The leadership of the BBC have made important concessions on the need to improve Welsh coverage, but now comes the hard part, writes Lee Waters
A year to the day he took over as BBC’s Director General, Lord Tony Hall, made a highly significant confession in a speech in Cardiff: despite the shift in production of major networks shows to Wales, there’s not enough television made about Wales in English.
Dr Who may feature Welsh landscapes, but it is no substitute for programmes which tell the modern story of Wales.
Hall conceded that the amount broadcasting about Wales in English has been eroded over the last decade to the extent that it does not deliver a full and rounded reflection of Welsh life and culture.
This is a confession that some of his predecessors were reluctant to make, as were some of Lord Chris Patten’s predecessors as Chair of the BBC Trust. For the past ten years the IWA has sought to raise this issue in several forums and in dialogue with the BBC itself, but the BBC has been reluctant even to concede that there is an issue – presumably frightened of the financial consequences. The decentralisation of drama production to Roath Lock – welcome and wholehearted though that has been – was an answer to a different problem.
Tony Hall’s speech was, therefore, novel and significant in several ways, a recognition of several things:
– that Welsh language provision is not the only issue in Welsh broadcasting
– that there has been a substantial erosion of English language television services for Wales over the last decade and more – across BBC Wales and ITV Wales
– most significant of all, that the shortfall lies not in news and current affairs but in those other reflections of Welsh life such as drama, comedy, entertainment and culture.
He asked whether this mattered and gave the following answer: “Of course it does: the vitality of any nation must surely rest on more than its journalism. One cannot fully realise a nation’s creative potential or harness its diverse talents through the important, but narrow prism of news”. That last point is something that has not been a fashionable point as politicians have focused on safeguarding the coverage of news and current affairs to ensure that the development of distinctive polices are not lost on the voters. But it came with the price of sacrificing ‘general programmes’.
The morning after Hall’s speech, the Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local government Committee held two hour-long sessions, first with Chris Patten and the Trustee for Wales, Elan Closs Stephens and later with Tony Hall and the Director of BBC Wales, Rhodri Talfan Davies. It was a tepid encounter, hardly an interrogation – in fact, a case study in the scrutiny deficiencies of a hard-pressed 60-member Assembly – and, perhaps, the quality of AMs more generally.
Not only did the committee spend too much time on the issue of the BBC’s coverage of the devolved administrations, but they failed to seize on the concessions made the night before, and more generally missed the opportunity to probe and press the decision makers. BBC executives and advisors who had spent some time preparing for a ‘grilling’ seemed palpably underwhelmed, rather than relieved, by the limp engagement from the AMs. Indeed, it will hardly have left an impression with the senior leadership of the BBC that the National Assembly is body to treat with caution, let alone fear.
The men from Auntie did not give ground on the recommendations of the Silk Commission to create a devolved body within the BBC Trust, and they poured cold water over the notion of a Welsh edition of Newsnight.
There were, however, some important concessions by the BBC leadership. The Director General acknowledged the representation of Welsh politicians and issues on the channels flagship Question Time programme was “really important” and currently was “not right”. And the network BBC coverage of last year’s, which referred to the role of Environment Agency rather than the new Welsh body, Natural Resources Wales, was “just not good enough”.
The most significant concession, however, remains that acknowledgment that aspects of Welsh life are not “sufficiently captured by the BBC’s own television services in Wales”. Simply recognising that there is an issue is an essential pre-condition to addressing it. But this is where things will get difficult.
It is unlikely that a fresh cheque is going to be put on a desk at BBC Wales any time soon. And it would be a mistake for Wales simply to adopt an Oliver Twist-like posture. Though the BBC Trust member for Wales, Elan Closs Stephens, couldn’t rein in her instincts when she said “If there is a specific pot of money, then I would like to hear where [Lord Hall] would want to spend that to have the biggest possible impact on the feeling of identity within the Welsh audience.
Lord Hall is clearly encouraging a bigger debate, from which there might, eventually, be a more substantial gain. He said: “I do believe the BBC will need to think hard about how it strengthens its support for national and regional self-expression as it prepares its case for a new charter. I would like to invite you all to be a part of the debate.”
Wales should seize that invitation with both hands. That will entail more imagination, focus and mastery of the detail by our elected representatives than was evident at this week’s Assembly Committee sessions, and more engagement in the issue by the Welsh Government than it has shown in recent years. But it will also require the engagement of the Welsh civil society as a whole.