S4C debate 2: How the S4C Authority was hoodwinked

Gwion Owain sheds light on the continuing problems within S4C and suggests a way forward

In his article on this site back in mid-August John Osmond described the furore over Iona Jones’ departure from S4C as having “all the elements of a Jilly Cooper bonk-buster”. It has proved to be a telling analogy – long after the main protagonist’s departure the stable boys are still mucking out. The will-he won’t-he nature of John Walter Jones resignation as chairman of the S4C Authority was for many a titillation too far as the circus threatened to descend into what Geraint Talfan Davies described as an “unedifying farce”.

As I write this piece I learn that both the Assembly’s Presiding Officer and the Chairman of the BBC Trust have made their own interventions in the debate surrounding the future of S4C. Lord Elis-Thomas suggested that the S4C brand is now too tarnished to continue and that a new organisation, funded by the licence fee, should be established in its place. Sir Michael Lyons made his contribution in response to a question by a Scottish MP whilst giving evidence to the Culture Select Committee. He stated that the BBC had no wish to usurp the functions of S4C.

S4C debate

This is the second in a series of articles we are publishing on the future of S4C. Tomorrow Roger Williams, lead writer of S4C’s drama series Caerdydd and deputy chair of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, gives his view.

Those of us who have followed Welsh politics for some time know only too well that the Lord works in mysterious ways. However, the comments of Sir Michael Lyons prove that the BBC know they are walking a difficult tightrope between the thin end of the top-slicing wedge and the strength of political opinion in Wales. Negotiators for S4C should use this to their advantage.

The fact that the S4C Chairman has finally resigned offers an opportunity for both a process of renewal and a degree of openness and honesty about how things have gone wrong over the past few years at S4C. The Welsh Affairs Select Committee has provided a welcome opportunity for issues relating to the channel’s past and future to be debated in a mature and candid manner. Whilst Jeremy Hunt’s refusal to allow an independent inquiry has been a source of disappointment, there remains the possibility of the Assembly conducting it’s own inquiry in the New Year.

Such a move would be warmly welcomed in many quarters, undoubtedly by pro-devolutionists, but also many others who have been seriously concerned at the direction of S4C over the past few years. I suspect also that an independent inquiry would be welcomed  by the current members of the S4C Authority. I believe they have been severely wronged by some of the recent speculation over their actions. I am sure they would be glad of the opportunity to shed some light on the goings-on at Llanishen, although legal actions may prove a constraint.

What is certainly to be welcomed is that since the departure of John Walter Jones the debate has taken a turn for the wiser, even if the issues remain extremely difficult. The fact that the S4C Vice-Chair Rheon Thomas offered some explanation for the Chief Executive’s departure over the summer was an important step in the process of injecting some sanity into the discourse around the channel. As many of us who had experienced S4C’s actions at first hand had suspected, it was a breakdown of relations between the S4C Management Board and the Authority over their respective roles and the governance arrangement between them, described as arwahanrwydd, or due separation.

This governance arrangement, which had no basis in statute, was put in place between the Authority and the management in late 2006, just over a year after Iona Jones became Chief Executive. Its premise, modelled on the relationship between the BBC Trust and BBC management, was that the day-to-day running of S4C would be a matter for the management, while the role of the Authority would be to set targets and agree policies. However, the reality of this arrangement was quite different since, in effect, it erected a smokescreen between the Authority and the management.

To say the least, it allowed the management the latitude to take decisions free of the effective scrutiny that should have been the preserve of the Authority. Had there been the will on behalf of the management to respect the role of the Authority then it might have been possible to make such an arrangement work. But therein was the problem, for there existed no such will. In fact the whole edifice could be called a fig-leaf to cover the multitude of sins that followed.

Similarly, had the Chair insisted that the Chief Executive and her team respect the scrutiny role of the Authority then a number of S4C’s recent problems could well have been avoided. In the final analysis the best that could be said of this system of corporate governance was that its systemic weaknesses could only be compensated for by a Chair and Chief Executive who were prepared to trust each other. That trust was clearly not there. Both failed.

The failings of the system allowed unsatisfactory processes to persist, which many of us had to endure in dealings with S4C under this regime. If someone who was in a commercial relationship with S4C approached the management with a problem, he or she was usually given short shrift. The natural next step would be to appeal to the Authority in the person of the Chair. The expectation would be that the matter would then be referred to the Authority, as S4C’s internal policies suggested it might. However, more often than not it was passed back to the management who would then be given a free hand.

There are many in the industry who believe that they suffered in order to protect the policies of the management from effective scrutiny and the Chair from having to carry any responsibility for the management of the channel. The widespread belief is that Authority members should have acted much sooner and that they allowed themselves to be hoodwinked too easily. The Authority is only slowly peeling back the layers and what they find may yet derail their attempts to regain some control over events.

So where next?

One of the genuinely heartening aspects of the Welsh Select Committee’s evidence sessions as well as public debate in Wales is that a broad consensus seems to be forming around the question of the future of S4C. The unprecedented development of a clear and soundly expressed consensus in the letter of the four party leaders in favour of both S4C’s independence and the need for an independent review provides decisive proof that civil society in Wales is, in equal measure, both deeply supportive and deeply concerned to ensure the future of the organisation and to place it on a sounder strategic and administrative footing.

The main concerns are clear. Lack of scrutiny and accountability at both Authority and political level needs to be addressed. S4C’s management and Authority had allowed the organisation to become too distant from both its core remit and the rest of civil society in Wales. This ‘distance’ fostered a sense of hubris and insularity that crept into key relationships which in turn has created a sense of bitterness and frustration amongst those who would otherwise be most supportive of the channel.

The strategy that S4C has followed in terms of key commercial relationships with the production sector has distorted commissioning decisions and largely failed in creating a more commercially vibrant sector. Management at S4C were seen to be ‘out of control’ and normal governance structures were supplanted in favour of granting more powers for management.

In his recent article on click on Wales Geraint Talfan Davies suggested a five point plan to restore confidence and secure the future. Given that the Chair has indeed resigned there may be some traction behind this strategy. It is very difficult to suggest a better plan. However I would note one or two concerns.

Firstly, proper leadership for an Assembly commissioned independent inquiry has to be secured. I would suggest that no one who has a background in the media in Wales should be appointed to the Chair, certainly no one who has worked at S4C or in the production sector. The right individual ought to have earned respect at both Cardiff Bay and Westminster levels for developing policy and seen at a cross party level to be of the highest integrity.

The importance of such an intervention requires that it be placed above accusations of the ‘usual suspects’ being at it again. Such individuals do exist. I would suggest Sir Deian Hopkin or Mervyn Davies, Lord Davies of Abersoch. Both have earned respect and recognition in their respective fields for policy work. Both are Welsh speaking and have a natural understanding of the issues. Both are seen as being above the fray in terms of the Welsh media. It is imperative that an inquiry be Chaired by an individual of this calibre.

Secondly, it is only in light of the findings of such an inquiry that the current Authority should offer their resignations. In the interim they are the guardians of S4C’s independence. To resign now, even in light of the appointment of a new Chair would be to jeopardise the independence of S4C. Any prior appointment of a new Authority by Jeremy Hunt would be immediately tainted with the suspicion of being his ‘political appointees’. It is only when the political ground has been secured by the findings of an inquiry that they should consider relinquishing their positions. Given the manner in which S4C management have treated them and the leadership they were offered by the Chair, Wales should be grateful to the Authority for both their tenacity and their integrity.

Finally, given that the DCMS’s contribution to S4C will only total £7 million per annum after the settlement with the BBC, is there an opportunity for the pro-devolution lobby at the Assembly to offer further savings to the DCMS and stump up the £7 million from within their budget on the basis that S4C could be devolved. As the scrutiny of S4C is unlikely ever to feature high on any Westminster government’s agenda would it not be a dereliction of duty not to ensure that power over this institution resides in the place most likely to both understand and appreciate its value to its public?

Gwion Owain is the former chief executive of TAC, the Welsh independent producers association.

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