Hunt’s regard for process wasn’t evident on S4C

John Osmond outlines the IWA’s response to Jeremy Hunt’s consultation on the small print

If one is to believe the protestations of the UK Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, that he was tackling the News Corp bid for BSkyB with a meticulous regard for due process, one is tempted to ask why he did not show a similar regard for process when altering the funding, governance and statutory basis of S4C. One assumes he did not cower before the media might of the Western Mail or Golwg. The thought of Golwg’s editor, Dylan Iorwerth, slipping through the backdoor of Downing Street for a quiet word is at the extremes of fantasy.

Yesterday another stage in the bizarre process of upturning S4C was concluded with the end of a DCMS consultation period on a Public Bodies Act that received Royal Assent last December, and that came into force in February 2012. As we all know there was no consultation of the decision to shift the funding of S4C from the UK Government to the BBC licence fee. It was done at the dead of night.

And it was only at the last minute that Parliament removed from the Public Bodies Bill a proposal to give Government Ministers the right to abolish S4C, restricting their power only to be able to modify the S4C’s constitutional arrangements. Now we end up with a consultation on such crucial issues as the composition of the selection panel to appoint members of the S4C Authority.

As if recognising that some people might want to take the opportunity to have their say, the consultation seeks to head them off at the pass:

“While we appreciate that respondents may wish to comment on the governance and accountability arrangements agreed between the BBC and S4C, it should be noted that the focus of this consultation is on the legislative changes required to put these changes in place before April 2013.”

The consultation requires answers to only three questions.

  • Do you agree that the Selection Panel (to choose members of the S4C Authority) should include a representative of any body providing funding for S4C?
  • Are there any other issues that should be considered in relation to the proposed reconstituted S4C Authority?
  • Do you agree that it should be a statutory requirement that any person / body with whom the Secretary of State enters into a future agreement to fund S4C must have an operating agreement with S4C?

The IWA’s Media Policy Group has submitted a response that, while addressing on these questions, does raise other issues. The full response can be read here.

In short, we believe that the current proposals “do not adequately reflect the interests that the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government have in the successful exercise by S4C of its functions”, given that S4C is “a vital instrument in the delivery of Welsh language policy within Wales, all other aspects of which are in the control of the Welsh Government.”

This being the case, we believe it follows that even if the Chairman of S4C is to be primarily accountable to the Secretary of State for Culture in London, the Welsh Government should be required to declare publicly and simultaneously its endorsement of the appointment by the Secretary of State. This will provide a powerful incentive for the two governments to reach agreement on a nomination.  The same should apply to the appointment of all members of the Authority.

As for BBC Trust representation on the S4C Authority, we have noted that the agreement between the BBC and S4C states that “the BBC Trust member for Wales may (our italics) be one of the members, if the Trust wishes”. This seems to be very tentative wording and needs further clarification. It may simply reflect the early stage of the relationship between the two, but it also seems to give the BBC the right to withdraw that member from the Authority at any stage. Our response says that the BBC Trust should take the opportunity to confirm that this is not an indication of any lack of confidence in or commitment to the partnership arrangement.

But the central issue for S4C is funding. Currently we still have no certainty on the full funding level beyond 2014-15. The BBC Trust has made known its funding through to 2016-17, but we do not know the DCMS contribution for the last two years. This is an unacceptable state of affairs. Our response states:

“We believe that the Secretary of State and the BBC Trust should both be required to make known their respective levels of funding for S4C simultaneously and for at least the entire period of a BBC licence fee.

“The withholding of decisions on significant parts of S4C’s funding – as is currently the case with the DCMS tranche – prevents proper and efficient forward planning that can lead to less than optimal value for public money. It is also the case that the shorter the known funding period, the darker the cloud over a public broadcaster’s independence.”

But an even darker cloud looms, and that is the impact of shoe-horning S4C funding into the BBC licence fee on other BBC Wales services, particularly English language television. As we state:

“The switch to licence fee funding for S4C severely distorts the BBC’s relative investments across the nations. Unless a means is found of ring-fencing this component, it is likely to prove a major hindrance to the case for fairer investment in BBC Wales’s English language services, and may even affect the case for necessary capital investment in Wales. The decline in English language television services for Wales, across both BBC and ITV, has been a major cause for concern, and is the area in most need of urgent repair.”

John Osmond is Director of the IWA

Also within Culture