TED BROCKLEBANK It's been a rough couple of weeks for Scotland's broadcasters. First we had the news in Ofcom's annual report for the nations and regions that there had been a massive cut in the spend on news and current affairs by the Scottish broadcast companies, coupled with a halving in funding for programmes they produced for the network. Then we had Michael Grade, ITV's chief executive, and Mark Thompson, the BBC's director-general, telling an Ofcom conference in Cardiff that the reasons Scottish broadcasters weren't getting their fare share of commissions was that they weren't talented enough.
"The money will follow the talent" was Grade's putdown to Bobby Hain, STV's director of television, at the conference. Presumably, this wasn't a reference to Grade's own vast salary hike when he jumped ship to ITV, having failed as BBC chairman to deliver the level of licence fee the corporation deemed essential, or to Mark Thompson's latest pay rise, which takes his salary to £788,000 a year. Thompson was as dismissive of his Scottish BBC programmers as Grade had been of STV's. "We haven't had as strong network ideas coming from Scotland as we would like Scottish controller Ken McQuarrie would agree with that." Is that a fact, Ken?
As commissioners, rather than programme-makers, both Grade and Thompson were being more than a little disingenuous. The truth is that, rather than money following talent, talent follows money.
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Scotland has been starved of TV production funding, particularly by the BBC, for the past five years. Some see this as a direct result of the former Labour Executive choosing not to involve itself in broadcasting, given its reserved status. If Jack McConnell wasn't interested in pressing the Scottish broadcast authorities for a fair deal, according to this argument, there were plenty of other BBC regions happy to take up the funding slack.
Truth is, if Scottish producers are not coming up with the perceived network goods it's far more likely to be because in recent years talent north of the border has not been identified and nurtured. This is particularly true for the Scottish independents, which, with a couple of notable exceptions, have been disgracefully treated by the network funders while "indies" in other parts of the UK have prospered.
Cardiff is now a significant centre for TV drama, and Manchester the Beeb's main production centre outside London. Bristol is a world leader in natural history programming. Only when the expertise and creativity was in place in these locations did the money start to follow the talent. But BBC Scotland can't lay all the blame on London. It's now more than two years since the new Gaelic language TV channel was announced, with significant executive funding, but Ken McQuarrie, himself a native Gael, has still to set a launch date.
So, how serious is the network funding crisis in Scotland? According to the Ofcom report, spending north of the border by the four licensed public service broadcasters (BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five) has halved over two years. Back in 2004 Scottish productions accounted for a meagre 6% of the investment in UK-originated material. For 2006, the figure is a derisory 3%. Even on a population-share basis Scotland should get around 9% of investment.
But when it comes to Scottish broadcast journalism the funding crisis is even more serious. Between 2001 and 2006, spending on current affairs television in Scotland (BBC plus STV) declined by 45%. Over the same period budgets for television news were down by 27%. Equivalent figures for the nations and regions of the UK as a whole show a 10% cut in current affairs and a 3% cut in news - a tiny drop compared with the Scottish cuts. Now Ofcom says ITV may not be able to afford regional news programmes such as STV's Scotland Today.
Yet, with devolution of such key issues as health, education, law and enterprise to the Scottish Parliament, arguably there should be far more to analyse and debate and, yes, to mount investigative TV current affairs programmes about, not less.
In my view there are now questions about broadcasting in Scotland that parliament must urgently address. There may be some excuse for SMG, a commercial company that is trying to resurrect itself after manifestly failing in its primary functions - to make TV programmes and to make money. But for the mandarins of the publicly-funded BBC there can be no hiding place.
Alex Salmond's SNP government has a manifesto commitment to a devolved Scottish broadcasting system. Ofcom has provided ample evidence that funding of public broadcasting in Scotland - and particularly news and current affairs - puts Scottish broadcasters at a disadvantage and denies Scots the quality of TV available elsewhere. That is not a state of affairs with which Mr Salmond and his Culture Minister, Linda Fabiani, are likely to remain at ease.
The other parties should be warned. Whether or not they believe broadcasting should continue to be reserved, they cannot be seen to condone a situation where Scottish broadcasters, in-house as well as independents, continue to be discriminated against by those who control national funding.
Let the debate begin. Ted Brocklebank MSP is the Scottish Conservative Shadow Minister for Culture and a former TV producer whose network credits include the award-winning documentaries Oil, The Blood Is Strong and Scotland the Grave.