Finding Wales’ voice in the broadcasting debate

Speech by Ken Skates AM, Deputy Minister for Culture, to IWA Cardiff Media Summit






Ken Skates addresses IWA Cardiff Media Summit

It is very timely that the IWA has arranged this Summit today considering all the crucial developments affecting the media industry in Wales. We are still waiting for the UK Government’s response to the Silk Commission report. The other significant development on the horizon, of course, is the renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter.

It is vital that there are appropriate platforms to discuss these important issues. In the run-up to the Scottish referendum, broadcasting was one of a number of issues that attracted considerable debate.

There is no doubt that those discussions will continue in Scotland but it is vital that Wales makes its voice heard too. Any changes to the broadcasting landscape in the UK will inevitably affect Wales, so we must be actively involved in these discussions.

The Welsh Government welcomes the fact that Ofcom is conducting a further review of Public Service Broadcasting in the near future, despite the UK Government’s failed attempt to remove this requirement.

There has been no evaluation or assessment of whether current public service obligations remain fitfor-purpose since powers were devolved to the nations – and over the same time period those obligations have been allowed to erode, largely for commercial reasons.

Broadcasting directed specifically at Welsh listeners and viewers has been under considerable pressure over recent years. Since 2008 there has been a 23% reduction in the amount of first run programming produced for Welsh audiences. The amount of first run programmes produced in Welsh has remained fairly stable, so this decline is largely in English language programming for Wales. Clearly a fresh evaluation of Wales’ PSB requirements is needed urgently.


 

Constitutional arrangements for the media industry in Wales/Silk Commission/ Accountability

There is little doubt that the broadcasting structures currently in place will change in the future. As a Government we will continue to monitor developments within the media sector and be proactive in this debate, to ensure any changes

protect and serve the best interests of people and businesses in Wales.

The majority of the Silk recommendations were in line with the Welsh Government’s initial evidence to the Commission including broadcasting appointments and for scrutiny of the BBC in Wales.

The Silk Commission recommended that the current funding for S4C provided by DCMS should be devolved. However, this recommendation carries risks, as we don’t yet know whether there could be changes to the way the BBC is funded after 2017, following Charter renewal. Any devolution of funding for S4C would have to be conditional on very strong safeguards in relation to its overall funding.

The Silk commission supported our view that the overall regulation of broadcasting should remain the responsibility of the UK Government. In a rapidly evolving digital environment we do not believe that it would be sensible to devolve this responsibility at present.

The vital role that broadcasting institutions play in creating a common cultural citizenship for people across the UK would not be strengthened by dividing the responsibility for regulation of broadcasting among its constituent parts. However, this does not mean that Public Service Broadcasters and the regulator should only be accountable to the UK Government.

We have been saying for some time that governance of broadcasting should reflect the reality of devolved government in the UK and should support the delivery of policy objectives set in Wales, for Wales – not just those set in Westminster for the whole of the UK.

 

BBC and Charter Renewal

The Welsh Government has naturally been concerned about the need for BBC Cymru Wales to deal with a significant reduction in its budget as part of the Delivering Quality First proposals, including the loss of a number of jobs.

Although the development of Cardiff as an increasingly important centre for network productions is great news for the whole of Wales, we do not see it as any sort of justification for reducing the BBC’s investment in local services.

There should be a clear commitment to safeguarding and strengthening the core services aimed at Welsh viewers and listeners – in both languages, but especially in English, where I have already described a notable reduction over the last few years. This includes news and non-news programming.

We appreciate that BBC Cymru Wales has decided to prioritise its spending in its news and current affairs output. However, it is unfortunate that BBC Cymru Wales no longer produces any English language drama or comedy specifically for Welsh audiences – especially given its enhanced reputation for highend TV productions, in the UK and internationally, thanks to the success of Doctor Who, Casualty and Wizards & Aliens, amongst others.

The Welsh Government is fully aware of the importance of the renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter and the potential implications for BBC Cymru Wales, S4C and the independent production companies across Wales which provide content for both.

We expect to be fully involved in the Charter Renewal discussions from the outset. Wales must and will have a voice in these deliberations, otherwise the UK Government may instigate changes at the BBC that do not meet our needs.

It is vital that the new Charter properly reflects the current and changing devolved settlement, and it recognises and protects the interests of the people of Wales.

It was interesting that the Smith Commission published last week called for a formal consultative role for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament in the process of reviewing the BBC’s Royal Charter and for the BBC to have greater accountability to Scotland thereafter.

We fully expect that Wales should and will be treated in the same way as the other devolved nations in the Charter Renewal negotiations – and  that any new governance arrangements for the BBC will deliver improved accountability to all the nations and regions of the UK, including Wales.

The Welsh Government welcomed the emphasis in the Silk Commission’s report on improving the accountability of broadcasters in Wales. This was indeed reflected in our written evidence to the Commission where we called for an improvement in the accountability of UK broadcasting institutions to the National Assembly and to Welsh viewers and listeners. This was also reflected in our Programme for Government.

Our priorities for the next Royal Charter will include ensuring that there is sufficient funding for BBC Cymru Wales, for news and non-news programming in the Welsh and English languages.

BBC Cymru Wales has a duty to cater for both, which is different to the position in Scotland. Amongst other priorities we will also be seeking an ongoing commitment to an increase in both ‘Out of London’ productions and the BBC’s investment and economic impact in the nations and regions of the UK, including Wales.

The BBC’s most recent analysis of its economic impact across the UK, published in 2013, showed a slight reduction in its investment and economic impact in Wales, whilst its investment in Scotland, Northern Ireland and key English regions had increased. I look forward to that trend being reversed as we move forward.

The Welsh Government has made clear the importance it attaches to appropriate coverage of Wales on the main television networks. We expect the BBC Trust and Audience Council for Wales to continue to implement the recommendations of the King report.

These recommendations are also relevant to other Public Service Broadcasters including ITV news and Channel 4 news. It is vital that these channels also appropriately reflect the devolved nations in their news and non-news provision.  Ensuring that S4C receives sufficient funding will also be a vital part of Charter deliberations. The Welsh Government has consistently expressed concern to the UK Government about the impact that any major funding cuts would have on S4C and its ability to serve the Welsh audience.  It is also crucial that the channel retains its managerial independence, to continue to play a crucial role in support of the Welsh language as well as the creative industries in Wales.

S4C is now, of course, in a different position from where it was before the decisions taken by the UK Government in 2010 as part of its Comprehensive Spending Review. 90% of S4C’s funding now comes from the licence fee. We welcome the fact that this funding has been guaranteed until the end of the current licence fee settlement in 2017. However, S4C has not yet received confirmation of the DCMS contribution for 2016-17 and it is vital that this is agreed as soon as possible. The Welsh Government remains very concerned about S4C’s financial position.

 

Conclusion

Although the Welsh Government doesn’t have devolved responsibility for broadcasting, this does not mean that we have no interest or influence on broadcasting issues. On the contrary – we are fully aware that the public service broadcasters are a vital part of the thriving Creative Industries sector in Wales, a sector which is now central to the lives of people and businesses around the world.

Linear broadcasting is remarkably resilient, of course, and it is likely to remain the most popular method of consuming broadcast content for some time to come. That said, new business models in creative have emerged in recent years that are enabling individuals and small companies to compete with the largest and the best. This is now a sector where Wales has no commercial or technological disadvantage. We are constrained only by our talent, our ambition and our determination.

The Welsh Government’s priority is to provide the support and guidance needed to ensure that no talent is unfulfilled and no marketable creative idea is wasted. The Public Service Broadcasters are and will remain key partners in that ambition. They are amongst those leading the way in innovative use of new models for delivering content.

It has not been possible this morning to cover all the challenges facing the media industry in Wales. For example, the importance of ensuring plurality of English language news services in Wales and general programming made for Welsh viewers.

I would also stress that ITV Cymru Wales continues to have a vital role to play, as an alternative to the BBC for news and non-news programming. With the advent of a separate Channel 3 licence for Wales there is a real opportunity for ITV to create a distinctive service with a strong Welsh identity – tailor made for the people of Wales.

A vibrant media sector is an essential component of a modern democratic society. For a nation with its own language, culture and political institutions, a strong media is essential – to provide a comprehensive service that informs, educates and inspires the people of Wales. The Welsh Government will continue to stand up for maintaining and strengthening the services available in English and Welsh, at a national and local level.

Ken Skates is Labour AM for Clwyd South and Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism