In his evidence to the Assembly’s inquiry into the future of the media in Wales Hywel Wiliam, on behalf of the IWA’s media policy group, argued that the Welsh Government should get involved in broadcasting, even though it was not a devolved matter. As he put it, “We have substantial amounts to gain, both in cultural terms and in terms of economic development, by getting involved now.”
He was responding to Peter Black’s observation that AMs are “hitting a brick wall all the time” whenever they raise this potential role with Ministers. He said their response was, “It’s not a devolved issue – they’re happy to pass it on to UK government ministers.”
Referring to the IWA’s backing – in its written evidence – for the establishment of a working group to consider the feasibility of devolving some aspects of media policy, Peter Black observed “neither the Welsh nor UK governments are committed to that.” This is what prompted Hywel Wiliam’s trenchant observation.
His colleague Aled Eirug, also presenting evidence on behalf of the IWA, emphasised that
“Unless there’s a serious effort to create some locus for the Assembly and the Welsh Government on media issues Wales won’t be part of the debate and won’t be listened to. The S4C/BBC deal is a classic example of the way that’s happened, to Wales’s cost, and although the Welsh government hasn’t made a play for powers in this area because of the belief that it’s all or nothing in terms of devolving powers, it’s a much more complicated and sophisticated landscape than that and that’s why… there needs to be much more detailed work in relation to what might be appropriate to consider partly, if not fully devolving.”
Indeed, aspects of broadcasting are already devolved, to a limited extent, in some parts of the UK. For example, the Scottish Government funds the Gaelic Media Service, while the Northern Ireland Government has an Irish Language Broadcast Fund. So the principle is established that, where appropriate, the devolution of some areas of the media is not a threat to the retention of some UK-wide responsibilities.
Considerations around partly devolving media policy go hand in hand with tackling the crucial matter of how the media at present fall between the two stools of Economy and Heritage. Listening to the discussions in the evidence sessions of the Assembly’s Task and Finish Group, it was striking how often these two areas were mentioned as being ill-served by the present situation and how the media, in turn, get a raw deal in Wales. With media in the Heritage basket there is insufficient link-up with Economy to the detriment of both. Meanwhile, there is no adequate system for simply knowing what is going on in the media sector, let alone devising appropriate responses.
No one in these sessions underplayed the fast-moving complexity of the media scenario. The proposal for the creation of a Wales Media Commission which would monitor developments (suggested by the Welsh Government’s Broadcasting Advisory Group in 2008) must surely be high on the agenda. OFCOM’s annual Communications Market reports track the development of Wales’s digital media economy but a qualitative account is essential to sit alongside these quantitative summaries.
It is much more challenging to tackle quality than quantity. What is to be the measure? Who are to be the arbiters?
This is a challenge that cannot be shirked. Whether via a Media Commission or a body such as the IWA or an academy/industry partnership, a mechanism must be found and funded. It should be one that allows Wales to shape its own media landscape in a way that, while not undermining the interests of the UK, does not leave us at the mercy of decisions made without public debate or an intimate understanding of Welsh media preoccupations.
A recent example of locals knowing what needs to be known about the way the wind is blowing is the IWA’s enquiry to the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act about services for audiences in the three devolved nations. The BBC’s initial response demonstrated how difficult it is to get relevant information that is consistent across the three nations. This is dealt with in detail in the IWA’s response to the BBC Trust public consultation on Delivering Quality First.
We can no longer afford to stand back on the fringes of a conversation, where others talk on our behalf about how we are to be allowed to speak to each other.