BBC’s agreement with S4C is a watershed moment for broadcasting

Steve Hewlett asks whether the landmark agreement between the BBC and S4C marks the beginning of federalisation

In the midst of News Corp’s continuing travails and the aftermath of the BBC’s DQF cuts announcements something happened last week, virtually unnoticed, that might well come to be seen as a watershed moment for public broadcasting in the UK. The BBC Trust announced it had reached agreement with S4C, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Welsh government over arrangements for the future funding and governance of the Welsh-language broadcaster. All parties declared themselves pleased with having found a formula that “will protect the editorial and managerial independence of S4C” while “safeguarding appropriate accountability to the BBC Trust” for the use of licence fee funds.

On the face of it this is quite a result for S4C – an organisation that only months back had no effective management, no effective governance and no strategy to arrest calamitous declines in audiences for much of its programming. Welsh-language campaigners suspect the deal, cooked up they say by the BBC and S4C behind closed doors, represents a major threat to the independence of what they see as their national broadcaster. In truth, however, opposing it might be the political equivalent of looking a very big gift horse in the mouth.

Why? Because for the first time the BBC has put in place arrangements (albeit under the ultimate authority of the trust) for the devolved strategic and financial management of significant licence fee funds in a devolved nation of the UK – entirely outside the BBC’s existing management structure and beyond its control. Where once the BBC’s operations in the nations of the UK, for all the good work they do, had the appearance at least of imperial outposts firmly controlled from London, this S4C solution looks very different.

And if that’s the right way to deal with the needs and interests of Welsh licence-payers in terms of Welsh-language broadcasting, why stop there? After all, as has been identified in countless studies, the greatest democratic and cultural deficit endured by people in Wales might be seen to arise from the relative paucity of locally focused services in English. As the Institute of Welsh Affairs once put it, “English is a Welsh Language!”

In other words, and some senior BBC mandarins are privately very worried by this, might we have just witnessed the beginning of the federalisation of the BBC? Looked at strategically the devolution bandwagon is well and truly rolling – with more and more powers and authority being assumed by the Scottish government and Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies – but Britain’s broadcasters are struggling to keep up. True they – and especially the BBC – are doing much by way of devolving production to the nations and regions; but control, and specifically strategic control, remains in London. As the devolved nations get more devolved and independent, though, it’s hard to see that lasting.

As an editorial in this newspaper pointed out last week, the pace of events in Scotland – with Alex Salmond’s proposals for a full on independence referendum appearing to catch at least some of the Scottish public’s mood – and developments in Wales and Northern Ireland are passing many people in England by. The BBC runs the real risk of messy dismemberment – which really could see it weakened editorially and creatively – unless it can find a way of catching up with the pace of the devolutionary process. In the short term the risks are reduced by broadcasting nationalists in Wales and Scotland appearing to slightly miss the bigger picture: the Welsh with their tendency of gift-horse-gazing; and the Scots with their focus on campaigning for a new Scottish digital channel – where major questions about funding and creative viability remain very much in play – rather than seeking to tackle funding and governance arrangements for BBC Scotland head-on.

Nevertheless, the model stitched together for the operation and control of S4C may well come to be seen as the moment the game changed.

Steve Hewlett is a writer, broadcaster and media consultant. This article first appeared in the Media Guardian

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