BBC licence fee raid ̶̶ The consequences for Wales

Angela Graham says Government Ministers have backed the BBC into a corner.

For the second time in five years Government Ministers have backed the BBC into a corner, issued a ‘money or your life’ threat, walked away with a big chunk of the licence fee and left a Director General making as good a public fist of defending ‘the deal’ as he can. Has this been a fair trade between a willing buyer and a willing seller?

As in 2010 the needs of transparent government have been jettisoned in favour of providing Ministers with the fleeting satisfaction of pulling off a clever stroke. Back then, it was a matter of freezing the licence fee till the end of the current charter period (2016) and shifting running costs for the BBC World Service, BBC Monitoring and much of S4C onto the Corporation.

This is clearly no way to consider the long term funding of the most important civic and cultural institution in the land. Former Director General, Lord Birt, once no slouch himself on the cost-cutting front, has called the announcement, “deeply shocking”, stressing the assault on the BBC’s independence and the lack of public discussion and concluding that “a very dangerous precedent” has been set.

By proceeding in this way Ministers have separated key elements of the licence fee decision from the fuller consideration of the future of the BBC’s services and its governing document, the Royal Charter. They have pre-empted public discussion and debate or, at least, attempted to render much of it nugatory. Not least here in Wales. That must not be allowed to happen.

So, to wrest back some of the impetus here, what must we consider? The independence of the BBC has never been an unstained garment. Reliance on so much public funding inevitably makes it vulnerable to pressure from time to time. That much is understood by public and politicians, and even by the BBC itself. But imperfect though that independence might be it is in the public interest that it should be conserved as far as possible; and important that politicians should not make light of it through their words or actions.

If we are to believe the press, the deal is done. A chunk of social policy has been transferred, entirely inappropriately, to a public broadcasting organisation. If we are to believe the public pronouncements other promises have been made that will leave the BBC with a cash standstill for five years – that is five years on the top of the last five years of standstill.

But what of these mitigating promises?  The first is that the government will find a way of extending the licence fee to those watching online who have been exploiting a loophole. As Diane Coyle, a former acting Chair of the BBC Trust, said recently in a radio interview,  that would almost certainly have been part of any sensible arrangement for the future. A minor concession, therefore.

Second, is the promise that the licence fee will be linked to inflation – to CPI (the Consumer Price Index). Both Ministers and the BBC’s Director General, Lord Hall, have made much of this promise. Yet, when one reads the text on the DCMS website, it is hedged around with words that might yet turn out to be weasel.

The DCMS text does not have an unequivocal ring: “The Government anticipates (my italics) that the licence fee will rise in line with CPI over the next Charter Review period, subject to: (a) the conclusions of the Charter Review, in relation to the purposes and scope of the BBC and, (b) the BBC demonstrating that it is undertaking efficiency savings at least equivalent to those in other parts of the public sector.” No shortage of wriggle room there then.

If the Government were to decide that the scope of the BBC should be less than it is now – let us say, by reining in its website  that George Osborne described as ‘imperial’ in scope here – then the cash standstill might turn out to be illusory.

In an interview with the Guardian the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale underlined the precarious nature of the deal when he said, “If the conclusion of charter renewal is that the BBC should not be doing all the things it is doing now, then it [the funding formula] will not be going up with inflation.” He added that the promise to increase the licence fee linked to inflation was dependent on “the BBC continuing to do all of the things it is doing at the moment that’s a big if”.

It is not clear either that the Government would fully compensate the BBC for any loss of licence fee revenue were the Government to decide to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee. The effect of decriminalisation has been estimated at around £200m.

Why should this matter to us in Wales? Some of the answers to that question were contained in another document published last week by the regulator Ofcom. This was the report on Ofcom’s third statutory review of public service broadcasting Its concerns about public service broadcasting in the ‘nations and regions’ were such as to justify a separate document.

A reading of both the main report and the supplementary report on the ‘nations and regions’ (here) suggests that the decline in expenditure on programming for the nations and regions has been greater than for broadcasting as a whole, and that within the three devolved territories the decline in Wales has been by far the steepest.

Spend by the public service broadcasters – the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel Five S4C and BBC Alba in Scotland – on new UK-originated programmes has fallen by 15% in real terms since 2008 – down to £2.5bn, the same level as 1998. But some of this decline was compensated for by income coming from other sources, some of it from overseas, as co-production or sales income.

Expenditure on programming for the nations and regions – which, by definition, is less likely to attract commercial investment – declined from £404m in 1998 to £358m in 2008 to £277m in 2014, a total drop of 31 per cent. All these Ofcom figures are expressed in 2014 prices, and exclude Gaelic and Welsh language programming (S4C).

The impact on the three nations differs sharply. Expenditure on non-network programmes for Scotland increased from £60m to £68m (13.6%). Expenditure for Northern Ireland dropped from £34m to £27m (-21%), but expenditure for Wales dropped from £39m to £27m. (-30.5%). In addition, within Wales, S4C’s expenditure on first-run originations between 2009 and 2013 dropped from £87m to £64m (-26%).

This emphasises that English language output for Wales is losing out just as much, if not more, than Welsh language programming. Even if one understands the extra spend in Scotland, why is expenditure in Wales now at the same level as Northern Ireland, which has a population of about 60 per cent of our own?

A large part of the drop in English language services for the nations and regions will be down to reductions in ITV regional output that were agreed with Ofcom as a set of reduced licence obligations for ITV, but there are hefty reductions in BBC Wales spend too. The number of hours it produced has dropped by 15 per cent over the period. So far during this Charter period the reduction in the BBC Wales spend on English language programming has been 32 per cent.

Ofcom made two other observations. It said that the nations and regions are the area where there is the largest gap between the public expectations of the public service broadcasters and their actual delivery. And in the case of Wales it commented that we are “served less comprehensively, outside the BBC, than any of the other UK nations, with weaker print media and commercial radio services offering a reduced challenge to the BBC in terms of plurality of voices.”

Many might have hoped that in a period when devolution is accelerating, this deficiency in Wales would have been one of the issues to be addressed in the context of the renewal of the BBC’s Charter. While the scope for improvement now seems limited – within a static licence fee – the case still needs to be made loudly.

Loudly and on the basis of facts. To this end, and looking well beyond the BBC, the IWA’s Wales Media Policy Group is updating its Wales Media Audit, last done in 2008. A new audit is underway of the provision and take-up of TV and radio broadband, online services and press circulation in Wales.

Alongside this a review of reports and policy recommendations on media issues from a spectrum of relevant interests is being conducted. This process will result in a set of policy recommendations for media in Wales, to be launched mid-October, ahead of the IWA’s Cardiff Media Summit. This will be held in the Wales Millennium Centre on 11th November. A similar consideration of cinema and publishing is on the horizon.

We in Wales must work out what sort of media resources we want and be prepared to defend them robustly or this recent daylight robbery will not be the last.

Angela Graham is Chair of the IWA’s Wales Media Policy Group. She writes here in a personal capacity.

10 thoughts on “BBC licence fee raid ̶̶ The consequences for Wales

  1. It’s quite clear that the English government wants the BBC to take over Health and Defence before it’s sold off to either Voila, Deutsche Banhoff or Gasprom.

    Soon TV will be adverts interspersed with slots of a violent underclass (arguing and fighting) and government propaganda. Oh! We’re there already!! Missed the changes. I’ve been in Europe. Ah! The joys of English culture!

  2. Based on a national campaign by 38 degrees ( and many other polls in the media it’s more than clear that most of the license payers see BBC as irrelevant, obsolete and unwanted.

    I find it difficult to comprehend Angela’s stance defined in her last sentence “We in Wales must work out what sort of media resources we want and be prepared to defend them robustly or this recent daylight robbery will not be the last” defending BBC Wales and demanding more funding.

    In my view BBC Wales has lost credibility and it’s nothing other than a mouthpiece for promoting Welsh Labour Government’s Social Engineering and Welsh language imposition.

    BBC through it’s charter has a responsibility for the Welsh language and it can easily discharge that ‘duty’ through its Welsh medium broadcasting but that’s not enough for them and is using deceit and disinformation within its English language services especially TV to promote a minority language of the few before objectivity and in the process damaging the ‘nation’.

    Take a look at BBC’s English services staffing quality where most reporters and presenters are Welsh language first speakers covering a range of topics such as education, economy, NHS etc and it’s blatantly obvious that these people have an agenda to promote and protect their interests above al else.

    Most of these people are simply incompetent, lack intellectual flair and would have never been in an English language broadcasting jobs if BBC Wales strictly employed its staff on merit rather than the dubious ‘Welsh Language Essential’ criteria.

    Time for BBC Wales to go or if it has to stay it must separate its WM and EM broadcasting as the current dual responsibility has a conflict of interest where politics come before standards!

  3. I disagree with the premise that the BBC should be conserved/preserved.

    It’s a bloated British Establishment/Westminster mouthpiece, with an annual income of at least £5.4 billion, largely obtained from our pockets via a compulsory licence fee.

    Independent, it is not, and never has been. Below are two serious examples of its bias.

    It was used ruthlessly by the unionist parties/No campaign in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, with daily scare stories broadcast throughout the UK. The anti-independence diet of BBC Scotland was unremitting.

    Its coverage of Israel/Palestine strives for ‘balance’, portraying victims & oppressors as some kind of equals, never explaining the historical context, of a colonial Zionist state which has ethnically cleansed more than half the indigenous population of Palestine since 1948 & oppressed the remainder. Never in my lifetime have I seen or heard the BBC broadcast the part Britain played in the suffering brought on the Palestinian people since 1917.

    As the author states, the BBC serves us particularly badly in Wales.

    It’s time to break it up & devolve broadcasting.

  4. As ever, Jacques Protic is right. Day after day we have the likes of BBC Wales Today and BBC Radio Wales ramming Welsh language, history and culture down our throats. What we need is more stories about Shropshire, Hereford, Bristol, etc. That’s what people in the Welsh region are really interested in.

  5. @Ken Thompson- is there any qualitative evidence that that is indeed what Welsh viewers want? Somehow I highly doubt that they do. What you mean to say is that a minority of people want to forget they are in Wales and ignore the country they are lucky enough to be in.

  6. Jacques, Ken,
    I agree. It is shocking, shocking that people who happen to live in Wales should be faced with the prospect of encountering the occasional radio or TV programme that dares to mention matters relating to where they live.
    How dare they!
    Surely all we need to listen to and see are programmes from and about London. Nothing else matters, except for a regular dose of Fox News for some unbiased reporting and to remind us that climate change, evolution and heliocentrism are the work of the Devil.
    And don’t start me on the rugby. How dare they show it for free, and who cares about any games other than those at Twickers? Give us back the glory days of sport when Tim Henman won Wimbledon seven years in a row.

  7. If there is one organization that needs radical overhaul at (1) national level (UK) and also (2)regional level (Wales) it is the British Broadcasting Corporation.In the case of (1) it seems to have been taken over by a group of leftie/green/political correct/European lovers/ people who definitely seem keen to feather their own nest,whilst (2) seems very pro devolution/nation building/welsh language enforcement/extremely pro Europe/green to the point of madness.It is hoped that proper management will be put in place and reduce the clear over manning on all areas which clearly are a waste of money. I would think that Radio Cymru/S4C should be combined in an all embracing welsh language broadcasting service and separately funded by advertising,and letting the English language service concentrate on its prime audience. The news/weather service seems need of a ‘haircut’ as outside broadcasts are very expensive for such matters. Recently the ‘media’ correspondent of BBC Wales interviewed the heads of BBC Wales/WRU outside the rugby stadium funded mainly from the Lottery Fund,!!. Why not hold the interview in a studio at much less expense??.Perhaps we should have ‘elections’,on whom we wish to run the BBC on a local level which would open up access to very well paid jobs that seem ‘closed’ to a select few of welsh speakers who meet the current fashion in Llandaff.

  8. It’s hard to defend the BBC when it hasn’t done a great job serving Wales. It only ever seems to get partisan and take a truly distinctively Welsh perspective when it comes to rugby coverage and it seems reluctant or nervous to present a Welsh image or perspective – or simply come out and be Welsh for a change.

    If there has been a reasonable budget in the past, then it doesn’t seem to be used to fulfil more than a normal regional BBC type of role – I’ve lived in various parts of England and the format of programming is no different to BBC East Midlands, BBC Cambridgeshire or BBC Bristol/South West – which must be quite welcoming to the very people who often quite vociferously go on the offensive against BBC Wales, if it ever dared to be more Welsh. If anyone moves to Wales from Cambridge, they can quite happily pick BBC cambridgeshire on their digital TV and watch that in Wales, so we don’t need to ape the style and content from other parts of the BBC network.

    I often find BBC Radio Wales, at peak times particularly, to be more quintessentially English than other regional BBC radio stations in England, with presenters who often can’t even pronounce Welsh place names correctly. Before addressing the cuts, we need to find a way of having a more distinctively Welsh broadcaster, that can generate program content and present issues in a way that is more sympathetic to Welsh (Y)ears – a broadcaster that understands the communities and people in the Welsh valleys and rural Wales and doesn’t have presenters that might come across at times as being more aritocratically English than the English aristocracy. It would be nice if the BBC could be a bit less British sometimes and not worry too much if that causes consternation the other side of the border from time to time, or indeed in many of the very quaint anglicised market towns and seaside retreats that we have up and down Wales. I guess it’s the BBC for a reason, in which case its hard to get too worried about the extent of any cuts that might be coming, except for the concern that the alternative could be having absolutely nothing remotely Welsh on TV at all..

  9. Howell Morgan is correct. The BBC is essentially a Communist / Celtic Nationalist organisation, which only employs people who are 1st language Welsh speaking Marxists. The BBC hates capitalism, the City of London and the Royal Family (whom they never report on), and want to hand every last power over to unelected, faceless Brussels bureaucrats. Some people within the BBC even send their children to state schools. It is a disgrace.

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