Welsh broadcasting in limbo

Geraint Talfan Davies assesses the fall-out from the crisis at S4C and a weak response to Wales from the BBC Trust.

In whichever direction you turn the August holiday period sees the Welsh broadcasting scene in a dangerous limbo. The crudely executed ousting of Iona Jones, S4C’s chief executive for the past five years, leaves the channel fighting for its budget, if not its existence, against a government that seems to relish wielding the axe.

Publication in July of the BBC’s Trust’s ‘initial conclusions’ on the BBC management’s Strategy Review gives Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland no comfort at all about the future of the services for each nation. The future of ITV remains unclear, although we may hope that the recruitment of respected BBC Wales political journalist Adrian Masters to be ITV Wales’s political editor is a sign that the tide of bad news for Channel 3 is turning.

In the midst of all this, the Deputy First Minister and Plaid leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones, delivered a speech at the National Eisteddfod last week arguing that the time had come to start the discussion on the devolution of responsibility for broadcasting. He paid the IWA the compliment of putting forward a string of proposals, almost all of which have been canvassed by us in recent months. See here and here.

Given the current situation at S4C and BBC Wales, discussion of devolution of broadcasting – which, at best, will take some years to achieve – might be construed as a case of fiddling while Llanishen burns. However, the plight of S4C – threatened with a cut of 25 per cent over the next four years – and the seeming inability of the BBC Trust to comprehend the issue of its services for Wales, underlines as nothing else that Cardiff Bay, not central London is the place to decide these issues.

The S4C Authority, with its interim chief executive, Arwel Ellis Owen, faces an unenviable task. Several urgent strands of work have very different timeframes: in the next weeks the negotiation with the DCMS over cuts, in the next months the stabilisation of its governance and recruitment of a new chief executive, and in the next year the very necessary laying down of a new strategy.

There is little doubt that S4C needs a fundamental strategic re-appraisal. That would require a thorough reassessment of S4C’s current audience and of its programme performance. But more than that it should also require work to arrive at a new and shared understanding of the current nature of the Welsh speaking audience and the way in which it uses television, radio and online media.

There have been massive changes in this audience, not least in self-perceptions of fluency and even in the nature of the spoken language, since S4C was launched in 1982. The pace of change has not slackened since the advent of the re-shaped service in digital form. Such a study could not but have significant implications for programme commissioning.

All this work will take place against a backdrop of inquiry into Iona Jones’s departure and what it says about standards of governance at S4C. It is remarkable that a channel that had built a rock solid consensus of support across all parties and in Cardiff and London, could have squandered that support so quickly. In some ways S4C has been the victim of that previous consensus. It was almost too strong, placing the channel beyond criticism, and perhaps inadvertently suppressing the internal self-criticism that every healthy organisation needs to survive.

There is a lot at stake, and the climate is far from favourable. And that is not just a matter of finance. In London in recent years there have been some signs of a weakening in the traditional endemic incomprehension about Wales and all its works. Nonetheless, it still exists in relation to S4C, since assessment of its budget and audience requires a calibration that is quite different to any other broadcasting service.

The older reliance on the Willie Whitelaw defence – “It’s an investment in social harmony” – has long since worn thin, and has been replaced by the appeal to public service broadcasting’s role in the creative industries in Wales. The recent report for the Welsh Government from Ian Hargeaves attempted to breathe new life into this argument. It urged greater public discussion about S4C and suggested that it should be more closely allied to Welsh Government economic policy. There is some real substance to the economic case, but it has to be a supporting argument for S4C, not its main justification. It was set up to be a broadcaster, and it must find and serve an audience before other arguments come into play.

In the short time available to the S4C Authority – the results of UK Government’s spending review will be announced on 20 October – it may not have time to come up with all the answers. Yet it has to demonstrate that it is asking the right questions, that it is not afraid to be self-critical, and that the change at the top was effected for a creative public purpose.

Meanwhile the BBC Trust is not covering itself in glory either. In July it published its ‘initial conclusions’ on the BBC management’s Strategy Review published last March – the one that, extraordinarily, failed to make any mention of the programme services made specifically for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Given the strength of the response from Welsh organisations – not least, the IWA’s own submission – one would have expected this omission to have attracted some trenchant comment from the Trust, with a guarantee that the omission would be comprehensively rectified.

Instead, we got the usual mandarin euphemisms, not a recognition of genuine anger at the BBC management’s total silence, but “concern about the perceived lack of focus on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”. The Trust itself seems unable to face up to or focus on the issues of the services within the BBC’s nations. It ‘initial conclusions’ do not address the issue in any way – perhaps because doing so might entail an additional cost. Instead, the statement slides away from it, and moves smartly on to the issue of network production and how the smaller nations are portrayed in network programmes.  If Wales is to defend its own BBC services it has to get the Trust to recognise that these issues are quite separate and that there should be no trade-off between them.

While all this reinforces the argument for devolution of some responsibilities for broadcasting, that is something that will take five to ten years to address. In the meantime, whatever the formal position, the Assembly and its Ministers should forgo any reticence in tackling their counterparts in London, as well as taking time out to hold the BBC Trust’s feet to the fire. Otherwise the broadcasting industry in Wales will continue on a slippery slope to economic and cultural impoverishment.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

One thought on “Welsh broadcasting in limbo

  1. Thanks Geraint.

    I very much agree with your point about the economic case. It is definitely a supplemental rather than fundamental argument. The fact is that S4C need to formulate a new narrative around their value to Wales and it has to focus on the democratic value of a minority language channel.

    Towards the end of Iona Jones reign whenever there was talk of fighting the cuts it seemed that the arguments seemed to focus increasingly on the economic case – this might work in normal times but every publicly funded institution / department is in the same boat and each provides work jobs and services that has a subsequent multiplier.

    Was this reliance on the economic argument a tacit recognition that the strategy Iona Jones had followed at S4C had failed ?

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