A new agenda for broadcasting in Wales

Ron Jones, Executive Chairman, Tinopolis, Broadcasting in Wales: an agenda for the coming decade, IWA Conference, 18 October 2011, Cardiff

Broadcasting is not a devolved issue.  Parliament guards this responsibility and there is no appetite for change.  However, led by Scotland there is pressure for new structures to accommodate post-devolution Britain. In practice the lack of accountability to Wales is unsustainable and new structures that accommodate the needs of the UK and Wales have to be found.

Whether broadcasting should be a devolved issue is a political judgment.  However, there is a compelling case that the common interests of the Welsh Government, the Assembly, our local broadcasters and the audience require better local engagement.  After all, culture, education, heritage and language are devolved issues, issues that are at the heart of public service television.

Whatever the finer legal issues we need to have in place robust agreement between London and Cardiff on a matter, not devolved but of central interest to the Welsh Government.  Sir Jeremy Beecham’s report “Making the connections Delivering Beyond Boundaries” talks about the need to ensure that WG plays its part in non-devolved services. Broadcasting seems a prime candidate for this approach.  Clear lines for democratic accountability need to be put in place, to be open to public consultation, reviewed by elected politicians and transparent to all.

It is widely accepted that Wales suffers a worrying lack of plurality in media.  This extends to media outlets, ownership and control as well as an imbalance between media generated in Wales and provided from elsewhere in the UK.  Since devolution the lack of coverage of our politics has become a danger to our democracy.

Cuts in ITV and BBC news provision for Wales and the lack of consultation on the DCMS proposals for local news are clear warnings. Coverage of the Assembly and of Welsh affairs in Parliament has diminished in range and depth.  ITV’s financially driven cuts are well understood and the announcement that local news is to be given a higher priority is welcome.  S4C news is provided by the BBC. Our newspapers continue to weaken leaving the BBC as the primary provider of political coverage.  This is an unhealthy trend.

However, at a time when other media outlets are weakened by economic changes the BBC has reduced its commitment to Wales as a matter of choice.  Over the last years, despite the BBC’s receiving favourable licence fee settlements well ahead of inflation, it chose to reduce its spending on English and Welsh programmes for Wales quite significantly.  Although the cuts for BBC Wales and S4C to 2017 are now known discussions on the new Charter will be starting soon.  Dangerous times are ahead.

There is a consensus that Wales is not getting the television it needs.  Not since the days of the last ITV licence award has there been a coherent attempt to assess what Wales needs. The Ofcom UK review of local services some 2 years ago was useless.

There are new challenges.  There is a shortage of on-line content and services for Wales. The BBC has become the most popular provider of on-line services in the UK.  In Wales, not only are there very few services but we know there is permanent market failure. These services can only be provided by the public purse and no institutions other than broadcasters have the money or the opportunity to fill this void.

Children are even more promiscuous than their parents in their choice of content.  Language and whether it’s Welsh are secondary considerations.  Meanwhile there is a shortage of modern educational content in Wales, both in television programmes and on-line content.  Our new curriculum in Wales is a huge leap forward in education but it needs materials using the new technologies. Our broadcasters, as a matter of policy, do not match their output to our education system.  Politically naive this approach has also been a betrayal of Welsh children’s needs.

Our broadcasters have not risen to these challenges to the extent needed.

ITV Wales despite its recent announcement to continue its regional news service is a shadow of what was envisaged by the original licence.  The commercial radio licence holders in Wales are all in financial retreat and their licence commitments have gradually been eased by Ofcom.   BBC Wales has cut over the years the hours of television for Wales in English and cut significantly the allocation of money to Radio Cymru, Radio Wales, its online services and programmes produced for S4C under its statutory obligations.

Wales has not done well from BBC’s devolution of services.  Under pressure from the Labour government and the BBC announced a large scale restructuring of its activities to the nations and regions.  There has been massive spending on its 2 major projects outside London, at Pacific Quay in Glasgow and at Media City in Salford.  Wales has had nothing similar is scope or value.

Wales has a weak television and film industry.  The natural dynamics of the industry centre on London.  This is true of all English language broadcasters and of all distributors and agencies.  Market conditions are not going to change this and only the BBC and S4C are in a position by social engineering to help create and sustain this industry.  S4C’s priorities will rightly be to service the needs of Welsh-speakers not pretend to be a global or commercial player.  This role provides an invaluable underpinning of the business models of producers creating a protected market.  However, there is little evidence that the companies are able to compete, other than occasionally, outside Wales.  The BBC could use its commissioning muscle in Wales and its route to market to operate more effectively than at present.

Wales is poorly served for news and current affairs.  Uniquely amongst the devolved nations Wales has neither an indigenous news industry nor significant coverage in UK media.  We are now over-dependent on the BBC that is looking at 20% cuts for its news coverage.  Whilst many of the criticisms of BBC Wales News coverage are of its quality and focus it is unlikely that these issues can be addressed at a time of significant cuts.

S4C is a high risk organisation for Wales.   Whatever its recent failings S4C is an important part of Welsh national life and a key driver in safeguarding the language and the television industry in Wales.  Over the next months discussions will continue between the BBC and S4C that will define its future.

Until Doctor Who, Torchwood and now Casualty arrived in Cardiff little network production was made in Wales.  The target has traditionally been to achieve a level of 5% of UK network programming and at first sight the BBC is well on its way.  However, the approach taken by the BBC has not been to our advantage.  Firstly, they have chosen high cost drama that produces few hours and little network portrayal of Wales.  Secondly, the absence of most other genres creates an industrial mono-culture that precludes a balanced television economy.  One side effect of this will be largely to exclude local production companies and indeed local talent.  The companies do not have the scale and the experience to meet the BBC’s requirements and few of the workers have the necessary skills.  The BBC’s view is that going native with the drama village is a long-term project to which they are committed.  Experience suggests this not going to be easy.

As a country we need to identify those elements of television that we need for specifically Welsh cultural, linguistic, social or democratic reasons.

Public Service Broadcasters should make explicit commitments defining their responsibilities and commitments to Wales and we need to ensure that these are developed through an open and public discussion of the issues involved.

Such a review should be initiated and agreed after full public consultation and the involvement of all key stakeholders.  Ideally these would include DCMS, the BBC Trust, S4C, the Welsh Government and its NDPB’s with relevant responsibilities as well as the Assembly and Welsh MP’s.  In practice some will elect not to play but the politics of this are against them.

The result of such a review should inform our policy for public service broadcasting and be the base upon which we ensure that, in addition, this broadcasting is structured to provide the maximum economic benefit.

A needs-based analysis is going to prioritise Wales, its news and news-based programmes, current affairs, events and sport.  When you add a range of public service programmes from history to culture many genres as well as some sport and entertainment may have to go.  Public scrutiny delivers needs not a guarantee that everything we want can be delivered.

This needs-based approach should not be tainted by a search for simple viewing numbers.  Alongside this exercise there will be a need to develop an appraisal system based on public service purpose.

What can we ask for and what can the broadcasters deliver?

Our priority for ITV should be to ensure that the new licence or licences for ITV from 2014 are Wales-friendly.  An aim might be to ensure that:

  • There is an all Wales licence.  This was the case under the present regime but was lost through corporate takeovers.
  • Wales has appropriate service levels consistent with the industry-wide review of needs I envisage.
  • The Welsh licence is protected, maybe by an ownership structure such as Glas Cymru, from takeover.  The service could then be sub-contracted to suitable operators more tightly than the existing DCMS/Ofcom/ITV arrangements.
  • The economic impact is maximised.

The present DCMS proposals for local TV are not a good fit for Wales and probably not financially sustainable.  However, public money is being made available, and Wales must make the best of what’s on offer and make it work for us.  We need to find ways to engage in the local TV developments and search for innovative ways to do so.  If local television and the important web-delivered elements are not a commercial proposition can they be made to work by integrating local television with the government’s commitment to delivering public services and education over the internet.

Devolution means the BBC is now one of Wales’ most important public service institutions. Economically, journalistically and culturally the BBC is the biggest beast and in its refocusing are the biggest wins for Wales. The BBC plays a significant role in providing the television, radio, on-line and learning content that conventional markets cannot, developing creative talent and underpinning the creative economy of the nation.

This role has been made even more important by the UK government’s decision that S4C is a UK service priority funded from the television licence.

One way forward would be the creation of a BBC Trust Service Licence Agreement for Wales.  The BBC Trust authorises and monitors services through a series of Service Licences.  There is one for each channel and service.  These Service Commitments need to comply with the BBC’s Public Purposes under Article 3 of its Royal Charter and although there is public consultation the Trust basically decides.

In the case of S4C the new partnership arrangements will almost certainly follow the Service Licence approach.  In that case the present thinking is that this will be agreed by discussion between S4C, the BBC Trust and DCMS after consultation with the Welsh Government in recognition of its statutory obligation to support and develop the Welsh language.

This opens the door to a similar approach being taken with English language services.  This approach could be the cornerstone of involving the devolved governments in assessing national needs.

The Service Licences that describes the responsibility of the BBC Trust to Wales and to S4C could include:

  • The number of hours to be broadcast on television and radio
  • The types of programmes to be made potentially defining the news services required
  • An on-line service
  • The portrayal of Welsh people and life on network
  • Commitments relating to the relationship between the services and the education system in Wales
  • Commitments relating to the relationship between the S4C services and Welsh Assembly Government policy on (and the UK’s international law obligations relating to) promoting and safeguarding the Welsh language
  • Value for money in terms of producing affordable quality content
  • Contribution to the economy of Wales

Before the next Charter is granted to the BBC, there would need to be an independent external impact assessment of how the services have measured up.

So there it is, the timeless problem of non-devolved matters and the need to find a way through the constitutional morass.  Fans of the American constitution will be aware of the concept that express responsibilities bring with them implied powers.

Under the Crown this is an alien concept. Under the Crown we as subjects only have those rights granted to us.  All very well. In the real world we have to make the best of our constitutional arrangements.

In the case of broadcasting there is a way forward that is democratic, sensible and in the best interests of our people, government in Cardiff and in London –  oh and in the long term interests of our broadcasters as well.

Ron Jones is Executive Chairman for Tinopolis

Also within Politics and Policy