Welsh blackhole in BBC’s future plans

Exchange of letters between four former Controllers of BBC Wales and the Chairman of the BBC Trust reveals how Wales is being ignored

In March 2010 the BBC management published a Strategy Review aimed at deciding what the future direction of the BBC should be for the remainder of its current Royal Charter, up to 2016. The BBC Trust, which sits above the BBC Management, had thought it necessary to pose two questions:

  1. As digital switchover takes place, is the current portfolio of BBC services still appropriate or should it be changed?
  2. Has an expansion in the number of hours of programming, together with a focus on infrastructure projects, brought any dilution in the quality or distinctiveness of content?

It also set out five lines of inquiry:

  1. How can the BBC best maintain quality and distinctiveness?
  2. Where if necessary could the BBC’s focus be narrowed and its scale reduced?
  3. What will a fully digital BBC look like?
  4. Can the BBC better define the ‘public space’ it provides?
  5. How can the BBC create most value from its scale?

One of the more remarkable features of the Strategy Review was that it made no reference whatsoever to the BBC services specifically produced for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Many were at a loss to explain this omission, especially in the light of the crisis in regional broadcasting brought about by ITV’s withdrawal from many of its regional obligations, and by budget cuts at the BBC which have seen the hours of television produced by BBC Wales for Wales reduce by around 18 per cent in recent years. Industry watchers are fearful that if the BBC licence fee is reduced in the next few years the BBC’s services for Wales will take another severe hit.

On 8 August four former Controllers of BBC Wales wrote to the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons, to voice their concerns. They were Geraint Talfan Davies, Controller from 1990-2000 and now Chairman of the IWA, Gareth Price, Controller from 1985-90, Geraint Stanley Jones, Controller from 1981-85 (and the BBC’s Managing Director, Regional Broadcasting from 1989-1991) and Owen Edwards, Controller Wales from 1974-81. Sadly, last week Owen Edwards died, after a long illness. The final letter in the correspondence below is from the remaining three.

8 August 2010 – Letter to Sir Michael Lyons, Chairman, BBC Trust:

We are writing to respond to the publication of the Trust’s initial conclusions following the consultation on the BBC management’s strategy review.

As you will know there was widespread astonishment in Wales at the fact that a Strategy Review of the BBC’s services managed to make no reference at all to the services produced in and for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In the case of Wales that reaction came from your own Audience Council and the Welsh Assembly Government as well as from the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

The point was forcibly made that at the end of the first decade of democratic devolution, and not least in the face of the atrophying of ITV’s regional obligations, it was remarkable that there should have been such a glaring omission in a strategy review by the organisation that we all regard as the cornerstone of our public service broadcasting.

In the Trust commentary, published at the same time as the review, you asked “whether there could be a clearer vision for the BBC in the individual nations of the UK,” although it was not entirely clear whether this was being asked in the context of the separate review of radio services in the nations and regions, due to be completed this autumn. Following the strong representations made from Wales, we had expected that this matter would have been addressed in the Trust’s initial conclusions, and that additional work by BBC management would have been set in train to fill this major policy gap.

However, the Trust’s preliminary conclusions, published last month, compound the original omission by misunderstanding the issue and confusing the question of the services for a particular nation with the question of the decentralisation of network production – two issues that need to be separately addressed and not traded off against each other. We note also that the Trust has not required or been seen to require BBC management to address this omission, other than in the context of radio services. Albeit reluctantly, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Trust is avoiding an issue that is currently the primary issue of concern in Wales.

In the light of public pronouncements that the BBC may in future have to live with a lower licence fee, we fear that the services for Wales will suffer again, unless an attempt is made to define their scope anew and to accord them a higher level of priority as soon as possible.

Can you reassure us that before the end of this process the BBC management will have delivered a long term vision for the future of the services – television, radio and online – for each of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and that the public in each of these nations will have an opportunity to comment upon it.

1 September 2010 – Reply from Sir Michael Lyons

Thank you for your letter of 8 August about the BBC Strategy Review. Let me start by expressing my sadness to learn of the death of Owen Edwards, who was a co-signatory to the letter – clearly a great servant of broadcasting in Wales who will be much missed.

I want to take this opportunity to assure you that the BBC Tust is committed to ensuring that the BBC serves all audiences. ‘Representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities’ is one of the BBC’s six Public Purposes and the Trust takes the BBC’s role in the nations and regions very seriously. We recognise that the BBC fulfils this role not only through its UK-wide network output but also through specific services for each Nation and Region.

Looking specifically at the BBC Strategy Review, we believe that its focus on improving the quality and distinctiveness of BBC programming is as relevant to audiences in the nations as it is to those in the UK as a whole. This view is backed up by the research we have conducted. At a time when the public sector as a whole is facing unprecedented change, it is vital that the BBC is focused on a clear strategy to deliver maximum value to all audiences across the UK. As such, we do not intend to produce different strategies for area of the UK, as we do not believe that such complexity would deliver the higher quality and distinct programming that licence fee payers tell us they want.

Before completion of the strategy review process, however, we will be looking closely at how its recommendations will be implemented in each of the nations and regions. We are keen to ensure that all audiences benefit from the strategy and have asked the Director General to set out how this will be achieved.

Beyond the strategy review, the Trust will continue its in-depth work looking at services provided specifically for the nations and regions. As part of our rolling programme of service reviews, we will shortly be assessing the BBC’s national radio stations in the devolved nations (Radio Scotland, Radio Wales, Radio Ulster/Foyle, Radio Cymru and Radio Nan Gaidheal). This review will look at much of the output to which you refer. As part of the review process we will be conducting audience research in the nations and regions, as well as consulting publicly. Your views would, of course, be welcome as part of this process.

More broadly, we will continue to monitor closely the impact of recent changes, such as increased commissioning outside of London, before testing whether they have had the desired impact, whether they have done anything to reduce the perceived gap in performance and whether anything more needs to be done to provide a clear vision for the BBC in each of the nations of the UK.

I look forward to seeing you in Cardiff next week and would be happy to discuss the Trust’s work in the nations and regions in more depth.

5 September 2010 – Response to Sir Michael Lyons:

Thank you for your letter of 1 September. I share your sadness at the death of Owen Edwards. He will always have a distinguished place in the history of broadcasting in Wales.  He was much loved and respected and is a great loss. Sadly, therefore, I am responding now on behalf of only Geraint Stanley Jones, Gareth Price and myself.

I am afraid that, despite your reply to our original letter, we remain deeply concerned that the BBC Trust cannot bring greater clarity to the task of defining the BBC’s role and vision in the devolved nations, and particularly in Wales where we believe that the BBC’s services, notwithstanding their strengths, do not match the current need.

You state that the BBC Strategy Review’s ‘focus on improving the quality and distinctiveness of BBC programming is as relevant to audiences in the nations as it is to the those in the UK as a whole’, and that ‘it is vital the BBC is focused on a clear strategy to deliver maximum value to all audiences across the UK.’

We would not disagree. But we do not accept that it follows from this that a strategic assessment of the BBC’s specific services for Wales – and for that matter, Scotland and Northern Ireland – should not be attempted because, as you say, the Trust does not believe ‘that such complexity would deliver the higher quality and distinct programming that licence fee payers tell us they want.’ We simply do not understand this point. The UK is a complex place, and we cannot believe that the BBC Trust and management is unable to address that complexity.

If the BBC can take a considered view of the future role of 6 Music – whatever that view may be – it can surely take a view of services that are regarded as fundamental building blocks of the public domain in the devolved nations – three distinct polities that, together, make up nearly 18 per cent of the UK population.

In his recent Edinburgh lecture the Director General argued persuasively against any reduction in the role of the BBC in securing and enriching the public domain in this country. We applaud the sentiment, but would point out that that public domain has already been sharply reduced in Wales, not only by the collapse of ITV’s service, but also by a reduction of 18 per cent in the television output of BBC Wales, with the promise of further reductions to come, including a severe restriction of its online service.

It is for these reasons that we believe that the planned review of BBC radio services in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, to which you refer, will only have a limited value. And while we welcome the news that you have asked the Director General to set out how the strategy might be implemented, it misses our point that the Strategy Review itself is incomplete. It would be helpful if the Trust’s precise brief to the Director General were made public.

We do not ask that the BBC work to different basic principles and public purposes in Wales from those that the Strategy Review has set for the BBC’s services as a whole, but cultural and political circumstances do differ markedly in each of the devolved nations and have to be taken carefully into account. Moreover, the Strategy Review published last March was also about the prioritisation of services. That is what made the absence of any reference whatsoever to the services for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland so alarming.

The pressing need in Wales is for a consideration of the totality of the BBC’s services, and in both languages – their adequacy in volume, range, quality, distinctiveness and allocation of resource. This would also need to embrace the implications for the BBC’s partnership with S4C that are sure to arise if the rumours of DCMS cuts to the S4C budget prove true.

The public in the three devolved nations are entitled to know whether the BBC Trust considers the services for each of the nations individually – television, radio and online – to be fully adequate to meet the distinct needs of each, and what priority they will be accorded going forward. If it cannot do that, the Trust will be failing to address the realities of the UK today.

It is essential that such a comprehensive assessment – with a proper degree of public debate and consultation – is completed before the BBC sets out its stall for the next licence fee period. Without it we fear that the BBC’s services for Wales and the other devolved nations will be left dreadfully exposed during and after what promises to be the toughest licence fee negotiation in the history of the BBC.

Given the importance of the issues and the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ commitment to public debate, I hope you will understand if we make this correspondence available publicly.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of the IWA

One thought on “Welsh blackhole in BBC’s future plans

  1. It is critical that the BBC’s online services like iPlayer are included in the IWA’s scope for discussions with BBC Trust.

    You have to go searching beyond UK based channels/stations for Welsh and Wales specific content.

    The Welsh language and Scottish Gaelic interface switches have also dissapeared from the new version of iPlayer.

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