The policy influence of think tanks such as the IWA usually operates in long-term and diffuse ways. Think tanks help to set the parameters for the political weather in the way of long-term forecasters. Rarely do they score direct hits. However, this week proved to be an exception with the National Assembly’s publication of the Report by the Task and Finish group on the future outlook for the media in Wales, available here.
The Group’s main recommendations are closely aligned with those made to it by the IWA’s Media Policy Group. The first and most important recommendation is that “the Welsh Government should establish an independent forum to advise on policy in relation to Wales”. This follows our suggestion which is described in paragraph 42 of the report, as follows:
“The IWA said that a working group should be established to bring forward proposals for the devolution of some responsibilities within the media and broadcasting sectors – within a UK framework. Priority should be given to responsibility for S4C, community radio and commercial radio licensing in Wales. The IWA said that the Welsh Government should work to secure across-party consensus on any proposals that emerge from that work.”
Later (paragraph 45) the report notes that:
“The IWA told the Group that, in their view, there is an urgent need to establish systems that will generate continuing debate on media policy in Wales. These systems should also create autonomy in governance and lead to executive action. They should incorporate Welsh and UK Ministers, the Assembly, regulators, broadcasters, producers and Welsh civil society. The IWA also said that Wales needs to urgently develop a cohesive response to specific technological, content and funding issues around the media. As a foundation for this, they suggested that the Welsh Government should commission a full review of the needs of Wales in terms of broadcast and online services and developing technologies.”
This last point is reflected precisely in the Group’s second recommendation:
“The Welsh Government should commission a review to map the media needs of the people of Wales. This review should inform media policy across all sectors, including existing and developing technologies.”
It is significant that in addition to its preoccupation with the broadcast and new media the Group finds time to consider the current plight of the print media in Wales. It suggests (paragraph 169) that the independent forum
“…should consider, as part of its role, sustainable models for the print industry, and that this consideration should also include the issue of public subsidy, as happens in other small European countries. A strategic approach to the sustainability of Welsh Language publications should also be a focus for the independent forum’s work.”
The Task and Finish Group – chaired by Labour AM Ken Skates (Clwyd South) with Lib Dem AM Peter Black (South Wales West), Conservative AM Janet Finch-Saunders (Aberconwy), and Plaid AM Bethan Jenkins (South Wales West) – reports our concerns at some length (parargraphs 17 and 18):
“The IWA emphasised that there are significant legislative and regulatory changes on the horizon for the media in Wales, namely the renewal of the Channel 3 licences in 2013; a new Communications Act by 2015; and the renewal of the BBC Charter in 2016-17. Technology and media policy is moving quickly, yet the IWA expressed concern that there is insufficient capacity in Wales to keep pace with events.
“The IWA was particularly concerned about the lack of capacity amongst the Welsh civil service and said that this makes it difficult for the Welsh Government to analyse changes and to develop the necessary foresight to anticipate and shape developments in the Welsh media. As such, the Welsh Government’s heritage department’s capacity to provide expert advice to Ministers on media policy should be strengthened. In oral evidence, Hywel Wiliam of the IWA said:
‘I strongly believe that the Government needs to look carefully at the whole range of questions surrounding the media in Wales and the industry more generally. Otherwise, it will miss out on the opportunity to be part of that discussion and part of the opportunity to develop Wales specific policies. That is vitally important, not only from a heritage perspective, but also from the perspective of developing strong economic policies for the future. We believe that the civil service resources need to be strengthened. We want to see a greater capacity to look at these areas independently and to assess them, with more monitoring work being carried out by the Government and its officials.’ ”
All these concerns are closely reflected in the Group’s comments and recommendations. So, for example, recommendations 4 to 7 state:
- The Welsh Government should continue to strengthen linkages across Government departments to ensure that the maximum benefit, economic and cultural, can be drawn from the media sectors.
- As part of its role, the independent forum should keep under review the issue of the devolution of broadcasting in Wales and advise the Welsh Government as appropriate.
- The Welsh Government should develop a protocol with the UK Government for dealing with broadcasting issues which are not devolved.
- A relevant Assembly committee should, on an annual basis, invite Ofcom, public service broadcasters, and other key providers in the media, to report to the committee on their responsibilities and commitments to Wales.
Other recommendations include the Assembly having a role in monitoring the amount of political coverage provided by BBC Wales, particularly in light of budget cuts recently announced by the Corporation. The group also noted the need for the funding of Welsh language channel S4C to be closely monitored.
But the major consequence of the Group’s work is likely to be its agreement with the IWA’s view that an independent panel should be created to keep the Welsh Government up to speed with the rapidly evolving media world. As the Chair Ken Skates put it:
“What has become clear during the course of our inquiry is that there is still a healthy appetite for Welsh-focused media and information in Wales. However, the way that people are consuming that information is evolving rapidly. Therefore we believe that an independent body, consisting of experts with experience across the sector, should be charged with monitoring the Welsh media landscape and provide advice and guidance on how to sustain it.”