There is no shortage of astonishment in Welsh broadcasting circles at the fate of S4C in the comprehensive spending review. The rumoured cut of 6 per cent a year for four years has proved to be pretty accurate – final figure 24.4 per cent – but now the very existence of the organisation is hanging by a thread as a result of a forced marriage with the BBC. The BBC will pay the first dowry in 2013 before full consummation in 2015.
But before the ensuing debate descends into mayhem it is worth trying to keep the issue of political process separate from the substance of what is proposed, even if the deficiencies of the process may in the end point us towards even more radical change.
The process is surely indefensible. Parts of a series of Broadcasting Acts from 1980 onwards, together with parts of the Communications Act 2003 have, in effect, been repealed without a single minute of Parliamentary debate, without any consultation with the S4C Authority itself – an erstwhile autonomous statutory organisation that is obliged now to admit the BBC into a full partnership in running its channel – or with Welsh Ministers. Rushed ministerial meetings during a boozy golf tournament hardly count as consultation.
The Culture Minister, Jeremy Hunt, has acted like a Tudor monarch, whetting his appetite for swift executions with the dispatch of the UK Film Council, before attending to the trouble beyond March in like fashion. The Tudors, for good reason, probably understood Wales better. The S4C Authority intends to challenge the decision through judicial review. It could prove an interesting case, but it will not deter the Government from pushing on. It has more than enough time to regularise its decisions in Parliament, and to finesse points of detail. There is no Gwynfor Evans waiting in the wings. Times have changed.
In its report to the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) S4C argued that its funding should be considered on the same timescale as the BBC licence fee, due for the usual leisurely review over the next 18 months. Both broadcasters should be treated equally, it said. The DCMS telescoped the licence fee review into three days, thus meeting S4C’s wishes, at least in this regard. Moral: be careful what you wish for.
But what of the substance? There are big issues for the BBC. Having been strong-armed into funding S4C, the BBC World Service, the roll out of broadband and a contribution to local television, it can hardly claim any more that the principle of not top-slicing the licence fee is intact. The freezing of the licence fee also means that it will have to save another £140m a year on top of the savings programmes that are already in place and hurting services in Wales badly. We must beware that Wales does not suffer even more pain on top of the 44 per cent reduction in spend on English language services (BBC+ITV) that we have seen in the last five years.
Bigger questions face S4C, and here we come to the substance. First, and most crucially, how does it deal with a cut of 26 per cent over the next four years? It is difficult to see how the service can survive in its current form. The financial pressure will surely force some new thinking on the nature of the linear channel and the balance between linear and online investment. It needs to recover its creativity and some of its audience.
But what of the institution? When the first leaks appeared on Tuesday, the DCMS was, apparently emphasising that S4C would retain ‘operational independence’, but at the same time it was being slowly revealed, not only that the channel would be predominantly funded by the BBC, but that in future it would be run by a Joint Board composed of representatives of the BBC and the S4C Authority. The service would be licensed by the BBC Trust. What price S4C’s independence? In search of power it is always a good rule to follow the money.
Journalists were pointed towards BBC Alba, the Scottish digital television channel that has broadcast Gaelic programmes daily since 2008. BBC Alba is jointly managed by the BBC and the Gaelic Media Service, but there are crucial differences. In Scotland the bulk of the funding for BBC Alba comes not from the BBC but from the Gaelic Media Service that is funded by the Scottish Parliament. It broadcasts for a limited number of hours a day with the BBC Radio nan Gaidheal service providing a sound sustaining service in its downtime. But BBC Alba, unlike S4C, is a BBC branded channel. The Gaelic Media Service, on the other hand, is not a brand.
There is clearly some financial logic in the BBC and S4C seeking all the synergies that they can, and if there are substantial gains to be made they could accrue to both Welsh language and English television services in Wales. Indeed, the recent S4C-BBC agreement to explore further collaboration was careful to say that any benefits should accrue to each side equally. But what of the other stipulation that any proposals “should not undermine media plurality, distinctiveness, or the editorial independence of other broadcaster.” It is not yet clear whether editorial independence will survive, but media plurality is hardly enhanced, unless the commissioning independence of S4C is retained.
It may be too early to chase detail, but whatever else Jeremy Hunt has done, he has, whether inadvertently or not, opened up an opportunity for urgent debate in Wales. We should seize it, and extend it. Many of the issues canvassed in S4C’s report to the DCMS remain relevant. But the Hunt proposals have also raised questions about the structure of the BBC. It cannot be right that the quantum and balance of spend on both Welsh language and English language services should be decided within the BBC’s closed and centralised management structures. There is a proper place for public policy in those decisions, and a place for devolved government. We could emerge with an S4C Authority with a wider multi-media brief, as some of us have urged.
We have less than 12 months to find the right answers for the whole of Welsh broadcasting. Parliament’s Welsh Affairs Committee could make a start by enlarging its proposed inquiry into S4C to encompass the wider brief.