Two cheers for Ofcom

Geraint Talfan Davies reflects on Ofcom’s second public service broadcasting review:

Send up two, but not three cheers for Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator. The first for finishing a marathon consultation that involved two thick reports, massive opinion research, all sorts of economic modelling, seminars and conferences, all designed to inform its view of what we want to see or should be seeing on our public service television channels in the future.

By now even the most luddite faction has been unable to resist Ofcom’s longstanding conviction that large parts of the public service system – notably ITV and Channel 4 – are broke and that quite radical change is necessary. This month’s reduction in both ITV Wales’s news output and its general programming is the most obvious sign.

ITV Wales – the old HTV – a company that once delivered 12 hours a week of programmes made in Wales for Wales, is now reduced to four hours of news and only 90 minutes of general programmes, and ITV is saying it cannot even guarantee that until the end of its licence in 2014. In fact it will be hard pushed to do so beyond 2010.

The second cheer is for Ofcom’s firm view of the importance of news in the devolved nations, and the regions of England, and recommendations for what needs to happen in the short and long term. The audience and almost all its consultees have told Ofcom in no uncertain terms that maintaining a news service that can compete effectively with the BBC is essential.

The BBC has itself thrown a lifeline to ITV, offering to share technical resources and even pool news footage, to ease ITV’s regional news costs. Ofcom is rightly wary of this arrangement, for the devil will be in the detail. There may be some benefit, but there are also threats the very plurality it is designed to safeguard. The thought of BBC and ITV news editors talking to each other every morning to decide what they will cover, doesn’t smack of the healthy competition we all need.

Ofcom has no illusions about the nature of ITV, where the Welsh operation is a mere cost centre, unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland that have their own ITV companies. Even with the BBC’s offer, says Ofcom, “We are concerned that ITV plc, seeking to reduce costs further to increase profitability, will have no incentive to continue resourcing this dedicated coverage to an editorially distinct level.” That has been proved to the hilt.

Hence, adds Ofcom, the necessity for ‘an independently funded news consortium” to fill the gap, with ITV merely guaranteeing the slots in the ITV schedule. This presents an intriguing opportunity for all kinds of providers – news agencies, newspapers, ITN, Reuters – to team up with locally based companies to create a second significant television news force in Wales. The worry is that Ofcom is talking only about safeguarding the status quo, rather than restoring resources to a level that the journalistic challenge in Wales demands.

More unexpectedly, S4C has apparently suggested to Ofcom that S4C itself should commission a Welsh language service – rather than receive their present gifted service from BBC Wales – and a parallel English service for the ITV channel. There may be arguments for doing so, but there are also large and serious economic implications for BBC Wales as a whole, for the BBC/S4C relationship and for the independent sector. Synergies gained across S4C and ITV, might be balanced by synergies lost between both languages within the BBC’s news services, pushing up the cost of the English language news service.

If there is case for the S4C proposal, and there may well be, the public does know it because S4C has so far refused to publish its submission to Ofcom – an astonishing and unacceptable state of affairs given that Ofcom is not a listed company, like ITV, but a public authority. It contrasts with the extensive documentation published by the BBC and Channel 4. It would be in everyone’s interests, including S4C’s, to publish quickly.

But why withhold a third cheer for Ofcom? Because it has utterly failed to understand the importance of general programming in the nations. In the news area it presents firm and detailed recommendations and costs. On general programming its discussion is shallow and perfunctory. It merely points to evidence that the public values these programmes, and says that the Government should consider this issue ‘in the context of finite resources’. In other words, finding money for general programmes, that are declining in number now, could have to compete against broadband investment whose benefits may not be universal for another ten years.

It is true that 90% of the public told Ofcom that news was the most important consideration, but 71% said the same thing about general programmes about their own patch. In most democracies 71% would be regarded as a landslide victory. The difference in the two figures does not justify Ofcom’s implied view of general programmes as an optional extra.

On this blog two weeks ago, I said the trap for Wales lay in accepting a minimal deal. That is currently what as put on the table yesterday. But the game is not over, the real public debate will start now as the issues move over to the politicians. Wales is going to have to shout a lot louder.

Geraint Talfan Davies is chairman of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

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