Wales must fill the vacuum left by Hunt

Geraint Talfan Davies suggests a way forward out of the S4C chaos






John Walter Jones

This week the S4C saga has descended into an unedifying farce. It is beyond satire. Some call for the Chairman of the S4C Authority to resign, others for everyone but the chairman to resign. The Chairman resigns in private but not in public. The four party leaders in Wales, in an unprecedented consensus, call for an urgent review. There seems to be sympathy for this in Parliament’s Welsh Affairs Committee. The UK Culture Secretary dismisses the call, but says that it might be an idea to have one in five year’s time. People are left scratching their heads wondering whether this dismissal is an act of contemptuous whimsy or cunning calculation.

Either way, there is a vacuum. And that is the opportunity for Wales. We must fill that vacuum and try to assume a control over events rather than be buffeted by them.

No-one can deny that we have seen a comprehensive breakdown of relationships. Whatever the reasons for it, the matter of blame is less important now than finding a way forward that restores some semblance of dignity to public debate and to an important and valuable national institution. More to the point, we need a way forward that allows S4C to equip itself to negotiate a continued autonomous existence, albeit in partnership with the BBC. It’s time to stop scrapping with each other and to act purposefully.

There are five immediate steps to regain some stability and sanity, steps that are within Welsh control and which could mitigate the effects of the UK Culture Secretary’s neglect.

ONE John Walter Jones, the Chairman of S4C, is a public servant who has given considerable service to Wales and its language in many different posts. Sadly, things have not gone well at S4C and there has been a breakdown of corporate governance. Who is at fault is now immaterial. But, whatever the formal niceties, the fact is that the necessary relationship of trust between a Chairman and the rest of the Authority is no more. Once shattered, it cannot be easily restored, and certainly not in the few months that Mr Jones wishes to remain.

The best service he can do for the channel now is to stand aside immediately. This would force the UK Culture Secretary to begin the process of finding a successor. It would also provide a compelling reason for putting the discussion on governance between S4C and the BBC on hold.

TWO The rest of the Authority members should not resign, since this would create another vacuum and leave a public organisation and its staff without the necessary means of proper governance. However, they should make a collective public declaration that they will all be willing to relinquish their positions if that is requested of them once a new chairman or chairwoman is in post. That would give a new chair an opportunity, with the DCMS and the Welsh Government, to reconstitute, and strengthen the S4C Authority quickly.

THREE The appointment of a new Chief Executive should be put on hold until the new Chair has had an opportunity to assess the position.

FOUR Since Jeremy Hunt is unwilling to set a review in train, the Assembly Government should commission such a review itself, through the Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones. The Welsh Government has an oversight role of broadcasting, even if formal power has not been devolved. It has a general competence in cultural matters that it should now use to the full. Naturally, it would have been better had the review been commissioned jointly by the Welsh Government and the DCMS, but an expert review, placed in the public domain, cannot but have an impact on the course of both public debate and private negotiation. Wales is owed that.

S4C itself is embarking on a review of the nature of its service. In its recent submission to the DCMS it promised that this process would involve the recruitment of an ‘external reference group’. If it is wise, it will ensure that this group contains the best possible expertise, some of which will have to come from outside Wales. It needs to be rigorous. It would also make sense to engage meaningfully with the BBC, along with its other suppliers, in this task.

The Review that the Welsh Government should commission should concentrate on governance issues that include options for structuring the relationship with the BBC and the thorny question of the relative responsibilities of the DCMS, the Welsh Government, the BBC, the S4C Authority and Ofcom. The review of governance commissioned by S4C from Sir Jon Shortridge was too narrow in its remit. There are many technical issues to be resolved, as well as political considerations. It is crucially important that they are all brought out into the public domain rather than being buried in a private discussion between a wounded S4C and a BBC that has a tendency publicly to deny its own strength.

The Hunt option of doing nothing for four years seems designed to avoid the emergence of any inconvenient new ideas and to push through the S4C-BBC deal with undue haste.

FIVE Formal discussions between S4C and the BBC should naturally await both the appointment of the new Chair and the report of the review body. Postponing this discussion would also allow time to further the joint studies by S4C and BBC officials into the potential for operational synergies between the two. There is no rush to conclude the governance deal. The BBC’s funding of S4C is not scheduled to start until 2013-14. Talk of doing the deal before Christmas is impractical and not in the Welsh interest.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA and a former Controller of BBC Wales.