Tonight cross-bench peers will attempt, in a Report Stage debate, to get references to S4C removed from the Public Bodies Bill. We must all hope that they succeed, not only on the general point of principle that the Bill gives Ministers excessive powers to close or merge public bodies, but also on the specific point that S4C was established by statute after prolonged political debate in Wales, and that there is a near unanimous view that that legal basis should continue.
The constitution of an organisation so central to Welsh cultural life – and a public service broadcaster at that – should not exist at the whim of passing Ministers. The degree of protection from ministerial pressure afforded to a broadcaster needs to be greater than that afforded to the Agricultural Wages Board.
But while peers muster the necessary righteous indignation about the vulnerability of S4C, when they have concluded their business they might just pause to assess the vulnerability of television broadcasting as a whole in Wales. For a wider disaster may yet be looming.
Since Jeremy Hunt’s night raid on the BBC, which transferred the costs of S4C from the UK Treasury and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, to the BBC licence fee, much has been made of a supposed threat of a takeover of S4C by the BBC, a threat constantly denied by the BBC’s Director General Mark Thompson. However, the constitutional arrangements between the two organisations – discussion of which seems to be on hold while the debacle of appointing a new chair to S4C is resolved – may pale into insignificance compared with what could emerge from the BBC’s current review of all its services.
Followers of the broadcasting debate in Wales will recall the following central facts:
- Between 2004 and 2009 spend on English language television programmes for Wales across BBC and ITV fell by 44 per cent.
- BBC Wales are currently implementing further cuts due to be completed in 2013-14.
- BBC Wales has already announced a 25 per cent cut in the value of the 10 hours of the Welsh language programmes it supplies to S4C free of charge under various Broadcasting Acts.
- Jeremy Hunt has decreed a 25 per cent cut in the core funding of S4C via the licence fee over the next four years.
Meanwhile we await to hear whether, post 2014, ITV will make any programmes for Wales other than news.
This massive budgetary squeeze might be thought quite bad enough, but is not the end of it. The BBC is now looking for a further 20 per cent cut across the corporation between now and the end of this licence fee period in 2016-7. The outgoing chairman of the BBC Trust has strongly suggested that the BBC should cut whole services, in order to safeguard others. In response BBC management are looking at variations on its default position of salami slicing which, at this level of severity would leave services for Wales massively depleted.
Were this to occur the volume of output for Wales in both Welsh and English will decline further, as would the range of programming. Already at S4C it looks as if expensive programmes like drama will be the first to fall. Meanwhile, independent conglomerates are fighting to protect the cheap, high volume output that is most profitable for them. The same would be the case at BBC Wales, except that its drama output in English for Wales (as opposed to network drama) barely exists. In the past we could always whistle to keep our spirits up while we waited for the economic cycle to bring the good times back. Not this time. What we lose now, may never come back.
Last week Mark Thompson last sketched out 21 ways in which the BBC might save money. It is a list that is truly frightening in its potential to alter utterly the parameters of broadcasting for the people of Wales. Amongst the options are:
- End local radio in England outside peak time.
- End opt-out programming for the nations and regions on BBC 2.
- Locate more of the BBC’s channels and commissioners outside London.
- Sharing output across nations, local and network radio.
- Sharing nations’ television programmes across the network.
- Cut the budgets of other services to protect BBC 1 – which may include reduced spending on sports rights, although Thompson did not mention it specifically in his list.
The BBC has never been short of people who see little point in regional broadcasting and who regard services for the small nations as a side issue. This list confirms that large organisations almost always revert to centralisation when under financial pressure. Although Mark Thompson is widely regarded as one of the few who ‘gets devolution’, the BBC response has been largely confined to the decentralisation of network production beyond London. This is a re-arrangement of network furniture that certainly has economic benefits for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but has so far done little to alter the cultural diversity of BBC output.
But imagine if the above options came to pass. Programmes for Wales would be confined to BBC 1. However, their range and number would be severely constrained as each programme would have to be competitive within the BBC1 schedule. There would also be a limit on their number so that they did not become disruptive of that schedule. There might be room on a Saturday or Sunday to play a Six Nations Rugby game, but nowhere to play a club match on a Friday. In this scenario the WRU would see a big dent in its television rights income, and S4C would have to pick up more of the bill for rugby programming that is so vital to its viewing figures.
The notion of sharing programming for Wales across the UK networks would put a further pressure on commissioners within BBC Wales to create programmes ‘that can travel’. That is to say, they would be programmes that would need to make a compromise between the needs and desires of the audience in Wales, and what would be acceptable to viewers elsewhere. This a discipline that might also be forced on Radio Wales.
Much of this is driven by the cost of transmission, a cost that is moving inexorably upwards as the broadcasters move into HD, a point that reinforces the need for Wales to consider all its transmission/spectrum needs as a whole – BBC and S4C.
What lies behind these options is the re-emergence of the old-fashioned view that, under pressure, discreet services for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are an optional extra that will be afforded only as long as they can serve the centre. If the centre is under threat the periphery will have to suffer wholly disproportionate depredations. In this way the local television evangelist, Jeremy Hunt, will, with Machiavellian inconsistency, have forced Mark Thompson to sound like Michael Grade, the butcher of ITV’s regional broadcasting.
I hope I am wrong, but Welsh acquiescence in the face of the decline of English language services remains our cultural blind spot.