Today’s summit in Cardiff is timely. It will debate some of the biggest and hottest issues in broadcasting – including commissioning, the role of the independent sector and the future of news provision in Wales.
In each of these, the tectonic plates are shifting quicker than ever before as content markets become increasingly globalised and digital devices put enormous power and control in the hands of the individual.
It is too easy for broadcasters to label all this change as ‘disruptive’. Well, it is not remotely disruptive for the public. They enjoy a level of access to knowledge and entertainment that previous generations could barely imagine. Last weekend, I tried and largely failed to explain to my son the purpose of the ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’: well, where do you start?
It is also too easy to regard a globalising content marketplace as a threat to Welsh broadcasting. The BBC’s two biggest global exports are made in Wales –Doctor Who and Sherlock – and Fiction Factory’s hit series Hinterland shows that Wales has the creative and entrepreneurial nous to make it on the international stage. There are major opportunities out there for companies and programme-makers with ambition.
But it would be disingenuous to suggest that there aren’t challenges too. The BBC’s Director General Tony Hall recognised this earlier this year when he described the funding squeeze that has faced the BBC’s English-language programming for Wales over recent years. It has meant, as he set out pretty plainly, that some aspects of national life in Wales, including comedy and entertainment, are not being properly reflected on Welsh screens.
Following Tony’s speech, I was asked by some whether BBC Wales’ decision to ring-fence its investment in news, current affairs and political coverage over the last four years had been mistaken as it had, surely, resulted in other areas being hit harder by savings.
There is no denying it was a tough decision at the time. But it was the right one for two reasons.
First, devolution has changed Wales profoundly. The decisions that shape the delivery of our public services are now taken in our own back yard – by our own parliament – so it is vital that we help the public make sense of these developments. A proper, vibrant democracy relies on informed, active citizenship and I believe our news services play an invaluable role in realising that goal. That is why, for example, we have invested in new specialist correspondents and created a news research unit to get under the skin of contemporary Wales.
The second reason is that the challenge of reaching Wales’ three million citizens is more complex and diverse than ever, and it has demanded new investment. Yes, BBC Wales Today continues to be required viewing for almost half the population each week – with audiences at a ten year high – but younger audiences increasingly expect news to be delivered wherever and whenever they choose. Already, some 2.5m devices access BBC Wales’ mobile and online news services every week.
But despite the success and reach of our broadcast and online news services, I would recognise that there is still a great deal of work to do.
Our own research shows very clearly that the public’s understanding of politics and public policy in Wales lags considerably behind their grasp of UK-wide politics. Despite nine in every ten adults saying they have a real interest in news about Wales, our latest survey found just half of adults in Wales could name which party was in government at Cardiff Bay, and only 31% could name Wales’ First Minister unprompted.
Addressing this alarming knowledge deficit should be a matter of priority for everybody who cares deeply about the proper democratic governance of Wales. For the BBC’s part, our responsibilities are two-fold. First, we must continue to seek opportunities to extend and strengthen our news coverage of Wales: to ensure we deliver news services across all devices that properly reflect the realities of a changing and more fragmented UK.
And, in parallel, of course we need to ensure that everybody in Wales has full access to the BBC’s national services. That’s why we prioritised investment in BBC One Wales HD last year. This autumn, BBC One and Two Wales became available as live streams on BBC iPlayer and we’ve also been pushing hard to extend the DAB radio coverage of Radio Wales and Radio Cymru. We’ve made real progress there . By the start of 2016, coverage will have more than doubled to 86% of households in just two years and we’ll be rolling out DAB across north-west Wales very shortly.
These are important and necessary steps – and a demonstration of the BBC’s commitment to help audiences in every part of Wales to make sense of our own nation, and to play a full and active part in the development of our youthful democracy.