We can do better than manage decline of Welsh television

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.

Angela Graham is a freelance television producer and a member of the IWA’s Media Policy Group.

5 thoughts on “We can do better than manage decline of Welsh television

  1. I wholeheartedly concur with your sentiments and the powerful case that you make. The state of broadcasting here is injurious to our democracy in Wales. This is a point recently highlighted by Rosemary Butler, the Assembly’s Presiding Officer.

    We are very well informed by public service broadcasters of political developments and related news items in England, of only indirect relevance, but are largely ignorant of what is happening here in Wales which is of direct relevance.

    I’m not sure if I can put the Welsh (Labour) Government’s policy, if one can call it that, down to ‘timidity’ on its part. The internal tensions within the UK party no doubt has an influence on policy in the area of broadcasting, and its actual and potential effect on the formation of political opinion on the electorate. It is significant that even in the case of Scotland, powers over broadcasting were not devolved but retained at Westminster, probably for that very reason. Labour has viewed both Wales and Scotland as its fiefdoms for generations and has been fearful of the loss of its dominant position.

    The BBC is heavily criticised in Scotland for its lack of balance, and its pro-union stance, in the run up to the referendum. That has been apparent not just within Scotland, but on networked programmes broadcast in Scotland such as Question Time and Sunday Politics, where the Scottish issue has been discussed and there has been no representative of the Yes campaign to put their case to counter the negative remarks made. It seems the union must be preserved at all costs, regardless of the damage to democracy. It is short-termism, with undoubted long term injurious consequences… ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time..’

    I believe that broadcasting not only should be devolved to Wales, but that it should have been devolved when the Assembly was created. However, given the political implications, I feel sure that power over it will be retained at Westminster for as long as possible.

  2. I agree with you both.

    I would add that criticism of the standard of debate in the Assembly has been given this week as the reason for the lack of press interest in proceedings in the Bay. Have they ever watched the debates in Westminster and been awake at the same time? There’s not much difference!

    There are certainly questions to be asked of the format and conventions used in “debates” in both places, but the Labour party who largely formed the conventions of the Assembly showed how narrow-minded and slavish they are to Westminster. I would get rid of interventions, have primary for and against arguments then only a couple of brief speeches for each side. For starters anyway.

    The real reason for the lack of media interest in the assembly is we suffer from not only a (still) over centralised structure of governance but an almost uniquely centralised media structure that goes with it. The London hacks are not interested in the Assembly because it’s not in London. Covering of governance has always been dry and boring. How many interesting meetings do middle-managers attend? The battle is to stay awake. Many of us have been there and are still doing it.

    It’s not for the Assembly to make its politics more sexy to attract the press. The press keep telling us how much of an important facet they are of democracy, so they should cover the assembly because that is what they do!

    Let’s be blunt. All media is propaganda. In the USA you can read or watch opinions that never ever challenge your own, however narrow or bigoted they may be. Is that democracy?

    The reason Westminster and the Whitehall Commission want to keep authority over the media is because it is their propaganda tool. Dave rightly says about the lack of balance with regard to Scottish Independence. Imagine how anti-European Union Unionists would react is the EU had control of Broadcasting and put out a predominantly pro EU membership message. They would complain their heads off about the EU meddling in internal affairs. Them doing the same to Scotland though, that’s all right, isn’t it?

    We need to be responsible for our media, our culture and our identity. That is our propaganda is preferable to theirs.

  3. All admirable sentiments but responsibilities are just a burden without the resources to discharge them. The Welsh government is wholly dependent on hand-outs from London. It is scared to campaign for powers over Wales’ own taxation and the excess of all government spending over tax receipts in Wales anyway is approaching £18 billion a year, 40 per cent of Wales’ GVA. There are currently no viable plans to change that situation. Cuts to social services are going to get worse on the UK government’s plans. Yet apparently there is a money tree somewhere that the Welsh government has only to shake to finance better broadcasting. The Welsh government and electorate have to get a lot more hard-headed and commercial to plot a way out of the current economic malaise before all the good things people want can become accessible.

  4. Tredwyn,
    Yes, resources are essential. And you’re right – there is no money tree. But there is money in the system. It’s not that there is NO money, for a start. There is a lack of will to do the plotting which you say, rightly, is necessary. It’s too easy to point to the resources/scale issues and leave it at that – I’m not saying that that is what you are doing (on the contrary, I think you are urging realism) – and the thrust of my piece is that we have got to expect movement, change and development in this important area of public life and not give in to inertia.

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