In 2022, Scotland became the BBC’s centre of excellence for technology journalism, when the BBC News specialist technology team moved here. The weekly technology programme “Click”, which broadcasts in the UK on BBC One and on BBC World across the globe, has been broadcast from Scotland since May.

BBC Radio Scotland continues to serve Scottish audiences across the country. For example, “Climate Tales” gives a voice to children and young people sharing their fears and their aspirations for the planet. The station is marking our centenary with “100 Years of Scottish Stories”, in which listeners across Scotland are recording and sharing the one story that they would like to pass down to the next generation.

We know—I am sure that we will come on to this—how central our partnership with Screen Scotland, and our shared training and development initiatives, has been in growing the creative economy here. Screen Scotland’s recent report on the economic value of the screen sector to Scotland has shown how important the BBC and public service broadcasting is to that, with the BBC alone accounting for nearly three-quarters of all PSB spend on television in the year of its analysis.

Partnership is also at the heart of our Gaelic services. Alongside MG Alba, in the past year, we have launched SpeakGaelic, which is a multiplatform language learning course with programming across BBC Alba, BBC Radio nan Gàidheal and our online platforms.

We hope to be able to share more with you today. Louise, Rhodri and I look forward to discussing the annual report and accounts, and associated matters, with the committee.

The Convener

Thank you very much for that informative opening statement. I will begin the questions. On the issue of impartiality, the BBC does not have to be neutral on every topic, but it must show due impartiality. Ofcom describes that as a “complex challenge”. It contrasted audiences’ ratings for BBC news, which is highly trusted for accuracy but has lower ratings for impartiality. The regulator has said:

“Given the apparent disparity between audience attitudes on the BBC’s impartiality and its good record of compliance with the due impartiality broadcasting rules, it is important for the BBC to find creative and engaging ways of delivering—and demonstrating—to audiences its commitment and approach to due impartiality, in order to retain trust.”

Do you have any reflections on the regulator’s view?

Steve Carson

The regulator has done a number of studies, which includes its media nations reports and its report on due impartiality in June. You are right to point out that Ofcom notes that the BBC has a very strong record in acting with due impartiality. The research is interesting. For example, according to our research for the annual report and accounts and Ofcom’s research, the BBC is still a very highly trusted news source. One of the figures in the annual report shows that BBC News is the go-to news source for nearly half the population. Other news source brands—if I can put it that way—are in single figures.

When we look at trust and impartiality in Scotland and in the rest of the UK, the figures are not widely different. As Ofcom has pointed to, that is about communications and confidence. The way that we can make sure that people believe that we are impartial is by doing our jobs well, and by following our standards and guidelines, which we do.

I note Ofcom research in June, which looked at Scotland. When audiences were asked what they felt when watching BBC Scotland programming and STV programming, they said that they were very similar and that they covered the same subjects. In some cases, they reported that the BBC was doing better.

We always need to be alive to audience perception. The figures in Scotland are not radically different to those for the rest of the United Kingdom. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. People come to BBC News and BBC News in Scotland when they want information. We saw that during Covid. They had a choice of outlets for public health information and they turned to the BBC and BBC Scotland in large numbers at a time when they really needed to find news and information that they could trust.

Maurice Golden (North East Scotland) (Con)

First of all, congratulations to “River City” for celebrating 20 years, and for showing a very entertaining and innovative anniversary episode—it was great to watch.

I want to make an interlinked point around impartiality. If we look at the four nations and people’s views on their preferred news source, there seems to be a clear differential between Scotland and Northern Ireland versus England and Wales. In England and Wales, the BBC is significantly ahead of ITV and ITV Wales as the preferred news source. That differential is flipped in Scotland, which I am clearly most interested in. What are your thoughts on that? Are those views reflective of content, or do they perhaps mirror those of society?

Steve Carson

The Ofcom research, which I think is in the research pack that has been produced for the committee, has stripped that information into individual services. STV News provides an excellent news provision service in Scotland. It has pulled out of other genres in its contribution to the main channel 3 schedule. However, the table that you are looking at shows STV News as a single source, while all the other BBC channels and services are stripped out separately, including into BBC Radio Scotland, BBC One Scotland and BBC Scotland. When you aggregate all those sources in the table, the number of people who see the BBC as the service of choice to find news about Scotland in Scotland comes to 58 per cent, I think. The BBC position here remains very strong.

Rhodri Talfan Davies (BBC)

If we go back to what Steve Carson said earlier, it is worth bearing in mind the enduring trust of the audience in BBC News services. Around 80 per cent of the population views BBC News services every week. Steve also mentioned the breadth that is offered across BBC Scotland, BBC Radio Scotland and online. That is an extraordinary portfolio of news and current affairs services. That is a unique position in which we are able to deliver value to news audiences across the BBC portfolio.

Jenni Minto (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)

I thank the witnesses for coming along. “River City” began 20 years ago? Gosh, that is quite frightening—I can remember when it was first commissioned.

I will continue with the theme of impartiality, as well as ask about breadth of service, a theme that Rhodri Talfan Davies has just introduced. We had a debate in the chamber on public service broadcasting. One of our colleagues Stephen Kerr said:

“It is 20 years since ... devolution ... and ... the BBC has not ... caught up with that”.—[Official Report, 3 March 2022; c 107.]

Stephen Kerr was previously an MP, as you will know. In the debate, he went on to talk about the coverage that Westminster gets compared with the coverage that this Parliament gets. I am interested to know your thoughts on that. Do you have any plans to change how you cover what happens in this Parliament—everything from First Minister’s questions and committee sessions to parliamentary debates—given what could be happening here in the coming years?

Steve Carson

Individual scheduling decisions can change over time, but our commitment to cover the workings of this Parliament is strong and remains strong as it is a key part of our public service in Scotland. Indeed, the work of Scottish members in Westminster also features in our output.

We invest considerably in our coverage of politics. One of our most talented teams works in that area and we have expanded that coverage in a number of ways, with big investment in “The Nine” and podcasts such as “Podlitical”. We are changing schedules to make improvements. An example of that is “The Sunday Show”, which involves BBC Radio Scotland and BBC One Scotland. Louise Thornton might talk about that. Joining our services together is a key thing for us in BBC Scotland.

We have deepened, improved and enhanced our political coverage in recent years, as well as our commitment to ensuring that the work of elected representatives of our audiences in Scotland is properly covered.

Would you like to add to that, Louse?

Louise Thornton (BBC Scotland)

Thank you so much for having me here. I started as head of commissioning in December 2020, taking over from Steve, when the channel was in a very healthy position.

Part of what we do in the commissioning team is to work in a multiplatform capacity. I manage five commissioners who all commission certain genres, but we always look across platforms for opportunities.

“The Sunday Show” is an excellent example of where we are looking for an opportunity to use talent that can reach a certain audience through television but that can speak to a radio audience as well. Increasingly, we are looking to how we deliver through BBC Sounds—that is a key priority for us. “Podlitical” is a fantastic programme and “The Sunday Show” also picks up an excellent audience through our on-demand service.

I offer you the reassurance that digital is a major priority for us; it is absolutely a consideration for how we are delivering news going forward.

Alasdair Allan (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP)

I am interested to hear a bit more about your definition of Scotland-specific programming, given the statistics that you have produced on that. I should make it clear that I am not calling for some very purist definition; I am just a bit unclear about what it is. For instance, I did not know that “Click” was produced in Scotland. Is it all a matter of location, or do you take other factors into account? For instance, does Ken Bruce’s programme count as Scottish? I see you shaking your heads. I am just curious to know what is included and what is not.

Incidentally, I, too, enjoyed “Vigil”, once I had overcome my irritation at the fact that the programme’s writers seemed to believe that we have coroners in Scotland. Can you say a bit more about whether this is all a matter of location and where things are produced, or does it also have something to do with how Scotland is reflected?

Steve Carson

It is a mixture. You will see that one of the tables in the annual report and accounts sets out the spend that is directly in control of BBC Scotland—that is, content spend controlled by Louise Thornton and her team and BBC News spend as well as some BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra spend. Some of the spend is specifically BBC Scotland’s.

However, we also count network spend in Scotland. The allocation of spend in Scotland is defined in Ofcom rules under three criteria: first, whether there is a substantive base here; secondly, the proportion of the spend here; and thirdly, the talent and crew based here. There are two types of network spend: portrayal spend, as seen in “Shetland”, “Vigil” and “Two Doors Down”, which are set in and reflect Scotland; and then the considerable proportion of spend on programmes such as “Click”. Those sorts of programmes are made here—in fact, our Pacific Quay studios are one of the centres of excellence for producing quiz shows across the BBC—but it is not portrayal spend, although the audience members often come from Scotland. Nevertheless, it is valuable economic activity. There is therefore a mixture in the spend, but the accounts separate these things out.


Rhodri Talfan Davies

The point about the mixed ecology of across-the-network investment and money controlled by BBC Scotland is spot on. You want that range of work, because it helps build the sector and skills.

However, it is worth saying that the plans that the BBC laid out last year across the UK are not only about transferring investment outside the M25—they amount to about £700 million up to 2027-28—but about what is made and whom it reflects. As a result, one of the commitments alongside the financial movement is for at least 100 comedy and drama titles over the next three years to be authentically rooted. You can talk about location, mindset, world view, accent or whatever, but the programmes have to feel authentically rooted, and you will want that mix of investment to ensure that there is an authentic portrayal of the different parts of the UK.

Alasdair Allan

That was very helpful.

A question that has previously been raised is about what you are doing to encourage and promote new writing in portraying Scotland—or, indeed, in portraying anything—to give backbone to the programmes that you are talking about. I am curious to know what is being done in that respect.

Steve Carson

It is a key part of what we are here for, and I will hand over to Louise Thornton to respond.

Louise Thornton

You are right to say that new writing is absolutely key to authentic portrayal and storytelling that reflects a modern Scotland, which is what we are all here for.

We have various ways of developing writing talent. All of you will probably be aware of BBC Writersroom, which has been incredibly successful over the past few years. We have a close relationship with it; indeed, Gavin Smith, who is the commissioner of scripted output in my team, works very closely with it.

A recent example of programming that has come out of that has been a short-form drama opportunity in the iPlayer space through a partnership that we entered into with Screen Scotland. As you will know, drama is very expensive, but iPlayer is a fantastic space for giving somebody their first writing break on screen and short-form drama has massive appeal to younger audiences.

We married that up with our desire to develop talent and attract different audiences in commissioning a range of scripts through the Writersroom and selecting one script to take to series. That resulted in a really successful series called “Float”, written by Stef Smith, which you can watch on iPlayer and which subsequently went on to win an award at the Festival Series Mania. This year, we are again working with Screen Scotland to replicate the experience and have selected a writer called James Price from Glasgow, who is writing a piece based in Dundee called “Dog Days”. It, too, is in the short-form space, and it gives him his first chance at serialised writing. That is one example of how we develop talent.

Of course we also have “River City”, which is a brilliant training ground for writing talent. Writers from “River City” go on to all manner of huge shows; in fact, our challenge is to hang on to that talent, because we develop them so well. I should at this point congratulate “River City” on 20 years of fantastic programming. What the people involved do for the sector and for writing is fantastic.

Thank you.

What direct or indirect impacts might the proposed sell-off of Channel 4 have on the BBC?

Rhodri Talfan Davies

Clearly, that is a matter for the UK Government. You will have seen the debate and discussion about the future of Channel 4, but our view is that the mix of public service broadcasting in the UK is a very precious thing. A mix of buyers, funders and suppliers is crucial to the development and sustainability of the Scottish creative sector, but the issue of what the right structure is for Channel 4 is for Channel 4 and the UK Government to discuss.

Mark Ruskell

The committee has had some very strong evidence from the independent production sector about the potential impact. Where does the issue sit in your risk register? Are you concerned that the privatisation of Channel 4 might lead to certain indies not being here in a few years’ time? Would there be pressure on the BBC to support the independent sector at a higher level? What would be the impacts of that on your own budget and strategy? I know that, politically speaking, you cannot give us your views on the privatisation of Channel 4, but surely it could be very significant for your strategy.

Steve Carson

Before I hand over to Louise Thornton to talk about the sector generally, I have to say that we need that mixed ecology. I do not think it is a coincidence that the UK as a whole—and increasingly Scotland itself—has developed a flourishing broadcast industry of global strength with a mixture of the licence fee core funding and a strong independent commercial PSB sector, which includes Channel 4.

Louise Thornton can probably give some examples of this, but both the BBC and Channel 4 have been very focused on developing the wider creative sector as part of what I always think of as our mission. I often say that BBC Scotland is the largest creative organisation in Scotland, but we are not the only show in town and what we really want to be is an enabler or anchor tenant for the wider sector. We, like Channel 4, pay close attention to growing and developing the independent sector in Scotland.

I will hand over to Louise Thornton to talk about our future strategy.

Louise Thornton

No matter what happens with this particular issue or what changes emerge over the next few years, we are focused on developing the sector. Part of our strategy focuses on how we bring business into Scotland with the budgets that we control and how we spend those budgets in a way that develops the sector through returning series, which are a massive priority for us, as well as through factual programming and through bringing more drama to Scotland.

Increasingly, we are looking at how we co-commission with the likes of the BBC network. Our strategy commits us to a certain level of funding per year; under it, we will 50:50 match fund projects with the network across all genres. “Guilt” is a fantastic example of that, and there is also “Martin Compston’s Scottish Fling”, which is out at the moment and is a co-commission with BBC Two. We have two more dramas coming this autumn: “Granite Harbour”, which Steve Carson has already mentioned, and “Mayflies”, which is an adaptation of the Andrew O’Hagan book.

Our key priority in developing the Scottish sector is bringing more high-impact content to Scottish indies, but the second part of that is looking at how we bring in other funding for ideas. Increasingly, we are looking at other partners in terms of distributors and other models where we can bring in additional funding and work with the independent sector to bring that funding into production budgets.

Steve Carson

Perhaps I can give you a positive story. I know that the committee looks at economic as well as cultural and creative impacts, so I should say that, with the investment that the BBC put in from 2018-19 as well as Channel 4’s commitment, the creative sector in Scotland rose to the challenge with a very significant increase not just in the volume of programming but in quality and ambition. Covid stopped us in our tracks for a time but, as you will know, we and the sector found other ways of working. There is a very strong story of momentum building there, and the creation of Screen Scotland has been part of that, too. Scotland can be proud of the creative sector and the independent broadcast sector as well as what BBC Scotland does itself, and with support, that momentum will continue and will continue to have a positive economic impact.

What would be the implications for the BBC if Netflix bought Channel 4?

Rhodri Talfan Davies

Channel 4 is an independent broadcaster and has its own relationship with Government, and I do not think it appropriate for us to speculate on different models. The BBC’s view is that one of its unique roles is to portray the diversity of the UK; Netflix does many things very well, but its authentic portrayal of the UK is nothing like the scale of the BBC’s commitment and ambition.

We have to be really honest about the financial position facing public broadcasting in the UK at the moment. As you know, we are in times of high inflation, and the BBC is dealing with a flat licence fee settlement. That situation is incredibly challenging—indeed, it is challenging for every organisation. Last May, we set out our thoughts that the inflation freeze represented a £285 million funding gap for the BBC through to 2027-28, but inflation has probably moved that figure closer to between £400 million and £500 million.

We are ambitious. It is fantastic to see additional investment going into Scotland year on year as we bounce back from Covid, and it is great to see those numbers reflected in the annual report, but we also need to be honest with the committee about the significant financial challenges facing public broadcasting in the UK and to make it clear that it is only the public broadcasters that have in their DNA this commitment to reflecting the country’s real diversity.

Mark Ruskell

I understand your reluctance to go on public record about Channel 4, but I hope that the board of the BBC is looking very carefully at the matter and that the financial risk as well as the risk to the whole sector, particularly the independent sector, is a matter of intense discussion.

Rhodri Talfan Davies

Private discussions are always being had within the BBC. You will know better than I do that there is quite a lot of swirl at the moment about the future shape of Channel 4 and the UK Government’s intentions. I do not think that, given the independence of Channel 4, it is either helpful or appropriate for the BBC to publicly discuss different scenarios.

So we will just have to guess what the impact is. Thank you.

Steve Carson

Perhaps I can make a comment from an economic development perspective. Netflix is great, and I think that we probably all subscribe to it, but it does not have anything remotely like, for example, BBC Bitesize or that range of services.

From an economic development perspective—and I speak as a former independent producer—what you find in the UK is what are called terms of trade. Under those terms, if an independent company grows an idea, it will own and be able to exploit the intellectual property, with a share obviously coming to the licence payer. That approach has, again, been hugely influential in growing the sector. Under the terms of trade with the streamers, which are primarily US based, the producer gets paid to make the programme but all the rights are retained. That is a fundamentally different model, and I think that our terms-of-trade model has played a huge part in growing our success story with the sector.

Sarah Boyack (Lothian) (Lab)

It was good to read the report. I have a couple of questions about how you effectively market the BBC to people in Scotland. The “Ofcom Annual Report on the BBC 2020-2021” highlighted that

“some audience groups have lower satisfaction with the BBC, such as disabled audiences, those in Scotland and those from less-well-off backgrounds.”

To what extent are you reaching out to those audiences? We have talked a little about different ways to access TV. I am interested in future viewers, and younger people in particular. What is your strategy to address those issues in a Scottish context and the diversity issue in audience ratings?

Louise Thornton

We know that we have challenges, and we know that we find certain groups harder to reach. We look at that in the data, and we in the commissioning team are all absolutely alive to that.

I will deal first with the second part of the question, which was about younger audiences. Younger audiences seem to be a really hard-to-reach group but, if you look at the data, you will find that 75 per cent of younger people use the BBC iPlayer. That is their preferred video-on-demand service. I take heart from that statistic.

On the data on programmes that we are making, our sport output, for example—in particular, our live sport, including the championship games on Fridays—brings in high volumes of young people, as do very big, successful programmes such as “Murder Case” and “Guilt”. Some 25 per cent of the audience of “River City” on the iPlayer are from a younger age bracket.

We are attracting young audiences. I am not pretending that we are a young audience service—we are not; we are a broad, universal service—but I can see the points in our programming in which we have younger audiences. Our challenge is how to retain them and make them feel that the BBC is for them.

The second part of our strategy involves where younger audiences see themselves on the BBC, particularly BBC Scotland. I will take the example of the TRNSMT festival, which is Scotland’s biggest music festival. That is a fantastic music festival if you are 15 years old—although possibly not if you are in your 40s, as I was when I went to it. It is a really popular festival with young people, and a million people watch it on our services. Half of those are young people who watch on the iPlayer—that is their viewing habit.

We need to make sure that our iPlayer strategy is strong. When we have content that we know attracts young people, we need to look at how we market it.


On your marketing point, our team, which is led by Gillian Morrison, recently launched a TikTok account. That took a while to authorise with the BBC, but we are seeing that younger audiences are finding our content. We know that they will come to us for the comedy, sport and music genres, and we know that we have a healthy audience on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook still. We have a very healthy audience on Facebook, including a very healthy young audience.

We also have BBC’s The Social, which is absolutely targeted at young people. It is targeted at a young audience for consumption, but also for them to see and hear themselves. For those who do not know, that is a co-creation project. We have a team that works throughout Scotland with young people from different backgrounds. On your diversity point, very strong diversity targets are built into The Social to make sure that we hit people and that we hear from what we call underserved audiences.

In The Social, hundreds of pieces of content a year are created throughout Scotland, including by young people who might not have had a relationship with the BBC in the past. That has been going for several years now, and we have seen that a lot of those young people have gone on to work in the industry, which is absolutely fantastic.

Some of the young people who have created content for The Social have made programmes for BBC Scotland. For example, “Roaming in the Wild” developed from two young men making short-form content. They got a six-part series with half-hour episodes on BBC Scotland. “Eat the Town”, which is coming to screens soon, is about two young people who are friends and who sample food from places in Scotland that people might not normally go to for a culinary experience.

We have a really strong strategy for young audiences with those types of projects, but we are also looking at the bigger programmes that bring in young audiences and thinking about how we can do more of those. We see that “Murder Case” and “David Wilson’s Crime Files” do well with young audiences and that “Paramedics on Scene”, in which we can see people from throughout Scotland doing very important jobs every day, is doing very well with them.

Our relationship with BBC Three is very strong. Last year, we co-commissioned two programmes with it: “Wild Weekends” and “Sky High Club: Scotland and Beyond”, which is a series that is just out. That series shows young people who work in Loganair flying all over the country. Again, that is good portrayal in which we see young people. If you watch it, you will see that it is delivered in a very BBC Three-type way, so it looks and feels very young.

Sarah Boyack

The other side of that is career opportunities for young people. You have talked a bit about production in Scotland. Can you give me a sense of production across Scotland? Obviously, a lot of the production is in Glasgow, but what about the rest of the country?

I want to pick up the particular issue of BBC News. To what extent is that focused across the country or mainly on Glasgow? What are the opportunities for young people to get into the sector—into journalism or behind the camera?

Steve Carson

I will start off on our direct BBC and BBC Scotland initiatives and then speak more broadly about the wider sector support.

BBC Scotland has a strong track record on apprenticeships and trainee schemes that goes back a decade or more. That means that the demographics of our workforce are different. Right now, there are 60 apprentices and trainees in bases all around Scotland. As members know, we have 12 bases in Scotland. Seventeen of those apprenticeships started this month; I think that we are due to start another 17 in January. They are right across the range, from journalism, production, production management, broadcast engineering, software engineering to user design.

As I have said, that is a very big and firm commitment, but it is also an enormous bonus for us because, in recruiting those apprentices, we deliberately go to people who may never have thought of the BBC as a career for them. Their diversity of thought and background is incredibly strong. That they are paid apprenticeships and trainees is hugely important in our industry, much of which relies on work experience and so on. That in itself opens access to people who cannot afford to live off the bank of mum and dad. That commitment has been hugely valuable to us.

That is our direct employment. Louise Thornton, with her commissioning hat on, works with a number of other agencies.

Louise Thornton

I have mentioned The Social, which does a great job of bringing young people into the industry. We have a really healthy partnership with Screen Scotland, and there are a number of initiatives in our memorandum of understanding with it.

We have just launched our new directors initiative, which is aimed at young people shooting their first broadcast hour or half hour. In that initiative, we select candidates from different and diverse backgrounds, and we place them in the independent sector. That should be delivering later on this year.

There is the FormatLab initiative in the MOU with Screen Scotland. That initiative is about bringing talent at different levels into factual programming. There is also the rad diversity scheme. Beyond that, we are always looking for opportunities in which we can bring trainees into some of our productions.

We had a training programme to bring on new talent at the heart of “Granite Harbour”, which is a drama that is set in Aberdeen and which will go out later this year. We know that drama is booming in Scotland, so we need to bring in new people in that way. There is a very active training programme in “River City”, and we see lots of young and new people coming through that production.

In October, we are launching a series for black history month. We are working with an indie that is bringing through young black talent, writing, performing and directing. We look for opportunities in which we can do that. BBC Scotland is a place in which we can develop new talent and sometimes take a risk with people, as well.

Steve Carson

On the direct point about the distribution of our journalists, we have BBC journalists working in all the bases, from Edinburgh to Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness, Portree, Stornoway, Shetland and Orkney.

On the wider point, I have noticed from working in Scotland that the broad creative sector is very Glasgow focused. Part of our role through commissioning is to make sure that we go outside Glasgow and represent all of Scotland. I will give a direct example. A few years ago, a series about a children’s hospital that was set here was pitched to us. We said that we were interested in the area, but we did not want it here. That series was then commissioned through Aberdeen. We are constantly focused on making sure that we represent all of Scotland.

Alasdair Allan

You mentioned young audiences. I am interested in the issue of audio content. There is certainly no shortage of interest in audio content from younger people—podcasts and so on—but I listen to the radio, and I have to admit that, if I let slip to a younger member of my family, friends or work colleagues that I have heard something on the radio, they give me a very puzzled look. Where does audio content for young people lie? What does its future look like?

Louise Thornton

To be honest, we see young audiences coming to radio for sport. “Sportsound” does a brilliant job. We know that there is an audience need for live sport, and “Sportsound” delivers brilliantly. However, we are seeing a lot of young people picking that up on BBC Sounds now, and we have seen growth on that platform. To go back to an earlier question, the issue then is how, when young people go to that platform to listen to our sport content, we surface other content to them.

Over the past few years, we have been investing in podcasts. We know that that is a growth area, including for young people. One of our podcasts that has done incredibly well with young people is “Good Ship BrewDog”. We know that that is an area of interest and that that is a brand that is known to them. Within that portfolio, true crime also does very well with young audiences. We have a very successful podcast called “Who Killed Emma?” I think that its downloads were sitting at over a million, with a strong youth profile.

Beyond that, in music, TRNSMT is a great way in, as is the Belladrum festival, which, as we do with TRNSMT, we co-commission with BBC Alba. We also have a very successful partnership with “BBC Music Introducing”. That is skewed to the very young, because it is all about celebrating new music and new artists in Scotland. We structure that programme by putting it out live on Radio Scotland, and we put it on BBC Sounds as a podcast.

Last year, we extended that brand to produce a TV competition show called “Scottish Act of the Year”, which has done very well with young people. The winner of that competition was Bemz, who is a rap artist from Ayrshire and a fantastic talent. Bemz is known to young people, but was not to me—although he is now. That is where we see the real benefit of things such as “BBC Music Introducing”. It is about grass-roots music. That is something that the BBC does brilliantly. That is a very strong brand for the BBC, and we have leaned into that in Scotland and are delivering it digitally for young people.

Maurice Golden

We have touched on this. I am conscious that there is a testing financial backdrop, but I am keen to get on the record how you are developing plans for capacity building in the regions, if you like—beyond Glasgow, and particularly around Dundee and Aberdeen.

Louise Thornton

We have a very strong production sector in Aberdeen. Some of our strongest programmes come from that area, such as “Beechgrove” and “Landward”, so we know that there is talent there. We are just about to extend “Beechgrove” to do a run of winter specials, again using the talent from that area. We did some research to find out what other audiences might like from that programme. Where we have something that is successful, we are always thinking about how we can do more. The training programme that we put at the heart of “Granite Harbour”, which I mentioned, was absolutely about building the drama sector in Aberdeen.

We did a piece of research recently that showed that Dundee is perhaps one of the places in Scotland that feels underserved by the BBC. With that in mind, we have created a strategy that is looking at local audiences and thinking about how to deliver more value for them. We are running a four-week local pilot with the Dundee and Tayside area, where we are making sure that we have a volume of programming coming from that area, including an increased digital news offer. “Debate Night” came from Dundee last night. We have just published a podcast commissioned by Gareth Hydes called “The Cruelty: A Child Unclaimed”, which gives the story of the unknown bairn from Tayport. Over the next month, we will be looking at how our sports output can also lean into Dundee.

Once we have finished our pilot, we will measure the impact of the increased volume of content with wraparound marketing and content discovery to make sure that, when audiences come to us, they can find other content. I hope that we will see a very positive impact from the pilot that will allow us to replicate it across Scotland.

Thank you. That is very useful.

Last year, I asked about network programme commissioners being based in Scotland. I am interested to hear about the progress that you have made there.

Louise Thornton

As I said, I sit with the five BBC Scotland commissioners. David Harron commissions factual, Gareth Hydes commissions radio, Gavin Smith commissions scripted, Steve Allen commissions popular factual and Tony Nellany commissions sport and factual. We sit at Pacific Quay in Glasgow, but we are out in the sector quite a lot as well.

We sit next to our network commissioning colleagues and our Gaelic commissioning colleagues. We have five network commissioners, and we have just recruited an assistant commissioner for drama. Gaynor Holmes is the network commissioner for drama, and she and Gavin Smith work in collaboration on projects such as “Granite Harbour” and “Mayflies”. We have a very strong relationship there.

Stephanie Fyfe, who has started as the assistant commissioner, works with Gaynor Holmes, but also with Gavin Smith on developing new writing talent. Muslim Alim works on daytime, so he works in collaboration with Steve Allen. Neil McCallum works on entertainment and we have some BBC Three projects on the go with him at the moment. Gregor Sharp, who is the comedy commissioner, works closely with Gavin Smith on things such as “Guilt”. They co-commissioned that. Julia Bond also sits in Scotland—she might be based in Skye, but I would have to check that. She commissions for the network but out of Scotland, working with Scotland indies.

Jenni Minto

It feels very joined up from the way that you have talked about it. I noticed in the papers today that the BBC had a programme launch and it was talking about the cost of living crisis. It said that it will be transmitting programmes that are about escapism but also resilience and that there will be cost of living elements throughout the programmes. I am interested to know whether BBC Scotland is planning to do that, because we have a slightly different environment here.


Louise Thornton

That is a really good question. We have been discussing that at length with Kate Phillips, who has taken over unscripted in network. Our approach at the moment is absolutely to build the issues through our output. News will be covering them extensively. Gareth Hydes, who commissions Radio Scotland, has built them in throughout the entire schedule. If you listen to Radio Scotland, you will hear all the issues being discussed on “Good Morning Scotland”, but also through the morning phone-in. We have been covering the energy crisis and the rent freeze and we have also looked at a property surgery.

For us, it is not just about one programme. We are considering how we can cover the issues throughout the output. We will be looking specifically at how “Debate Night” can lean into the issues, because we want to hear the voices of real people as well as those of experts. We want to hear their experiences. The social will be looking at the impact on young people. It will be producing short-form content to let young people share their stories and voices on the subject. Beyond those programmes, “River City” is always alive to what is going on in the world, so it will be thinking about how it brings the situation into its storylines.

That is the approach at the moment. However, escapism is also key. I think that our autumn schedule is looking really strong. We have a mix of the harder-hitting content and programmes that will help people, but we also have some wonderful programming to come through about renovating houses and travelling around Scotland, as well as drama and comedy.

Does that apply to BBC Alba as well?

Louise Thornton

Absolutely. BBC Alba has some fantastic content coming up. It has a new drama—I will try to pronounce its title properly—called “An Clò Mòr”. I hope that that is the right way to pronounce it. Margaret Mary Murray has been very helpful, as I am not a native speaker. It is all about Harris tweed, and I think that that is going to be a fantastic drama for BBC Alba. Its award-winning documentary series is looking at gaming culture. BBC Alba is really thinking about how it can push into younger Gaelic speakers.

Jenni Minto

I have a question about budgets. Rhodri Talfan Davies mentioned that the overall budget for the BBC is at a standstill, although you have the advantage that you know how much money you will have in the coming years. However, funding for things such as Radio nan Gàidheal, BBC Alba and the BBC Scottish symphony orchestra appears to remain at the same level with no inflationary rises. I am interested to know how that might impact on output. For example, can the orchestra continue to travel?

Rhodri Talfan Davies

It has been incredibly encouraging to see the increase in spend in Scotland over the past year. I know that that has been a focus of attention here. The bounce back from Covid across our spend on both Scottish services and network services is the right direction, and Steve Carson and I share the ambition to see that grow further.

It is a reality check. The organisation has faced a 30 per cent reduction in real terms in the value of the licence fee over the past 10 years. Steve and I are in daily discussions about how to ensure that we put every penny into content and reduce as much as we can the costs of doing business. As I said, however, the licence fee settlement, which was not the outcome that we were looking for—it is flat for two years at a generationally high point in inflation—is difficult.

I do not come here to ask for sympathy—every organisation across the country is facing a similar predicament—but we will have to look at that across the board. It is too early to speculate how we will go about it. As I said, our focus has always been on how we can drive reductions in areas such as procurement and distribution—areas that do not touch and affect the audience. In the end, the real test for the BBC going into the next charter will be the value that people get for the £159 that they spend on their licence fee each year. We have to protect our spend on content as far as we can.

The challenge that we have, which I detailed earlier, is that the assumptions that we made about the impact of the original licence fee deal did not anticipate the level of inflationary pressure that we are seeing, whether that is on energy costs or the hyperinflation that we see in the production sector given the demand for skills. We will have to circle that financial challenge of, maybe, between £400 million and £500 million by 2027-28. We are ambitious to see Scotland continuing to grow and thrive, but that is against an incredibly constrained financial backdrop.

Steve Carson

On the point about stability, if you look back over successive annual reports and accounts, you will see that, at times when other budgets and other investments were going up and down, we have maintained investment in our Gaelic services because we recognise how valuable they are.

The most significant investment was the investment in BBC Alba’s news coverage at the weekends. That totalled more than £1 million in 2018-19, and through the succeeding years, when other things were being reduced, we have maintained that level of investment. It has grown, and incremental things such as SpeakGaelic have been added to it. We know the value that the services of BBC Alba and Radio nan Gàidheal have among their target audience. They are very highly valued and they are a hugely important part of our remit.

We are working in the partnership that we have with MG Alba to see how we can continue to offer services on linear but also, increasingly, in the digital future. We know that there is high demand, for example for language learning in Gaelic. The Duolingo app showed us that, and SpeakGaelic is part of that as well. In partnership with MG Alba and others, we can use our platforms and our services to help to make an impact there.

What do you do with all the information about the environmental footprint of productions that you get from the albert calculator system that you talked about?

Steve Carson

It works towards the BBC achieving its overall sustainability commitment. The albert calculator was developed by the BBC and then released out to the broader sector through BAFTA. It is now used at the point of every commission. I think that Louise Thornton can speak to that. It is being tracked.

Louise Thornton

It is now absolutely part of the commissioning conversation. The commissioner will sit down with the independent company or producer at the start of each commission and talk through what they need in order to achieve the albert certification. That is monitored throughout production and checked at the end. It has been mandatory since January 2022. We are helping companies to adjust to what they need to do, but we are tracking it, as Steve Carson said, and we want to get to 100 per cent, with every single production achieving certification.

Are you finding that the independent companies are learning from the information that they are putting in and perhaps changing their behaviours?

Louise Thornton

Yes. I think that there is still some work to be done, to be honest, because it is a new part of the commissioning process, but we have been encouraged by the results that we have seen so far. We are doing a review of the process to ensure that everybody knows what they need to do and at which points.

Everyone that we speak to in production is absolutely committed to this. There is no resistance with people not wanting to do it. It is just about making sure that people know how to do it and that, at the end of the production, they have achieved what they set out to achieve.

Rhodri Talfan Davies

I reassure you that it is not just about the BBC pushing its sustainability commitments into the independent production sector. We also need to put our own house in order. As Steve Carson mentioned, we have a very clear target to achieve net zero by 2030, which requires some quite aggressive work. We want to try to reduce energy costs or energy usage by about 20 per cent over the next three years and by 30 per cent by 2030.

There is an awful lot we need to do in our estate across the BBC and in our internal working practices, but there is no doubt that albert has sectoral support. One of the key reasons why the BBC moved albert to BAFTA was to ensure that it is a genuinely sectoral initiative that commands the support of the whole production community.

Steve Carson

On what BBC Scotland is doing directly in this area, I am really delighted that the work came up not as some sort of corporate requirement but through the team in Aberdeen leading the way by forming a green team and coming up with its own solutions.

BBC Scotland is transferring its car fleet over to electric vehicles and we are now working with the rest of the BBC to pass on the lessons that we have learned. If you have been to Pacific Quay recently, you will know that we have had an enormous solar array built that is generating a significant chunk—at least 30 per cent—of our energy. We have looked at a number of things we have done over the past few years, such as replacing chillers and changing to LED lighting, and we feel that we have removed about 1,800 tonnes of carbon dioxide from our footprint in one building alone.

Mark Ruskell

I will come back to Louise Thornton about the social media strategy. I was interested to hear that the BBC is now on TikTok. Will the BBC also be going on Twitch, for example? How do you see the platforms evolving, and what will be the BBC’s involvement in them?

Louise Thornton

It is quite hard to say, given the speed with which social media platforms and audience behaviours move. At one point, when we were looking at young audience behaviour, we thought that young people were not on Facebook any more so we should not try to target them there, but that is not true. A lot of young people are on Facebook across the demographics.

In relation to our strategy, we know that Instagram has a younger, mostly female profile, so we think about how we target our content in that way. We know that TikTok is skewed towards younger people, so we take a targeted approach to our content discovery and think about the type of content that we put on that platform. However, a lot of older people now consume on TikTok—when the parents of kids start going on TikTok, the kids might start leaving TikTok—but we know that that is a great way of targeting young people.

We do not have any plans to go on Twitch at the moment, but we have a comedy channel on YouTube, because we can see that there is great consumption of longer-form sketch-type comedy on YouTube.

With our social media strategy, given that we work with independent companies, we have to be mindful of intellectual property interests. In relation to our overall strategy, we would like people to drive to iPlayer. We are looking for awareness and attribution of BBC content on social media, but we are also looking for growth in the use of iPlayer and BBC Sounds.

Rhodri Talfan Davies

There is also a legislative dimension. In old money, the BBC’s position on analogue platforms on television and radio was very protected; enormous prominence was given to public service broadcasting. My point goes back to the audio question that we discussed earlier. How audiences find and discover content on social media platforms and all the various new devices, such as smart televisions, raises a critical question relating to what prominence we give, and how we safeguard, public service media in the years to come.

The prospect of a digital media bill to address such issues is critical, not just for the BBC but for the whole public service landscape. That legislation is essential if we are serious about younger audiences having access to trusted media that is where they are. Given the abundance of content out there at the moment, it is very challenging to cut through. The BBC has the advantage of scale, but the prominence that we have enjoyed historically has also been a critical ingredient, and we need to protect that on the new platforms.

The Convener

I will ask a final question. A key theme of the work that the committee has been doing has related to a wellbeing society and wellbeing communities. We have been looking at how cultural budgets can leverage wellbeing in our communities. In relation to big-ticket items, will the BBC Scottish symphony orchestra—which, I think, is a jewel in the crown—be part of the strategy when looking at projects and at what might be done in communities? Will it provide diversity in terms of live audiences and audience participation in productions?

Steve Carson

We are very proud of the BBC Scottish symphony orchestra. As you know, earlier this year, the BBC as a whole conducted a classical review that noted, very broadly, the BBC’s important role in classical music. As part of that, the Scottish symphony orchestra was quite rightly recognised for its quality. It is a big part of our strategy and an organic part of BBC Scotland.

Outreach is very important. That includes everything from getting out and about and touring as much as possible around Scotland to working with organisations such as Sistema Scotland in trying to bring music to, in particular, young audiences who might not otherwise access it. That is a key part of the thinking in relation to the orchestra and our wider strategy.

The Convener

That concludes questions from the committee. I will be very cheeky by saying that I hope to see you all again next year for Eurovision in Glasgow, which I know is one of your areas of interest. Thank you very much for your attendance this morning. I will suspend the meeting briefly.

10:01 Meeting suspended.  

10:07 On resuming—