It’ll take more than Dr Who…

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.




Lee Waters is the Director of the IWA.

20 thoughts on “It’ll take more than Dr Who…

  1. Lord Hall’s admission that the move of BBC drama production to Wales has not resulted in better dramatisation of Welsh themes, and therefore the cultivation of Welsh ‘above the line’ talent, is to be welcomed.

    Whether anything will be done about it is another matter. One suspects that most artistic decisions will continue to be made in London, and that is where aspiring Welsh writers and directors will be best advised to go, if not all the way to LA.

    Moreover, Lord Hall does not address a broader problem: the mainstream media in Wales and in the UK, especially the BBC, continue to be dominated by people with similar social, cultural, and political backgrounds. For their own good, they need to open up more.

  2. With the advent of digital services it should be relatively easy to devolve control from the far too over centralised BBC London to the Nations and regions of the UK. In particular Wales and Scotland should have control over all of the license fee monies raised in their Countries and have full control over programme content. Agreed Westminster won’t want to cede the control they have over the propaganda they churn out, which is why we need the Devolved governments to work in tandem. For those that just can’t face the prospect of Welsh programmes made by people based in and in touch with Wales and its culture they can always tune in to any one of the many BBC English regional channels.

    The fact is that the current situation provides the worst of both worlds, a majority of programmes with little or no Welsh content and when they are about Wales they are sparse and not of a high quality through lack of funding and lack of interest in Welsh Identity/Culture.

  3. “…the shortfall lies not in news and current affairs..”

    Untrue and incorrect. The people of Wales are very badly served by the BBC in respect of the above. Wales is treated as a region, not a nation, despite rhetoric to the contrary. It’s essential for a healthy democracy that there is adequate coverage of Welsh news and current affairs. The people know more about what is happening in England regarding devolved issues, than they do about what is happening here. I’d describe the failure as appalling.

  4. This very accurate summary of the current situation only goes to demonstrate the neglect shown towards English speaking Wales by our media.

    I seem to remember a delegation which included Dai Smith, if memory serves me right, to demand more English language programmes for Wales, though it was many moons ago. However at least the thinking from IWA seems to be moving in the right direction. As Lee says, most significant of all is the absence of drama, comedy, entertainment and culture. Unfortunately, missing from that list is documentary.

    I have recently finished watching an excellent series on The Plantagenets by Professor Bartlett. Not only did it shed light on the conquest of Wales but also on the formation of England including the establishment of the first Parliament. Welsh history is equally rich. We recently had the Story of Wales presented by Huw Edwards. But this was more of a sweep through our history as one might find in a coffee table book and, to be fair, the clue was in the title,’Story’.

    But there are many histories that need to be told and would make for fascinating viewing. I wonder how many in English speaking Wales know much about the Welsh princes. Then there is the story of the woollen industry in Wales which was the backbone of economic activity prior to the advent of the industrial revolution. There is the formation of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales’ first industrial town representing the birth of modern Wales. There is the essential nature of immigration to our historical identity and modern society. There is the long history of Wales’ coastal history representing our trade with the rest of the world which predates the industrial revolution. And there has never been, to my knowledge, a history of our capital city and its inhabitants on screen tracing its development from dock to political capital.

    There are many other aspects of our history which could be told. But it does not have to be the documentary form which alone tells this story. English television is full of historical drama of every age which helps to reaffirm their sense of history and cultural identity on a daily basis. In Wales, we are starved of such opportunities. We have seen the gritty Ripper Street of the East End of London (yes, that’s right, London) but Merthyr Tydfil could provide the same background set in the early to mid 19th century where thousands poured in from all parts of Wales and beyond in search of prosperity and having to face the harsh social realities put before them by the ironmasters and others.

    The list is endless. But to make it happen, there needs to be a clear change in strategy that treats the English speaking Welsh audience as a permanent fixture that needs to be developed and sustained just like any other audience.

  5. Can’t somehow see people in Bristol complaining because tonight’s Question Time features an MP from Wales.

  6. The BBC still hasn’t woken up to the need to reflect the existence of Wales. How do they justify broadcasting the Clegg-Farage debate across Wales and Scotland without representation of Plaid Cymru and the SNP?

  7. @ Jeff

    “Can’t somehow see people in Bristol complaining because tonight’s Question Time features an MP from Wales.”

    What’s your point exactly?

  8. For all the time, effort, and our money the BBC expend in trying to shape our opinions rather than simply reporting the facts they are invariably years behind the curve. Inreasingly the BBC is an organisation that needs to be treated with supreme indifference – if you flick around the available digital channels it is not difficult to find better current affairs coverage and entertainment that is at least as good… And that’s before you even start considering internet content! So what are they for other than to levy a tax on my TV receiver so I can watch everything else?

    I have zero interest in Welsh drama or so-called culture. The only reason I am interested in what goes on in Wales is because it has a ‘government’ which is consistently damaging my best interests. I would like BBC Wales to hold this ‘government’ to account but it has patently failed to do so. It has failed so badly that most people I talk to accuse it of bias!

    I still see the solution to this problem as being ‘less Wales’ rather than ‘more Wales’ and any attempt by BBC Wales to deliver more Wales-based fiction over the airwaves is likely to see me watching it even less than I do now… Come to think of it – Gavin and Stacey might already have been the point of no return!

  9. @RBJ

    I’ve no time to educate you out of facetiousness. So long as twitter is not alight with remarks from rabid English people complaining that a Welsh MP was allowed on the panel of a Question Time show filmed in Bristol then the point remains as both very relevant and very accurate.

    p.s. I’ve just had a look and it isnt. As ever it’s the rabid Welsh nationalists who are the hypocrites…. one rule for them and one rule for everyone else

  10. @ comeoffit

    Your patronising remark is noted. So Jeff Jones’ remark relates to a twitter storm on their being an English MP on the Question Time panel in Newport, is that correct? If so, then it is clearly regrettable. Or did the storm relate to the fact that there was only one Welsh representative on the panel out of five and that only one question was on a specific Welsh issue? If so, then there is no double standard at work as Question Time would clearly have failed to carry out its brief and the criticism is justified.

  11. Question time is shown across the whole of the UK and on devolved issues discussion is understandably kept to a minimum. It’s brief is to representatively cover UK politics… not what you decide. If you want devolved issues then take your pic: the Wales Report, the Sharp End, Dragon’s Eye or pretty much 24/7 on S4C. Personally I think that’s more than enough.

  12. Also, it is extremely common for 4 out of 5 of the panelists on Question Time to not come from the local area. In fact, if you want to talk about bias and ‘failing to carry out a brief’ then the only preferential treatment I ever see on question time is the fact that they always select a Plaid Cymru politician for the panel when they are in Wales. This is more insulting to the people of Wales than the fact they don’t choose more than one Welsh MP/AM as Plaid Cymru are a pitiful 3rd in terms of popularity and electoral results. Plaid are a fringe party in Wales… not even the official opposition in the Welsh Assembly. It is a Labour or Conservative AM/MP that they should be handing a free seat to (if they must) when they come here.

  13. The brief is to represent the issues of concern to the people of that area and to represent the political nature of that area to the world beyond. Welsh politics is an essential part of UK politics and the rest of the UK needs to know that. I agree that to choose only a Plaid Cymru politician is unrepresentative which makes my point for me. I would have thought that a figure of 3 out of 5 from Wales would be a better formula as one would not wish to exclude guests from other parts of the UK.

    I made no point about preferential treatment but rather an unrepresentative and thus distorted view of the issues that concern people in Wales, so you’re arguing with yourself on that point. And they have done that by voting for an Assembly in a referendum and through the ballot box. Unfortunately Question Time appears to want to live in a time warp where non of that has happened.

    @ Jeff Jones

    What is your point exactly?

  14. Fair enough on most of that RBJ but is that really the QT brief you’re quoting or is it merely what you want it’s brief to be? Do you have a ref?

  15. My reference is the comments made to Lord Hall at the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee meeting in which several AMs from different parties expressed their disappointment at the nature of the Question Time from Newport, criticism which Lord Hall was willing to accept.

    In general terms, it is the purpose of all political programmes to accurately reflect, as far as possible, the mood of the nation, however you construct that. When Question Time was first broadcast in 1979, there were no separate political bodies for Scotland or Wales. Therefore, the general model adopted was that this was a forum for the audience to ask questions about what was happening in Westminster. Allowance was made for some local representation of some kind or another so that it was not completely dominated by London. Unfortunately, in my view, this model has persisted despite the fact that the political landscape has changed dramatically in the last 35 years.

    This anachronism has been bubbling under the surface for a while but was most dramatically represented in the Question Time in Newport the other week. In essence, Westminster politicians rely greatly on the media for their political intelligence which is why they consider it important that they can rely on what they see and hear as being accurate. I can see how the original model is still valid in England since, in terms of major political decision-making bodies, very little has changed. The same cannot be said for Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales; therefore it is time for the BBC to come up with a different format when broadcasting from these countries so that the political temperature is more accurately reflected back to the country hosting the broadcast and more accurately projected to those watching from beyond the border.

  16. RBJ,

    Your comments are relevant to the BBC as a whole but Question time meets it’s brief more than adequately if it doesnt cover too many devolved issues. As much as you may dislike we still share the majority of things in common with those over the bridge. In Newport there was one question on a devolved issue covering the Welsh NHS and frankly, I welcomed the opinion of politicians from England (as did the majority of the audience if you watch the show back). It was a welcome change from the one-party state responses and non-existent opposition within the Welsh Assembly. You may well have noticed that Kirsty Williams and ART Davies are now jumping on the band wagon (making speeches on this topic) as a blatant result of criticisms from the London media and Westminster goverment. What were they doing prior to it being brought into the spotlight one wonders?

    I’m afraid RBJ, if the standard of health care improves in Wales in the next couple of years (and we can only hope) then it will be observations and criticisms from outside of Wales (i.e. a much more critical and professional media than we have here) that have driven it. In that respect we will have Question Time in it’s current format to thank! Certainly what Wales doesn’t need right now is another BBC Cymru/S4C staged debate that only a handful of politicos watch… set up by the cosy, toothless and frankly amateur Welsh media so that Welsh Labour can yet again go inadequately challenged on this issue. Question Time has mass appeal in Wales because of it’s current format.

  17. @ comeoffit

    On first reading, you appear to have conflated a number of issues which really require a separate and distinctive treatment even if we need to understand the relationships between the different elements.

    You state that my comments are relevant to the BBC as a whole but not to a specific programme. My response would be that the BBC is its programmes, as far as the viewer is concerned, and if its general values are not to be found in specific programmes then they are pretty vacuous.

    It’s rather presumptuous of you to assume to know what I like or dislike so I won’t respond to provocative remarks made without foundation.

    I stand by my comments regarding representation and have never suggested that there should be no English representatives on the panel, though I don’t see why external representation should be limited to England. What I would expect is that the guests are able to respond intelligently to the questions asked. It was clear that the Labour shadow education spokesperson, Rushanara Ali, knew absolutely nothing about the Welsh NHS and struggled to put a meaningful sentence together on the subject.

    It’s here that you have used this particular issue as a springboard into the question of whether we have a dysfunctional democracy which is an issue as wide as it is deep.

    I would agree with you that the Welsh Government has had a particularly easy time of it, a point Lee Waters has made about the First Minister on the Sunday Politics programme.

    So what is the first port of call here? The answer is the other political parties represented in the Assembly. It is up to them to behave like political parties that want to govern Wales, make the arguments, campaign for support and win seats. There is nothing in the current set-up to prevent them doing that. If they are not, it is difficult for others to fill that particular gap.

    Your second point refers to the efficacy of the Welsh media. This is something that is very much in flux at the moment. It’s true to say that we have nothing to compare with the likes of London or even the Central Lowlands for traditions in journalism or resources. In part, this is due to devolution in Wales having been led from the top rather than being pushed from the bottom. Media institutions in Wales are still trying to work out what their response should be to the changed circumstances. That said, I understand that the Sun is thinking of opening an office in Cardiff. Perhaps it sees an opportunity to give the Government a hard time over health, education and the economy not currently being provided elsewhere.

    But in general I take your point that accountability is in short supply at the National Assembly, whether in political terms or journalistically. And the consequence is a culture of self-satisfaction among some, but not all, ministers. What needs to be understood however is that is not for the Government to provide the accountability but to respond to demands for it. It is for opposition politicians and the media to use the channels that already exist to bring that pressure to bear. Whether the parties or the media are willing to embrace the change of culture that would require is another debate.

  18. Lee – I note the mention of Scotland in one of the comments – one reading of the way forward for the BBC seems to involve Scotland either not retaining BBC Alba or there being a Scottish broadcaster that would broadcast BBC’s output (along with what else seems to be an open question). Perhaps this could release funds for England, Wales & N. Ireland?

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