The quandary over S4C

Geraint Talfan Davies asks where are the independent candidates for the S4C chairmanship

Last week John Osmond reported on the stalemate in the process of appointing a new Chair for S4C. Apparently, disagreements between the Welsh Government and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in London, have meant that the four candidates are having to undergo a second round of interviews, this time with the Minister Jeremy Hunt. This has left industry watchers in Wales scratching their heads about the dearth of genuinely independent candidates.

All four current candidates have a record of past involvement with S4C:

  • Rheon Thomas, is currently the acting chair of S4C, and implicated in the recent governance of the channel.

  • Huw Jones, was Chief Executive of the channel from 1994 to 2005, and his candidacy raises the question of whether it is right to translate a previous Chief Executive into the Chair.

  • Emyr Byron Hughes, was a canny S4C Director of Corporate Policy and Company Secretary, and can lay claim to having master-minded the SDN operation that made S4C a handsome profit when it was sold.

  • Enid Rowlands, is a former member of the S4C Authority (and of the BBC’s Broadcasting Council for Wales), whose candidacy has apparently suffered from association with the ill-fated ELWA, which she chaired ten years ago.

It might reasonably be asked why past association with S4C should be in any way an obstacle to appointment. In other circumstances it would be deemed an advantage, but DCMS Ministers must be wary of both S4C’s questionable governance record in recent years and the limited capacity of the management and S4C Authority together to be properly self-critical. The pressures of the next few years will demand an ability to think radically about the traditional building blocks of the channel, and to do so within the wider context of the total Welsh broadcasting ecology.

The governance deficiencies within S4C have been amply documented in Sir Jon Shortridge’s review of corporate governance, commissioned in a crisis atmosphere last year after the sacking of its Chief Executive. This report made it clear that some basic principles of governance were not being adequately observed. The DCMS will want to be sure that any new Chair observes Sir Jon’s recommendations – which simply reflect known best practice – to the letter. A concomitant of that change will surely be a substantial strengthening of the membership of the present Authority.

But perhaps the real difference between Ministers in London and Cardiff, is that the former may be asking who can best manage the new relationship with the BBC, while the latter may be asking who can best defend S4C’s independence. There are those in Wales who do not wish to see S4C sup with the BBC at all. Others will be content that it does so, but with a long spoon. But, to change the metaphor, no-one wishes to see S4C succumb to a well-meaning but crushing BBC bear-hug.

So we come back to the question of why there are so few candidates who are not connected with either broadcaster, or with others in the production sector. It may just be that the DCMS made a mistake in not appointing headhunters to dig more deeply in Welsh civil society. Or are we, perhaps, seeing a side effect of the stripping out from that civil society of senior governance experience by the twin processes of consolidation in the private sector that has reduced the senior management cadres in Wales, and the abolition of quangos in the public sector? This may be another paradox of devolution.

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

One thought on “The quandary over S4C

  1. Cytunaf yn llwyr gyda Geraint. Er mwyn dyfodol S4C rhaid penodi person sy’n gwbl annibynnol o’r hyn sydd wedi digwydd yno. Mae gan bob un o’r ymgeiswyr hyn ran o’r cyfrifoldeb am y sefyllfa bresennol. Rhaid wrth drosolwg craff, dealltwriaeth ddofn, ymrwymiad i’r weledigaeth wreiddiol a’r gallu i drosglwyddo hynny yn weithredol yn y cyd-destun presennol ac anodd .

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