When a national broadcaster cuts two hours of programming a week that is dedicated to covering the political life of that nation, then very serious questions have to be raised about the impact on the democratic process for that nation. That nation is Wales and the broadcaster in question is the BBC.
The American writer Walter Lippmann stated that, “A free press is not a privilege, but an organic necessity in a great society.” Arguably, a robust fourth estate is even more of a necessity for a nation with a fledgling parliamentary body that recently acquired full law-making powers.
The BBC is facing cuts across the nations and regions as part of its Delivering Quality First initiative. In Wales, the contents budget will be cut by 10 per cent over the next five years, with the loss of 120 jobs. Despite assurances that investment in news and political programming will be maintained, these cuts will inevitably damage democracy in Wales.
In March of this year, the people of Wales voted overwhelmingly in favour of enhanced law-making powers for the National Assembly, on the premise that it would equip the institution with the appropriate constitutional tools to address the specific legislative needs of Wales.
But at the very time when the Assembly is set to begin considering new laws, through this enhanced law-making system, the BBC proposes to reduce the amount of programming dedicated to covering the work we do at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay. One of the programmes to be axed is the Wednesday edition of BBC Wales’s AM.PM programme, which is aired in the same slot as BBC network’s Daily Politics.
Part of the rationale for these changes refers to the low audience figures for a programme like AM.PM when compared to the 6.30pm daily news bulletin, Wales Today. The argument put forward is that scrapping a dedicated political programme will result in more political coverage on BBC Wales’s flagship Wales Today news bulletin and other news coverage, thus reaching a wider audience. This argument is difficult to accept for two reasons:
- BBC Wales television and news bulletins already offer coverage of the National Assembly, therefore it is difficult to see how this could be increased in any quantifiable terms.
- On 9 November, AM.PM had a 2 per cent share of the audience in Wales compared to the Daily Politics’ 4 per cent audience share at a network level. However, there is no suggestion that a show covering Westminster-centric politics is axed as a result of a relatively low share of the audience. Furthermore, if this low audience-share argument is taken to its logical conclusion, then it must surely run counter to the BBC’s public service remit to provide political programming in the regions and the nations. Extra news coverage is no replacement for that.
We are told that BBC Wales will, despite the cuts, “maintain its current levels of investment in political coverage of Cardiff Bay and Westminster” in a Welsh context. That means more political coverage in news, increased investment in peak-time radio programmes, ring-fencing the budget for its flagship current affairs programme and maintaining investment in landmark documentaries.
Of course, all of this is to be welcomed. However, it does not fill that gap in political programming where in-depth analysis of the Welsh political landscape can take place. Following the resounding public endorsement of Welsh democracy with an affirmative vote in the referendum on full law making powers in March 2011, it may be puzzling to the Welsh electorate that our national broadcaster feels that Wales’ law-making body does not require the attention it has received in the first decade of devolution, at the very time it has been given enhanced law-making powers – powers to make the real changes that communities across Wales are calling for.
Furthermore, there is an implicit message to other media providers here. If the BBC doesn’t see the need to maintain the level of its non-news political programming in Wales, then it makes it harder to argue against any future case made by commercial Public Service Broadcasting provider that may request to reduce its PSB provision further
In 2008, Professor Anthony King challenged BBC Network’s coverage of the devolved nations, suggesting that:
- Attempts to compare and contrast policies between the nations are rare.
- Coverage of politics across the four nations is often seen through Westminster eyes.
- Hardly any legislators in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland are interviewed on network news.
- There is little attempt to tackle devolution issues per se, particularly with reference to Wales and Northern Ireland.
- Substantial and important political/policy developments in the nations do not figure on the main bulletins, in particular BBC1’s Ten O’clock News.
Whilst much positive work has been done on the part of BBC Network to address these criticisms, it has not been wholly successful. The coverage that Welsh viewers need is one that clearly and irrefutably articulates the significant differences in policy and the delivery of public services between England and Wales. To paraphrase Lippmann, this is a right, and not a privilege.
With this in mind, my colleagues and I have grave concerns that the proposals in Delivering Quality First for political programming in Wales will do nothing but exacerbate the problem. The English regions may justifiably argue that Wales is getting off relatively lightly compared to the cuts they face in their programming budgets, and I have every sympathy with them.
But they don’t have a law-making body that delivers huge policy differences, in terms of our schools and hospitals, which are then not reported in the London-based newspapers, which are the news platforms of choice for many in Wales. So like many of my colleagues at the National Assembly, I have very real fears that these changes will inevitably damage Welsh democracy.