S4C Chairman has a mountain to climb

Geraint Talfan Davies weighs the Welsh Affairs Committee report that sets out a formidable agenda for the new Chairman of S4C

Hot on the heels of the announcement of Huw Jones, a former S4C Chief Executive, as the preferred candidate to take to a bed of nails as Chairman of S4C, Parliament’s Welsh Affairs Committee has today produced an uncomfortable report that sets out the scale of task that he will face ‘to rebuild’, in the Committee’s own words, “trust in the governance, management and mission of S4C.”

Despite some understandable discomfort at the elevation of a former Chief Executive to Chairman – a practice often frowned on in business, and rare in public organisations – Huw Jones comes to the task with a much needed professional knowledge of the broadcasting industry that is in short supply in the existing S4C Authority, as well as undoubted integrity. As chief executive between 1994 and 2005 he was a skilled and assiduous lobbyist.

When he appears before the DCMS Select Committee – in the new confirmation process that first applied when Chris Patten was recently appointed Chair of the BBC Trust – there are two questions that are almost certain to be asked. Will he have the support of the Secretary of State in re-constituting the membership of the Authority? And has he given the Minister any assurances about a willingness to conclude the deal with the BBC? It would be surprising if he were not in a position to answer yes to both questions.

With regard to the S4C Authority, the Committee’s strictures are severe. Its report says that “S4C was more concerned with its internal differences than with its primary responsibility: the sound stewardship of a cherished institution”. Speaking of the formal separation of management and the Authority – Arwahanrwydd – it says that “whatever the deficiencies…its failure was primarily due to the failure of individuals in S4C to make the arrangement work.”

Although the Committee believes that, overall, S4C does provide value for money, it expresses concern that:

“S4C has for many years received substantial sums of public money without sufficient internal or external evaluation of its efficiency and the value for money of its service”.

It wants S4C to be subject to regular audits by the National Audit Office, like the BBC. It also expresses surprise that S4C does not have greater information about audience perceptions of its service. The Committee welcomes a joint study of the Welsh language audience by S4C, the BBC and the Welsh Language Board, but says “we are surprised that has taken the S4C Authority until now to address this shortcoming”.

All this amounts to a pretty damning indictment of overall governance, for which there has to be some collective as well as individual responsibility.

For all this, it is not surprising that the Committee remains supportive of the channel. It has accepted the argument that the language is a “cultural asset not just of Wales but of the entire kingdom” and subscribes to the notion that S4C is there to deliver a wider public value, rather than just audience numbers. But it does not accept that that is an escape clause from more conventional measures of success. “While the cultural benefit provided by S4C is compelling”, it says, “the channel’s prime purpose is to provide its viewing audience with popular, high quality television programmes which inform, educate and entertain.”

The report puts its finger on the problem of how the channel measures its audience, particularly the channel’s preference for publishing figures that reflect those who watch the channel for three consecutive minutes in a week, rather than the 15 minutes a week measure used by the BBC and Channel 4, which, of course, produces a lower figure. The Committee recommends that it adopt the 15 minute measure, which shows that around 155,000 of the 600,000 Welsh speakers watch S4C each week. The Committee says “this is a figure on which S4C itself acknowledges that it must improve.” That is a tough challenge and will require a more creative approach to programme commissioning than the commissioning by numbers that we have seen in recent years. The report then adds:

“We recognise that S4C could perform better and therefore recognise the case for creating a new S4C: a multi-platform, multi-media broadcaster/publisher, which is answerable to Welsh audiences and commissions and broadcasts Welsh language content only.”

The new chairman, and the new chief executive when appointed, will face the challenge of putting flesh on this concept despite the recent 25 per cent reduction in the budget, a financial factor that brings us to the issue of the relationship with the BBC.

Despite saying that it was regrettable that the DCMS and BBC reached their funding deal on S4C without consultation with the channel, let alone a wider consultation, the Committee largely reflects the Welsh consensus on the terms of the deal. That will be negotiated, with a delicious piquancy, between Huw Jones and his former Chair at S4C Elan Clos Stephens, now the Welsh member of the BBC Trust. The consensus supports:

i) A guarantee of S4C’s editorial and operational independence.

ii) A guarantee that S4C will get all the money that was negotiated and that it is not filtered through BBC management or siphoned off for other BBC purposes.

iii) S4C continuing to commission its output through independent producers.

iv) An urgent need to confirm S4C funding beyond 2014-15 – funding is currently settled only to 2013-14.

v) An enhanced role for the Welsh Government and the National Assembly in the funding and scrutiny of S4C.

It is important that the Committee has endorsed this last proposition. That reflects not only the evidence given to the committee but also the views expressed in three of the four main party manifestos – Labour, Conservative and Plaid Cymru – at last week’s election. The Committee clearly foresees a new statutory basis for the channel when it says that “any future Broadcasting Bill should address the relationship between DCMS, Welsh Assembly Government and S4C.”

That will be an important development, but before it happens there will be a need to do the deal with the BBC, despite an increasing discomfort about the prospect. Much attention has been paid to the threat of licence fee funding to the independence of S4C. In the next months we may begin to see that it also poses a threat to the services provided by BBC Wales as the cuts within the BBC start to bite.

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

2 thoughts on “S4C Chairman has a mountain to climb

  1. I note that this article and the committee’s report fails to address the issue(s – many probably) of non-Welsh speakers (or in our case non-fluent-Welsh speakers) and S4C’s audience.
    Nowhere have I seen mentioned the, no doubt considerable, cost of subtitling in English and ‘learners’ Welsh that is so important to a part of its audience. What size are we – those who possibly watch more S4C aided with subtitles than we watch, for example, regional ITV? How are our needs identified – at all – and if necessary differentiated for? And why has the issue of ‘cross-advertising’ the programmes on ITV and BBC not been considered?
    Are these questions unaddressed simply because this audience is not considered? If so it’s a very bad failing because we could be a vital part of the success of S4C.
    I have certainly been more vocal in its support through these troubled times than many of my first-language Welsh friends. I find that odd.

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