Lectures Ministers should listen to

Geraint Talfan Davies looks at Welsh Labour’s relationship with the private sector and the need for the devolution of broadcasting

In recent weeks two very different public lectures have been delivered at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, both of which call for a change of direction on the part of Welsh Government, the one in relation to private sector business and the other to public service broadcasting. The full text of both lectures are available in the clickonwales lecture library.

Last Friday Menna Richards, who retired earlier this year after a decade of distinguished stewardship of BBC Wales, got to grips with two key issues in Welsh broadcasting – the apparent lack of vocal regard for the fate of English language broadcasting and the prospects for devolving some degree of control of broadcasting to the Welsh Government.

While all the attention in the last year has been on the travails of S4C, she records that “between 2006 and 2011 the number of hours of English language programmes has gone down by more than 16 per cent, the equivalent of more than one hundred hours of broadcasting – that’s a hundred hours less output about Wales for Welsh audiences from Wales’s national broadcaster.”

That statistic is a shocking fact in itself, but coming on top of an even bigger reduction in the output of ITV Wales over the last decade, as well as the prospect of a further 16 per cent cut in expenditure at BBC Wales over the next five years, it is remarkable that there has been so little public and political reaction.

Menna Richards reminds us that from 2013 the licence fee will be supplying S4C with more than £90 million a year, while BBC Wales spending on its English language television service for Wales will have fallen to £20 million.

Menna Richards contrasts Welsh quietude on these cuts with Scotland’s capacity to kick up a storm. “The BBC in Scotland is faced with making similar tough savings but I’ve always found it curious that the level of interest and engagement there is so much more intense. Scottish newspapers and politicians complain, write, criticize and attack the BBC’s senior management in London.  The BBC’s top team would tend to sigh theatrically at what they saw as an excess of emotion in Edinburgh and Glasgow but you’d know that usually, Scotland would get some concession just to keep them quiet – because a fuss was being kicked up. There was a public debate. Newspapers were agitated. Politicians were angry.

“The BBC centrally”, she said, “needs to hear from politicians, newspaper editors and other opinion formers that they are worried about the threat to English language services in Wales as well as the dangers facing S4C. You can bet they’d be doing so in Scotland.”

Some part of the difference, in my view, can be put down to the differing newspaper ecologies in Scotland and Wales. In Scotland sharp media competition – not only involving indigenous newspapers but also Scottish editions of London newspapers – ensures that stories can gain momentum. Issues can snowball into campaigns. Decision makers are not let off the hook quickly. If one newspaper drops the story, another will pick it up. The contrast between Wales and Scotland is an object lesson in the value of plurality.

But Menna Richards’ fundamental point is that it is the lack of clear devolved responsibility in the broadcasting field that is mainly responsible for letting Welsh politicians off the hook. If they were responsible, it would also be more of a media story. She also reminds us that switching S4C’s funding from the UK Culture department to the licence fee, removes a significant financial obstacle to the devolution of some broadcasting powers.

This issue is going to become a major issue for the Silk Commission that is investigating the devolution settlement in Wales and it will not be able to dodge it, as did the Calman Commission in Scotland some years ago. A Communications Bill is also promised in the next few years. Welsh Ministers need to start doing their homework on this issue quickly. The genie is out of the bottle.

The other National Library lecture, given by Baroness (Eluned) Morgan two weeks earlier, had a connecting link. It was the first Patrick Hannan lecture given in memory of the most astute of Welsh political commentators. He was also Menna Richard’s husband. The full lecture is here.

Unlike Menna Richards, Eluned Morgan is a politician – she was a Member of the European Parliament from 1994-2009. Her lecture therefore has to be read with an ear for the fine tuning necessary to get a difficult message through to her intended audience – the Welsh Labour Party and, in particular Welsh Ministers. Although its first part deals with her view of what Labour has done for devolution and what devolution has done for Labour, the second part tackles the rather more contentious issue of Welsh Labour’s relationship with the private sector.

This should come as no surprise since she says that she stood down from the European Parliament in order to get out of the political bubble for a few years and gain some private sector experience. She is now Director for National Development for Wales, for Scottish and Southern Energy. It is said she was influential in shaping the energy section of the Labour manifesto for last May’s Assembly elections.

Her clear message was that the Labour Party in Wales has to rethink its relationship with the private sector, not least since this will be the only source of job creation in the coming years. She admits to a weight of historical baggage:

“It is understandable that this has taken longer for the Labour party in Wales to accept, where the whole history of the party was based on the support for workers against business. From the early Chartist marches to the exploitation of miners by pit owners – business, and business leaders were seen as the bad guys.

“Particular animosity has until recently been quietly reserved for large businesses, despite the fact that fewer than 2% of companies in Wales are responsible for 55% of private sector employment. These big businesses would include supermarkets, utilities, banks, large communication companies and major manufacturers. The days of claiming that “we don’t like big business in Wales” must be over, and at least now there is recognition of this with the ‘anchor company’ strategy.

But she says that business also has a part to play in the relationship:

“Many in the private sector have sensed the animosity of the Labour party in the past and have been reluctant to engage. But the private sector must also take some responsibility for not interacting more deliberately with the new institution (Assembly). Both sides need to learn to speak one another’s language. The two big beasts need to start understanding the motivations and incentives of one another.”

It will be interesting to see what response she gets to this message from within the party. There is little doubt that most in business will agree with her, but some Ministers will be keen to argue that a much greater degree of engagement with business is now being put in place. This dissonance may be explained by two factors, one of which gets a passing reference in the lecture, and one of which is missing.

The first factor is the civil service. Questioning demands for further powers for the Assembly, Eluned Morgan asks, “whether we have the expertise and the capacity politically, economically and technically in the Welsh Government to give a service over and above what can be done if it is led by the UK govt?” The most common criticism heard in business quarters is that the civil service does not have the expertise to handle big business, and certainly not with the speed that the private sector expects.

The second factor has to do with political rhetoric and the unacknowledged tension between the rhetoric required to keep the private sector out of health and education and the rhetoric needed to galvanise business to boost our economy. Ministers may feel, quite sincerely, that these things can be neatly compartmentalised but the two messages are not so easily distinguished in the cacophony of public debate.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA

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