Angela Graham disagrees with parking the devolution of broadcasting to the National Assembly
In a rather complacent overview of the issues facing Welsh broadcasters Tim Hartley, Chair of the Royal Television Society in Wales tries to divorce the funding and the cultural content of broadcasting in Wales from the issues of accountability and devolved responsibility. The latter are currently under discussion by the Silk Commission.
Clearly believing that there is no chance of Wales acquiring any greater responsibilities in this field “anytime soon”, he asks, “Can we now please park this issue and get on with the real business of deciding what kind of television service we want in Wales?” No, we can’t. Here’s why.
In the next few years the BBC’s Royal Charter will be up for renewal, and we may well see a new Communications Act. Wales needs to have a view. More fundamentally, there is a fact to be faced – an astounding, even shameful, fact. The fact is that we in Wales do not decide what kind of television services we want. The financial envelope for those services is decided for us by the BBC Trust, the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and ITV plc. The Welsh Government and Welsh public have no input into their decisions. Sadly, Tim appears to be in agreement with the Welsh Government in not wanting to disturb this powerlessness.
Mistakenly, the Welsh Government has been unwilling for some time to contemplate taking on any extra powers in this field, until recently frightened of being made responsible for the £90m plus that the DCMS was once giving S4C. That excuse has now vanished. S4C is funded primarily through the BBC’s licence fee, with the DCMS now putting in only a token £7m – a change, you will remember, that was negotiated without any involvement whatsoever from either S4C or the Welsh Government, in blatant disregard of the concordat between the DCMS and the Welsh Government that promises consultation on Welsh issues.
Over the last decade we have been unable to create effective influence to prevent the ITV service for Wales shrinking to a third of what it produced in the 1990s, or to prevent the current reduction in the funding of the BBC’s services for Wales. ITV’s advisory apparatus in Wales has been disbanded. Since its inception the BBC’s Audience Council for Wales has been virtually silent. Assembly Committees have made their views known from time to time, but the response of the Welsh Government has usually been characterised by a nervous timidity.
Tim Hartley says that “Welsh television is still in pretty good shape”. Yes, it is, in terms of talent and creative achievement such as the impressive expansion of BBC Wales network drama, the new drama studios in Cardiff Bay and first-class documentaries. But when the heads of the three Welsh terrestrial channels, at the AGM of the Royal Television Society (16 May), stressed the need to “think laterally” and “stretch resourcefulness”, there was no mistaking that the pressure on public service television in Wales is heavy indeed. Programme budgets are lower than they have been at any time in the last 30 years.
One industry insider at the AGM told me that the channel heads, for all their positive talk, are, in his opinion, “managing decline”. He may be wrong. It is certainly not a decline in creativity and technical achievement nor, I would say, in producers’ hunger to do bigger, better, bolder projects. But television, like all cultural forms, flourishes when it is supported by a sound political structure. This is where the debate on the devolution of broadcasting, on the politics of broadcasting, must not be ignored.
There are big challenges ahead. Tim, quite rightly, wants Welsh broadcasters to “hold a mirror up to us as a society”. But it is increasingly difficult to produce a full reflection, especially in English language television. S4C and BBC Wales have been forced to collaborate more to husband resources. Such collaboration is no bad thing but, over time, this may force us to ask whether we should stop regarding television in Wales as a two-track entity – English service here, Welsh service there. This approach has made Welsh television easy to divide and rule. Any change in that situation must be based on some democratic engagement within Wales.
Yet, the Welsh Government gave an inconsequential response to the Silk Commission, willing to contemplate nothing more than a greater involvement, alongside the DCMS, in the appointment of the Chair and members of the S4C Authority and the Welsh member of the BBC Trust. This contrasts with the more robust views of the three opposition parties in the Assembly, including the Conservatives.
The IWA Media Policy Group – through the UK’s Changing Union partnership – submitted evidence (here) to the Silk Commission that envisages a necessary and valuable sharing of responsibility between London and Cardiff. It would have been good to know that the Chair of RTS Wales also believed that it is imperative that Wales generates a more powerful political will in his own field.