When Stephen Crabb, the Secretary of State for Wales, stood up on 27 February to proclaim a (fragile) cross-party consensus on further powers for Wales, he did so only hours after Ofcom, the media regulator, had closed its consultation on the future of public service broadcasting. Ofcom’s review and the Crabb ‘consensus’ represent potentially important milestones for broadcasting in Wales.
What the premature St. David’s Day agreement (a Sunday announcement was never on the cards) had to say about broadcasting, unsurprisingly, made no headlines, but it laid down an important marker for the coming debate on the BBC’s Charter and for the need to deepen Welsh involvement in media policy. There is a huge amount at stake both for viewers and for our television production industry.
Apparently, all four parties are now agreed on proposals that the IWA has supported and promoted for some years past in various publications, and in the evidence that it submitted to the Silk Commission by the UK’s Changing Union project in which it has been an active partner. It did so again last week in its response to Ofcom’s consultation document.
Mr. Crabb’s Command Paper says there was consensus around the following Silk Commission proposals:
- The regulation of broadcasting should remain the responsibility of the UK Government.
- The creation of a devolved governance body within the BBC Trust framework with powers to provide oversight and scrutiny of BBC outputs in Wales
- The appointment of the representative of Wales to the overall BBC governance body should be by formal agreement between the Welsh and UK Governments.
- The interests of Wales should be represented on the Ofcom Board through a Board member with specific responsibility for representing Wales.
- Public service broadcasters of specific content to Wales should provide an annual report on performance to the National Assembly for Wales, including more transparent data on trends in Welsh broadcasting output.
This is very much in line with what the IWA has been saying for some time – that responsibility for broadcasting will always need to be shared between the EU, the UK and Wales, even if responsibility for S4C were to be devolved, or the governance of the BBC in Wales strengthened. The IWA said so again in its response to the Ofcom consultation on what has been its third Review of public service broadcasting in a decade and a half. But while the new consensus on these issues is important, there is no room for complacency. Much water has yet to flow under the bridge.
The prospect of stronger governance arrangements for the BBC in Wales (and, presumably, in Scotland and Northern Ireland) will be subject to the discussions on the future of the BBC’s Charter. There will be no shortage of resistance to this proposal in some quarters. Similarly, one can expect Ofcom to resist the notion of having to take on representatives of the ‘nations’ onto its Board. Such a proposal was resisted when Ofcom was first established, and the same arguments will no doubt be employed again.
The power of joint appointment to the BBC Trust (or its successor) is a marked improvement on the right of consultation that has been the practice to date.
As for laying annual reports before the National Assembly, the St. David’s Day agreement, while accepting the proposition, is almost apologetic, expressing a concern “that accepting the recommendation would place an additional and onerous burden on broadcasters to produce an annual report for the Assembly.” There is no room for such a timorous approach. There is too much at stake.
As the IWA’s response to the Ofccom consultation said:
“We agree with Ofcom’s assessment of the potential risks to the system. In Wales adequate public funding remains crucial to the continued health of the its PSB institutions. The licence fee income remains a key source of funding and any reductions would have a disproportionate impact on broadcasting in Wales, unless there were to be an unprecedented rebalancing of spend between the centre and the nations.”
“We certainly agree with Ofcom’s assessment that the system could be at risk if there were a future reduction in the BBC licence Fee, but given, in particular, the inadequacies of the English language television service for Wales, we are also concerned at the impact of further years of standstill funding for the BBC as a whole.”
“In Wales, as in the rest of the UK, the public service broadcasting institutions, BBC Cymru Wales, S4C and ITV Cymru Wales have all played a major part in supporting and developing the cultural life of Wales, providing a range of programmes about the life of the nation. However…there has been a reduction in the volume of output for Wales and a narrowing of its range.”
“It is a matter of deep concern that the total reduction in spend on television programming for Wales across BBC and ITV is greater than in any other part of the UK – a reduction of 32% in spend on English language programming across BBC and ITV and a reduction of 36% in spend on Welsh language programming. This has narrowed significantly the range of output. We can find no public service justification for such a disproportionate reduction.”
“BBC Cymru Wales has had to deal with a 16% cut in funding spread over a period of five years through Delivering Quality First, while S4C has faced a real terms cut of 36% in funding. There is no public data about the funding of ITV’s programmes for Wales, but it is safe to assume that the Channel 3 service has also been under severe pressure, in line with the overall drop in funding of first run programmes for Wales between 2008 and 2013 noted by Ofcom. In order to ensure the sustainability of ITV’s service for Wales, the broadcaster has been forced in practice to reduce its independent commissions and source most of its non-news programming in-house.”
“Independent production companies based in Wales have coped with a shrinking domestic programme supply market, although many have been able to compete for commissions from UK broadcasters and internationally in order to develop their businesses. As elsewhere in the UK there has been significant consolidation, with the creation in Wales of two dominant companies, Tinopolis and Boom/Two Four. A significant number of smaller Welsh companies remain.”
“The cost per hour of programming for Wales has already been severely squeezed, in some instances to a point where tariffs are financially unproductive for independent companies.”
“The public service broadcasters (PSBs) have collectively attempted to maintain services for viewers and listeners in Wales despite significant cuts. But range and diversity has suffered. In terms of hours BBC and ITV produced significantly less programming for Wales in 2013 than in 2008, a reduction of 17% in the case of BBC Cymru Wales and a 31% reduction for ITV Cymru Wales. In particular, non-news programming on BBC Cymru Wales fell from 302 hours in 2008 to 222 hours in 2013 (a 26% reduction in hours).”
“Although responsibility for broadcasting currently lies with the Westminster Government, it is nevertheless, an area of vital interest to Welsh democratic institutions and civil society. The bridges between political institutions and the electorate in Wales are fewer and weaker than in Scotland or Northern Ireland, or in the UK generally. Perversely, the decline in television output for Wales output over the last decade has run counter to the continuing development of a Welsh polity. Wales cannot afford to see any further weakening of broadcast provision, indeed we must look to strengthen it.”
The IWA, I know, will continue to monitor these developments advised by a Media Policy Group drawn from all parts of the sector. But it also needs the full engagement of the Welsh Government if we are to avert death by a thousand cuts.