Election Special 10: An appetite for power over the airwaves

Geraint Talfan Davies finds a new emphasis on broadcasting in this year’s manifestos

Given the Wagnerian proportions of the financial crisis that the world and Britain is enduring, this is not the year to be looking to party manifestos for the promise of exciting developments on the cultural front. This may explain why comparing the four documents this year tells us less than a comparison with similar documents published for the 2007 election. That contrast is stark.

Back in 2007, in the wake of attempted quango burning, there was an emphasis on re-affirming the arm’s length principle in the management of the arts, and with implementing the Stephens Report on the arts, about which little more was heard. By this year those institutional issues have been replaced with a new emphasis on broadcasting matters, not just in terms of extracting economic benefits from a key creative industry, but also in terms of the accountability of broadcasters within Wales.

The Welsh General Election

This is the tenth in a series of articles we are publishing in the run-up to the National Assembly election this Thursday. Tomorrow Syd Morgan and Alan Sandry examine the prospects for a Rainbow coalition while Geraint Talfan Davies, Chair of the IWA, surveys what the parties have to say on culture and heritage.

Given the importance of S4C in the broadcasting infrastructure, and the continuing sense of crisis surrounding the organisation, it is not surprising that all four parties wish to guarantee the channel’s independence. However, it is significant and heartening that three of the four are also supporting some measure of devolution of responsibility for broadcasting to the Assembly. The surprising odd man out is the Liberal Democrat manifesto which, although supportive of S4C, has nothing to say on the wider issues, again in contrast to its 2007 offering.

It is less surprising that Plaid is nailing its colours to this mast, given Ieuan Wyn Jones’ speech at last year’s National Eisteddfod. Plaid wants a wholesale transfer of

“…responsibility and funding for broadcasting and broadcasting regulation, along with control over radio licences in order to protect and develop services in both the Welsh and English languages”.

It also wants to give the audience greater say over the distribution of FM radio, as well as ensuring availability for DAB across the whole country – an approach that might be described as wanting the penny and the bun. The Labour and Conservative documents are more circumspect, though no less interesting for that. Despite current resistance from the UK’s culture department, the Conservatives want

“…a joint mechanism with Westminster to keep S4C fully accountable in areas where devolved matters are affected such as support for creative industries and the promotion of the Welsh language”.

They also want “a review of Welsh language broadcasting to protect the independence and financial security of S4C beyond 2015”, and will also explore the feasibility of a joint digital fund to invest in the creative industries by linking broadcasters, producers and media entrepreneurs.

The Labour document – the longest and most expansive of the four – is the most interesting, both for its reasoning and its detail. Like the others, it supports public service broadcasting – who doesn’t? – but it also takes issue with UK Culture Secretary’s espousal of local television, that Labour thinks is not viable in Wales. Instead, Welsh Labour thinks that local community and web-based media are the way forward here.

However, it is on the strengthening of institutional mechanisms – particularly within the regulator, Ofcom, and the BBC – that Labour is most interesting. It wants to see Ofcom’s Wales Advisory Committee become a sub-committee of the main Ofcom Board, and the appointment of a Wales member to the Board itself. In a similar vein, it wants to

“…explore the possibility of a Wales Committee of the BBC Trust being established as a sub-committee of the BBC Trust Board, with appointments to that Board being made ‘on the same basis as in Scotland”.

For Scotland the Calman Commission proposed that the Scottish member of the BBC Trust should be appointed by Scottish Ministers, and the Scottish Government has built on that to recommend the same for appointments to the Board of MG Alba, the Gaelic television service.

As for S4C, Labour wants greater transparency and to be consulted on any new governance arrangements, as well as seeking “a line of accountability to the National Assembly for Wales”. With both Labour and Conservatives wanting some ‘line of accountability’ to Wales for S4C, again it is remarkable that there is no mention of the accountability issue in the Liberal Democrat document.

That said, there is within these documents the probable basis for all-party agreement within the next Assembly in fighting for a better deal for broadcasting in Wales – a fight that will intensify this autumn when the BBC announces how it will find further cuts of 20 per cent and the UK Government embarks on a new Communications Bill.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA

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