Broadcasting Special 1: Wales – the BBC’s disgruntled friend

Geraint Talfan Davies looks back on the visit of Lord Patten and the BBC Trust to Wales

It is always hard to know what impression has been made on central authority in the BBC when it descends en masse on one of ‘the nations’. In the past the triennial visitation of the Board of Governors to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, was a time to spruce up the bogs and the rhetoric in the hope that an impression of visible good order and sensible and well-researched conviction would stand you in good stead when it next came to handing round the money.

But it is was different last week when the BBC Trust visited Cardiff. There are still some elements of a royal progress – an intense round of meetings with Welsh Government Ministers, the BBC staff and the Trust’s own Audience Council for Wales, and the taking of wine with opinion formers. However, since the abolition of the Governors and the creation of the Trust, senior London-based BBC managers are no longer part of the retinue. You are left more conscious of the new division between Trustees and management, left wondering how different their respective approaches to current problems might be.


S4C and the communication needs of the whole nation

Hugh Mackay says Welsh public service broadcasters should collaborate more and the Welsh Government should have a role in their governance.

On Sunday Iestyn Garlick asks whether S4C is a channel we want but don’t watch. And on Monday John Osmond reviews the shortlist for S4C’s top job.

This is going to be a central speculation over the coming months as the BBC Trust, under its new chairman, Lord Patten, grapples with the BBC management’s proposals to implement cuts of 20 per cent to BBC services. Already, under Patten’s predecessor, Sir Michael Lyons, signs of tension and difference had begun to emerge – the BBC’s Director General, Mark Thompson, seeming to incline to ‘salami slicing’ budgets across the corporation, and Sir Michael and the Trust readier to contemplate a more discriminating approach that might include the axing of a complete service or channel.

That dilemma has not gone away, despite the tactical retreat on the proposed abolition of the BBC 6 Music radio service last year. Since then the stakes have increased, and the budgetary challenge has intensified. There are also short-term and longer term considerations to be taken into account. In the short term the BBC needs to demonstrate that it is taking real pain, which may not be wholly convincing if salami slicing is the order of the day. There is also a related longer-term need to put the BBC in a stronger position to fight off the ever-intensifying barrage of opposition from commercial rivals when the licence fee is next reviewed.

Wales must hope that the Trust is willing to push for the more radical option, since salami slicing always hits the low-budget corners of the corporation harder than high-budget UK services.  The make-up of the Trust – with its three trustees from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as with the Governors of old – should ensure that the voice of the ‘the nations’ is heard. But they will have to withstand the formidable weight of the BBC management forces who, as in many large organisations, tend to revert to more centralised pressures when under the cosh.

It is not for nothing that Lord Patten has been described as ‘the best foreign secretary we never had’ – although he did have a period in 1990s as the EU’s external affairs commissioner.  He did a lot of intense listening in Cardiff, and is more than capable of finding the emollient words that preserve relationships even when unpalatable decisions are in prospect.

In some of his public utterances during his visit and in his interview with the Western Mail, he warned that Wales could not avoid some cuts, but he also accepted the case that the weakness of ITV and the indigenous press in Wales “puts a particular responsibility on the BBC to act a guardian, as a custodian of the public space of citizens at a time when there is increased political vitality in Wales”. That was an acceptance of a central proposition in the Welsh case for a better dispensation.

One difficulty for those making the Welsh case during the Trust’s visit, was the impossibility of concentrating on one clear-cut issue. The Welsh agenda is long and complex:

  • The terms of the future partnership between the BBC and S4C.

  • The need to address some of the deficiencies in the BBC’s services in Wales – in television and radio – at a time of remarkable development in Welsh society despite the adverse economic climate.

  • The possible interaction between those two agendas, with a risk that funding S4C through the licence fee could stymie any future attempts to increase the funding of BBC services in Wales.

  • All this, even before you come to addressing any specific cuts that might emerge in the next few months.

Lord Patten, who clearly knows his brief, reminded a gathering of opinion formers at the Pierhead building in Cardiff Bay that surveys show Wales has a greater degree of satisfaction with the BBC as a whole than any other country in the UK. It was a straight ball no doubt bowled to give campaigning elites pause for thought. But it may be less of a paradox than it appears. The truth is that the Welsh public do have a soft spot for the BBC. The weaknesses of its commercial competitors, means that they are more familiar with its services. The surveys may also be tapping into a particular Welsh regard for public service values and organisations. Even the Welsh Language Society protest outside the Pierhead building was very polite.

But such debating points may pale into insignificance, alongside the bigger play that has come into focus as a result of last month’s Scottish election results. The BBC has to decide whether to align its services, investment and organisation with the devolutionary trend, or to seek to stand aside from it. It is the BBC’s supporters who should be encouraging it to respond to devolution imaginatively, not just by re-balancing its spend, but in ways that will encourage ‘the nations’ to be its staunchest defenders in any future battle for survival.

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

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