On 18 July Welsh Government welcomed the report of the Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee’s cross party Task and Finish Group on the outlook for the media in Wales. However, although it accepted 18 of the Group’s 23 recommendations, it rejected two and made no response to three others.
I will focus on the two rejected recommendations. The first was as follows:
“The Welsh Government should establish an independent forum to advise on policy in relation to the media in Wales. The forum should draw on expertise from across the media sectors. Its purpose should be to look to the future and to advise on matters across all sections of the media.”
The Welsh Government acknowledged that this was “a reasonable request and not altogether unexpected, as the coming period will see extensive changes in our media landscape.” Nevertheless, it rejected the recommendation because “a crucial first step in addressing the Committee’s concerns” had already been taken. This refers to the First Minister’s announcement on 21 May of a Broadcasting Advisory Panel chaired by Ron Jones, already chair of Business Minister Edwina Hart’s Creative Industries Sector Panel.
The purpose of the new panel was to “maximise the effect of broadcasting”, which is an intriguing phrase. What does it mean? The Panel will have three other members who have yet to be appointed and is due to meet for the first time in September. In its response to the Task and Finish Group’s Recommendation 1, the Welsh Government described the Panel’s task as being “to review matters in relation to broadcasting”. Why has the Welsh Government sought to take this first step but no more? And how flexible is the remit of the Ron Jones’ Broadcasting Advisory Panel?
One has to piece together hints as to the route foreseen for the rest of the journey in relation to the monitoring of the Welsh media, future forecasts, and the provision of advice to the government. Why a first step and no more? Why a Panel for broadcasting only?
The Task and Finish group’s second recommendation, that a review should be commissioned of people’s media needs across Wales, is accepted in principle and reference is made to the media audit commissioned by the Welsh Government from the IWA in 2008. The Broadcasting Advisory Panel is asked to “provide advice on whether a similar exercise should be undertaken”.
It is given a further task in the response to Recommendation 5. It must keep under review “the issue of the devolution of broadcasting in Wales”. The Committee’s Task and Finish Group had asked that the independent forum it called for should do this – as well as “advise the Welsh government as appropriate” on this crucial matter. Is the Broadcasting Advisory Panel to advise as well as review? The clue is in the name, I suppose.
The Task and Finish Group expressed itself clearly and with some energy on the need for an independent forum. It acknowledged both the difficulty of dealing with media – a complex of entities that stretches across the remits of a number of government departments – and the fact that important initiatives have been taken. Then it added:
“However, given the nature and number of the challenges facing the media in Wales, we feel that there is a need for a mechanism to provide an overarching, strategic direction; to be able to anticipate what the media landscape will look like in future and to inform policy direction accordingly; and to provide expert advice to Welsh Government ministers.”
This endorses the concerns given by many who provided evidence at the hearings that, as the Committee puts it:
“The Welsh Government does not have sufficient capacity to be able to develop a full understanding of the media in Wales which would allow it to inform media policy for the future.”
The Task and Finish Group acknowledged that the fact that powers in these areas are not devolved is an additional hurdle for the Welsh Government. It argued that the expense of such a forum would be justified by the benefits it would bring over time. The Welsh Government’s “first step” response is, in this context, puzzling. One must also ask how good is the fit between the advisory body envisaged by the Committee and the Broadcasting Advisory Panel?
The other recommendation that was rejected by the Welsh Government was that the Task and Finish Group’ s proposed independent forum:
“… should, as part of its role, investigate sustainable business models for the print media in Wales.”
In response the Welsh Government states firmly that it:
“… believes it is a matter for the media industry to develop sustainable models and that Government needs to maintain an arm’s length relationship with media matters.”
This reaction closes the door on the case for public subsidy of the press, presumably including any directed towards the Welsh language press, since the Task and Finish group referred, in this context, to what happens “in other small European countries”. Instead the Welsh Government mentions it has several mechanisms “to assist companies to compete successfully in the current economic climate.” These include Knowledge Transfer Partnerships.
What exactly is “an arm’s length relationship”? The tenor of most of the presentations made to the Task and Finish Group, and the Group’s own conclusions, are strikingly different in regards to the sort of relationship imagined between government and the media in Wales. No one would argue for media which is in the government’s pocket or tied to its apron strings but the experts seem much more ready to experiment.
It should be noted that Huw Lewis, Minister for Housing, Regeneration and Heritage, did say in oral evidence to the Task and Finish Group:
“The Welsh Government’s door would be open to good ideas and suggestions in order to explore what might be possible in the future.”
It is a considerable challenge to get the balance right between a properly hands-off attitude to editorial decisions and a proper willingness not to stand idly by. It’s hard to keep the door open and shut at the same time.
And here we are back to the role of an independent body dealing not just with broadcasting but with all that ‘media’ means. The government needs advice. How best is it to get it? The civil servants need ways to engage that won’t overburden them with replicated mechanisms. The media, which by their very nature cross the borders of departments, need politicians who are helped to keep pace with rapid change. I can’t help feeling that the idea of an independent forum hasn’t gone away.
And note that word ‘forum’, which, if it means anything, is a place where things are discussed. This is an important nuance and should not be missed. Even the media need a place in which they can talk to each other. Maybe we need to set up one of our own and let the government listen in!