Geraint Talfan Davies looks at the unease created by the planned link up of S4C and the BBC and the issues negotiators will face
Whatever else Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State at the DCMS, may have done he has certainly achieved near unanimity in Wales, on two counts. First, that the exclusion of the S4C Authority from the discussions between his department and the BBC, was unprecedentedly insulting toward one of his client organisations and second, that the independence of S4C needs to be defended.
At their ministerial forum yesterday afternoon (at which there was not a single member of the S4C Authority present, as opposed to its officers) Welsh Ministers did not have to search for some artificial consensus in defence of S4C’s independence. There was an almost instant agreement that, whatever its current audience performance, S4C still has an iconic value in the life of the Welsh-speaking community, as well as an economic value. Its existence as a free standing, autonomous broadcasting authority also has a huge value both in itself and as a ready made building block in the reconstruction of the broadcasting infrastructure in Wales. No-one disagreed.
In a long letter to the BBC – but also meant for other eyes – Hunt stressed that despite moving to be funded predominantly from the licence fee, S4C would remain as an independent service, retaining its own brand identity and editorial distinctiveness. It would also retain its commercial freedom, but also have a guaranteed funding level for the next four years.
In itself that seems fine, but the real worry is what happens after that. Why does the S4C funding stop at 2014-15, while the licence fee is guaranteed until 2017? What will fill the gap? More importantly, how will S4C cope when faced with the might of the British Broadcasting Corporation with its sometimes serpentine decision-making, allied to all the subtlety and ruthlessness of the Vatican in attaining its ends. To change metaphors, defenders of S4C want to create a long spoon.
All this may seem harsh on the BBC which has an honorable record in relation to S4C. Indeed, a pretty good case can be made that it has been more sinned against than sinning in the relationship. I am not the only one to worry that a certain paranoia about the BBC is hard-wired into the S4C psyche. But sometimes in business perceptions create a reality of their own. And the new funding plan alters the balance in a big way.
Another problem is that the structures that Hunt has put forward were cobbled together at a speed that certainly took the BBC by surprise, and perhaps even Hunt’s own civil servants. They look cumbersome and confused. Hunt’s letter points to the structure of BBC Alba as a precedent for the new arrangement, but without any understanding of the ways in which that would not suit Welsh circumstances.
The letter envisages that the service would be operated by a joint management board with a majority of independent directors appointed by the S4C Authority and the BBC Trust. But on top of this would be a combined board made up of the Authority and the Trust to oversee the delivery of the service licence or operating agreement. This is just the kind of two-tier supervision that the S4C Authority has been trying to get rid of in recent months in its own organisation. But then there is a third tier – the Authority and the Trust as separate independent entities. The Trust will have plenty of other things to attend to, but what of the Authority? What will it be doing that is not part of the work of the joint board or of the management board?
The other major question is the routing of money. In a situation where the BBC might be delivering one £76m tranche of money from the license fee (the Hunt deal) together with a second tranche of £20-25m under its existing statutory obligation to supply S4C with 10 hours a week, what real influence will S4C have when it is coming to the table with, at best, about £7m from the DCMS and some shrunken advertising income?
As many recogised at the forum the trick will be to ensure that the £76m is not routed through BBC management, but is sent direct from the licence fee pot to the Joint Board. But somebody will have to decide just what that sum will be, and that is where we get back to the politicians and the vexed question of the devolution of broadcasting.
It now seems inevitable that responsibility for S4C will be devolved to the Assembly. The reduction of the DCMS financial contribution from nearly £100m to £7m actually makes that easier. It is a sum that could be more easily swallowed, especially if it were also in the context of even a limited renegotiation of the Barnett formula. However, the involvement of the licence fee means that the DCMS will still remain part of the plot. There will be a need, therefore, in the next few months to work out the mechanics of a quadrilateral relationship between the Assembly Government, the DCMS, the BBC Trust and the S4C Authority.
One of the pieces on the table that no-one has talked about so far is the BBC Audience Council for Wales. What will their role be, if anything? Will it be some of their members who will be appointed to the joint board by the Trust? There would have to be a sea-change in the relationship between the Trust and the Audience Council for that to become a possibility. A task for the new BBC National Trustee for Wales, Elan Clos Stephens, by chance a respected former Chair of the S4C Authority.
One area where there was less agreement at the forum was how all this will affect English language broadcasting services for Wales. In recent years, while the S4C budget has been rising with inflation, and agreed increases in the BBC Wales spend on S4C, the spend on English language services for Wales has been collapsing. This process is not likely to end, given that BBC’s licence fee is being cut by 16 per cent.
It is understandable that those defending S4C do not want to muddy the waters. But it is essential that any framework for S4C is one that can be easily adjusted to accommodate devolution of responsibility for English language services as well. Tactical separation may be necessary, but, strategically, we have to think through the elements of a more comprehensive settlement as a necessary context.