Digital sort-out for creative industries hub

Geraint Talfan Davies reviews a report by a leading expert which pulls no punches in assessing support for the creative industries in Wales.

Given past territorial disputes about who is responsible for the creative industries within the Assembly Government, it was encouraging that the recent review of the creative industries by Ian Hargreaves was commissioned by two ministers, the Ministers for Economic Development and for Heritage. Even more encouraging is the fact that they have both accepted a report that is highly critical of the way in which this area of policy has been administered in recent years, and which gets into controversial territory without pulling its punches.

However, the real test will lie in the commitment to implementing Hargreaves’s recommendations, which would involve ‘cross-cutting machinery to ensure clarity of strategic purpose and tight accountability for results’ – not something that has always been easy to achieve within the bureaucracy.

The proposal is for a two-tier approach – a Digital Wales Board providing an over-arching framework for all aspects of the digital economy, and a Creative Industries Board supervising a Creative Industries Hub and Creative Industries Fund. It may prove easier to get ministerial blessing for the Creative Industries Board, Hub and Fund than for the Digital Wales Board, which would have to pull together many different strands, even beyond the two sponsoring departments. On past form Ministers may also balk at the idea that the Digital Wales Board should be chaired by ‘a suitably experienced person from outside Government’.

Hargreaves, a former Ofcom board member, is critical of the way in which the 2004 creative industries strategy was implemented. He calls it, rather diplomatically, still a work in progress. He had to ask for a proper mapping of the sector in Wales, work that is now in hand. “Without this data”, he said, “it will not be possible for Wales to devise a credible strategic approach to the economic opportunities involved or to evaluate the impact of policy in relation to other parts of the UK.”

He stresses that Wales will not get its fair share of digital development unless it is able to plug in effectively to UK-wide programmes, under the Digital Britain banner. To safeguard against failure, he has recommended that Parliament’s Welsh Affairs Committee conduct regular audits of the impact of UK spending on the digital economy in Wales. Overall the recommendations are framed in order to ensure that Wales extracts much greater economic and cultural benefit from the £300m a year that is spent here on the creative industries.

He is critical of the existing creative industries hub, describing it as the hub that wasn’t. Operating under the name of Creative Business Wales, he says it was “never given the authority either to drive strategy or to ensure quality of business support”. Similarly, the Creative IP fund, he says, “has operated without a genuine strategic framework”, and he wants it re-designated as a Creative Industries fund and to move beyond film investment where most of its money has been concentrated to date.  He has also raised concerns about conflicts of interest in the management of the fund.

Some of his toughest strictures relate to television. He warns that if independent producers, that have formed the core of Wales’s creative sector, do not develop new markets and new digital products, they face decline, as the pressure grows to curb UK public service broadcasting budgets in an era of global commercial media plenty. He also urges the Assembly Government and Cardiff City Council to do everything possible to secure the digital media addition to the BBC’s planned drama village in Cardiff Bay. This would akin to the BBC’s Media City complex in Manchester. He warns that if this is nor secured, Cardiff will lag behind Manchester and Glasgow.

“The proposed new Media Capital development has the potential to embed this leading employer [BBC], enhance the ongoing development of Cardiff into a leading media cluster location within the UK and provide a range of economic, social and regeneration benefits to Cardiff and Wales. Such a contribution is likely to be more important given the current economic difficulties which have already begun to have severe effects on the Welsh economy,” he says.

He also wants to see Wales secure greater economic development benefits from the existence of S4C. He suggests that producers might be required to ensure that a percentage of their work is sold in translation outside Wales, or that they be incentivised to collaborate internationally. He also suggests S4C could participate in a new digital investment fund.

But he is also critical of S4C. He says he heard evidence that in the last year or so “S4C has looked hesitant over a number of major strategic questions: the extent to which it might involve itself in English language news broadcasting, in the light of ITV’s retreat from this area; the nature of its programme supply relationship with the BBC; S4C’s commercial strategy; the S4C Authority’s potentially wider role as a commissioning authority; and the question of S4C’s role in the development of online services and businesses in Wales that lie beyond the boundaries of its core service.”

He urges more public debate on S4C. “In a period when every aspect of the future of ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and the BBC have been subject to detailed debate and indeed party political controversy in the UK, the debate about S4C has been subdued, tending to lurch between spasmodic interventions questioning the basis on which the channel operates, and silence.

“Politicians fear that raising the profile of S4C at the level of London politics can only result in one thing: a challenge to its level of funding from the Exchequer. These are genuine risks, but they cannot be allowed to stifle debate,” he adds. He recommends that the DCMS undertakes a full review of S4C and for the National Assembly to put in place “a regular and structured exchange of information and views.”

Among his many other recommendations are:

  • The BBC, S4C and Channel 4 should deliver an annual audit of their economic impact on Wales
  • The BBC should review the remit and impact of its Audience Council for Wales
  • Ofcom should review the remit and impact of its Advisory Committee for Wales The Creative Industries hub should have a strong partnership with the Arts Council of Wales
  • Channel 4 should increase its commissioning from Wales
  • The Welsh Government should use its influence to ensure that the news consortium pilot planned for ITV in Wales goes ahead as planned.
  • Support for film production in Wales should be strengthened by bringing together the Film Agency for Wales and the Wales Screen Commission in order to eliminate duplication.
  • The Creative Industries Fund should be more accessible to the music industry.
  • The Creative Industries Hub should administer the Welsh Government’s current community radio support programme.
  • The Creative Industries Fund should ‘respond decisively’ to the needs of the digital media sector, and the broadcasters should increase their digital interactive commissioning in Wales.
  • The Hub should also undertake a study of digital media procurement within Wales’s public sector to in order to build capacity in Wales.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA

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