S4C-BBC forced marriage should open a wider debate

Geraint Talfan Davies says the UK Government’s proposals for S4C should force a debate on the whole broadcasting structure in Wales

There is no shortage of astonishment in Welsh broadcasting circles at the fate of S4C in the comprehensive spending review. The rumoured cut of 6 per cent a year for four years has proved to be pretty accurate – final figure 24.4 per cent –  but now the very existence of the organisation is hanging by a thread as a result of a forced marriage with the BBC. The BBC will pay the first dowry in 2013 before full consummation in 2015.

But before the ensuing debate descends into mayhem it is worth trying to keep the issue of political process separate from the substance of what is proposed, even if the deficiencies of the process may in the end point us towards even more radical change.

The process is surely indefensible. Parts of a series of Broadcasting Acts from 1980 onwards, together with parts of the Communications Act 2003 have, in effect, been repealed without a single minute of Parliamentary debate, without any consultation with the S4C Authority itself – an erstwhile autonomous statutory organisation that is obliged now to admit the BBC into a full partnership in running its channel – or with Welsh Ministers. Rushed ministerial meetings during a boozy golf tournament hardly count as consultation.

The Culture Minister, Jeremy Hunt, has acted like a Tudor monarch, whetting his appetite for swift executions with the dispatch of the UK Film Council, before attending to the trouble beyond March in like fashion. The Tudors, for good reason, probably understood Wales better. The S4C Authority intends to challenge the decision through judicial review. It could prove an interesting case, but it will not deter the Government from pushing on. It has more than enough time to regularise its decisions in Parliament, and to finesse points of detail. There is no Gwynfor Evans waiting in the wings. Times have changed.

In its report to the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) S4C argued that its funding should be considered on the same timescale as the BBC licence fee, due for the usual leisurely review over the next 18 months. Both broadcasters should be treated equally, it said. The DCMS telescoped the licence fee review into three days, thus meeting S4C’s wishes, at least in this regard. Moral: be careful what you wish for.

But what of the substance? There are big issues for the BBC. Having been strong-armed into funding S4C, the BBC World Service, the roll out of broadband and a contribution to local television, it can hardly claim any more that the principle of not top-slicing the licence fee is intact. The freezing of the licence fee also means that it will have to save another £140m a year on top of the savings programmes that are already in place and hurting services in Wales badly. We must beware that Wales does not suffer even more pain on top of the 44 per cent reduction in spend on English language services (BBC+ITV) that we have seen in the last five years.

Bigger questions face S4C, and here we come to the substance. First, and most crucially, how does it deal with a cut of 26 per cent over the next four years? It is difficult to see how the service can survive in its current form. The financial pressure will surely force some new thinking on the nature of the linear channel and the balance between linear and online investment. It needs to recover its creativity and some of its audience.

But what of the institution? When the first leaks appeared on Tuesday, the DCMS was, apparently emphasising that S4C would retain ‘operational independence’, but at the same time it was being slowly revealed, not only that the channel would be predominantly funded by the BBC, but that in future it would be run by a Joint Board composed of representatives of the BBC and the S4C Authority. The service would be licensed by the BBC Trust. What price S4C’s independence? In search of power it is always a good rule to follow the money.

Journalists were pointed towards BBC Alba, the Scottish digital television channel that has broadcast Gaelic programmes daily since 2008. BBC Alba is jointly managed by the BBC and the Gaelic Media Service, but there are crucial differences. In Scotland the bulk of the funding for BBC Alba comes not from the BBC but from the Gaelic Media Service that is funded by the Scottish Parliament. It broadcasts for a limited number of hours a day with the BBC Radio nan Gaidheal service providing a sound sustaining service in its downtime. But BBC Alba, unlike S4C, is a BBC branded channel. The Gaelic Media Service, on the other hand, is not a brand.

There is clearly some financial logic in the BBC and S4C seeking all the synergies that they can, and if there are substantial gains to be made they could accrue to both Welsh language and English television services in Wales. Indeed, the recent S4C-BBC agreement to explore further collaboration was careful to say that any benefits should accrue to each side equally. But what of the other stipulation that any proposals “should not undermine media plurality, distinctiveness, or the editorial independence of other broadcaster.” It is not yet clear whether editorial independence will survive, but media plurality is hardly enhanced, unless the commissioning independence of S4C is retained.

It may be too early to chase detail, but whatever else Jeremy Hunt has done, he has, whether inadvertently or not, opened up an opportunity for urgent debate in Wales. We should seize it, and extend it. Many of the issues canvassed in S4C’s report to the DCMS remain relevant. But the Hunt proposals have also raised questions about the structure of the BBC. It cannot be right that the quantum and balance of spend on both Welsh language and English language services should be decided within the BBC’s closed and centralised management structures. There is a proper place for public policy in those decisions, and a place for devolved government. We could emerge with an S4C Authority with a wider multi-media brief, as some of us have urged.

We have less than 12 months to find the right answers for the whole of Welsh broadcasting. Parliament’s Welsh Affairs Committee could make a start by enlarging its proposed inquiry into S4C to encompass the wider brief.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of the IWA and a former Controller of BBC Wales.

3 thoughts on “S4C-BBC forced marriage should open a wider debate

  1. It is understandable that the BBC’s natural tendency towards empire building should colour its own coverage of the S4C / DCMS saga, but it demonstrates the risks of the near monopoly which it has of news coverage across radio, television and online media in Wales, especially when commenting on broadcasting policy. The future of Welsh language broadcasting deserves more objectivity than the self interested speculation dressed up as political comment being peddled by BBC Wales at the moment.

    Correct me if I am wrong, the facts behind recent DCMS statements with regard to S4C are limited to : (i) confirmation that in future S4C will be funded (largely) from the BBC licence fee; and (ii) affirmation of S4C’s independence.

    Far from intepreting this as a forecast merger of two broadcasting institutions, an alternative analyisis might conclude that :

    • The transfer of S4C’s funding from DCMS to BBC Licence Fee is a convenient mechanism to : (i) achieve a significant cut in DCMS headline departmental budget without affecting delivery of a politically sensitive service; (ii) demonstrate to the public that the BBC shares the pain of CSR cuts.
    • The BBC in London is happy to accept (volunteer ?) this arrangement as an alternative to more expensive alternatives / threats (eg being lumbered with the cost of “free” licence fees for over 75s).
    • The simple transfer of funding from the BBC to S4C equates to “top slicing” the Licence Fee to an independent public broadcaster thereby strengthening and stabilising the funding of Welsh language broadcasting and reaffirming plurality of PSB in Wales.
    • Any conversation regarding sharing of resources should be based around basic principles of cost efficiency. Any objective commentator might conclude that the BBC has a lot of ground to make up in this regard. For example, the cost efficiency of a Llanishen industrial estate HQ v. prime, publicly funded real estate in Cardiff Bay. Overhead costs as a % of of total costs – how many staff does BBC Wales employ compared to S4C ? Cost per hour of its programme output – what is the BBC’s cost per hour compared to that of S4C’s output ? On these and other objective measure it seems that BBC Wales has some work to do, although it is clearly streets ahead when it comes to the dark arts of corporate affairs.

    One could go further. Having established the principle of top slicing the £3,000,000,000.00 licence fee to secure plurality of public service broadcasting in the Welsh language perhaps the same principle could be extended to ensure a similar plurality in English language PSB in Wales ?

  2. “First, and most crucially, how does it deal with a cut of 26 per cent over the next four years?”

    Having worked in broadcasting in Wales, both for the BBC and S4C, I’d say quite easily. The salaries paid out by S4C to it’s so called ‘top people’ and performers have been completely out of step with reality for at least a decade. Same is true for BBC Wales IMHO.

  3. GT is wrong, I’m afraid. This deal does not stabilise funding for S4C, nor does it maintain its independence.

    The deal in effect abolishes S4C, transferring its powers to a “combined board” of the BBC in London and a busted S4C Authority, but with the BBC calling the shots because it has the cash.

    Furthermore, “the exact level of BBC funding is not set beyond 2014/15”. This means that Welsh language TV will be bled dry.

    Geraint Talfan Davies is right to call for debate. But the political and broadcasting establishment, having now failed Welsh-speakers, must expect protest as well, and lots of it.

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