Broadcasting Battle Enters Final Straight

Geraint Talfan Davies calls for a campaign against the failure of the Westminster Government’s Digital Britain report to respond to Welsh needs

Wales could see the revival of a campaign for a better broadcasting deal following a meeting this week (28 July 2009) arranged jointly by the Institute of Welsh Affairs and TAC, the umbrella body for Welsh independent producers and held at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism.

The meeting was called to debate the proposals for public service broadcasting put forward in Digital Britain, the report from the Communications Minister, Lord Carter. It underlined the widespread concern in Wales at the shrinking English language programme service for Wales, as ITV Wales’s output collapses and BBC Wales is faced with deep cuts.

It was addressed by Professor Justin Lewis, head of the School of Journalism, Julie Barton, a former editor of BBC Radio Wales and a member of Ofcom’s advisory committee for Wales, and myself.

Following ITV’s insistent withdrawal from its traditional public service obligations Lord Carter has proposed that news on ITV be provided by independently financed news consortia (IFNCs). Aided by public money, these would bid to provide a news service that would be shown in the familiar slots on ITV. The Government intends to run three pilots during 2010 – in Wales, Scotland, and a region of England.

This sounds very simple. However, it hides a long list of questions that we should be asking publicly, for the concept of a pilot may be misleading for us in Wales. Potential bidders are already asking for more security than a two-year contract. The chances are that if we get it wrong we will have to live with the result for a very long time.

A first order question is, what want kind of news service is it to be – a continuation of the status quo or something better? It raises questions about all news provision, print, broadcast and online and suggests that there is scope for a significant academic study that the Cardiff School of Journalism would be well equipped to carry out. We desperately need some objective, external baseline evaluation.

Then there are issues of what criteria should be adopted to choose these consortia? More importantly, will the process be a beauty contest or an auction? Let’s not forget that the disastrous ITV franchise auction in 1990 – the beginning of the end of the ITV system – employed a quality threshold. Yet it was of no use when it came to the crunch. HTV’s £21m per annum winning bid proved a fatal millstone for the company.

In licensing radio stations, the Radio Authority – of which I was a member – employed criteria quite similar to those suggested by Carter, but I confess that more often than not, the financial stamina requirement prevailed over editorial ambition.

How much competition is there likely to be? The Digital Britain report seems fairly clear that the Government would be looking for organisations with a track record in delivering news and current affairs.

Within Welsh television that does not produce a long list. The existing ITV Wales news team could be taken over by any one of three possible players:

  • Trinity Mirror newspapers, owners of Media Wales and the Western Mail
  • The Guardian Media Group that owns Real Radio with a footprint that now covers most of Wales.
  • Tinopolis, our largest independent company that from its base in Llanelli delivers daily magazine programmes in Welsh for S4C.

Possibly there could be a combination of any of these. It is not difficult to envisage ITV Wales coming from the Western Mail’s new home, a multi-media production centre recently opened by Media Wales. Outside Wales Sky, Reuters, ITN or even the Daily Telegraph with its Telegraph TV might also show an interest.

A major question that was debated at this week’s meeting was who will decide these issues. More particularly, will the issue be decided in London or will the decision be taken in Wales? The DCMS’s consultation document on funding IFNCs concedes that “it will be important that the award and management of IFNC contracts is carried out objectively and independently of Government, in order to ensure that editorial independence is guaranteed.” It further suggests that it “could involve one or more existing institutions or a new body” (my italics).

The two obvious existing bodies are Ofcom and S4C. Ofcom – the odds on favourite – would provide a sharing of experience across the three pilots. However, it would need to draw much more heavily on Welsh input that it has been willing to do in the past. One option could be a core panel, augmented for each of the pilots by an equal or greater number drawn from each of the nations depending on which was under consideration.

S4C’s offer to be the tendering agent would have merit if that were a task and finish job. At the same time these contracts would need ongoing management and scrutiny, which would give S4C a continuing role in the management of a key element in English language broadcasting. Unless it can bring itself to face the implications of that for its own governance, its proposal will likely fall.

The dominant Welsh view that it would be best left to a new Welsh Media Commission, has not found favour yet with Government, unless you construe the DCMS consultation document reference to ‘a new body’ in that light. Lord Carter did not mention the Commission idea at all in his main report. If you are an obsessive you will find a rather inadequate, not to say misleading appraisal of it in an ‘impact assessment’ on the DCMS website.This is hardly the treatment that a proposal backed by the Assembly Government, the Welsh Heritage Minister and the National Assembly’s Culture and Communities Committee deserves.

Another unaddressed concern in the Carter report is general programming for the nations – an issue that has been a primary focus in every study of this subject in Wales, by the Assembly Government, Assembly Committees and even Parliament’s Welsh Affairs Committee. Again, Carter does not refer to it at all, or perhaps only by inference. Carter’s case for this sidestep is best encapsulated in Chapter 5 para. 11:

“In an era of limited funding it is critical to distinguish between where plurality is desirable and where it is essential and to focus public intervention on the latter.”

The implication is that general programming for Wales in the English language is desirable but not essential and therefore undeserving of public support. No evidence, plea or argument can seem to get him past this point.

This is not entirely surprising, since the underlying reality of Digital Britain is that Carter regards the UK as a single, homogenous cultural space. A passing reference may be made to S4C’s proposal in Wales or to the Scottish Broadcasting Commission’s work in Scotland, but the report’s technique for dealing with specific issues raised in Wales or Scotland is mainly to ignore them altogether.

The only glimmer of hope is that in the DCMS’s parallel consultation document on ‘independent and impartial news’, in the section on funding which discusses making use of the digital switchover element of the licence fee, it says,

“… it could also potentially be used to sustain other essential public service content priorities (e.g. the provision of plural original content for children) if the independent provision of Nations, local and regional news requires less than the contestable sum set aside.”

This is the door, left most marginally ajar, that Wales now needs to push open. After all, indigenously-produced content for the Welsh audience in the English language is no less important than indigenously produced content for children.

In fact, English language programmes for Wales have been under the very s
ame market failure pressures that Carter lists as adversely affecting children’s programmes: re-focused public service broadcasting requirements, increased commercial pressures, changes to how people consume, and less than 20 per cent of output being indigenously produced.

If having only one hour in five of children’s programmes produced within the UK is a market failure, why is having one hour in a hundred of general programmes produced in and for the majority audience in Wales not a similar failure?

The next weeks are going to be crucial.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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