Angela Graham finds the BBC’s plans for the next decade to be a “curate’s egg”.
British, Bold, Creative: a catchy, punchy title for the BBC’s statement of its plans for the next decade and beyond but, read from the point of view of the Welsh bit of ‘British’, the contents are something of a curate’s egg.
One sees the effort to engage with the Nations and Regions. There are suggestions about reconfiguring the delivery of news and about opening up platforms for a wider sharing of materials. The aspirations are right, as in section 7.3 Entertaining the whole UK:
Firstly, we will improve how we portray and represent the different Nations of the UK on our pan-UK network services. Secondly, we will strengthen the services for each Nation.
Then comes a very big ‘but’:
But significant new investment in a broader range of programming, such as drama, comedy and entertainment, cannot be delivered within the current Budget agreement with the Government… funding these ambitions would require additional income.
It is starkly put. It’s a reference back to Tony Hall’s Cardiff speech of April 2014. It’s the most malodorous part of the egg and the most significant part of the whole document for Wales, especially given that it is preceded by:
In Wales, BBC network services continue to perform strongly but the provision of local English-language programming across the BBC and ITV has declined at a faster rate than in any other nation.
In other words, Wales is starting from a position worse than any other part of the UK so for us that ‘but’ is very big indeed.
This is where anyone concerned either for the health of the Union or for the progess of devolution must pause for thought. How can the Union be strong or devolution deliver, if Wales cannot adequately take its place in the conversation? Is it expected to be a silent partner, seen occasionally and heard seldom?
Early in the document the BBC (British, Bold, Creative, remember) sets out its contribution to the UK.
Another advantage of the BBC to the country’s sense of itself and community life is that it reflects, and reports upon, the whole of the United Kingdom. In news, sport, documentaries and comedy—on local radio, and in television programmes made specifically for the Nations, as well as in minority languages across the UK—our services help connect audiences with their cultures and heritage, and ensure that the country is having an informed conversation with itself.
Policy-makers know that culture matters just as much as the delivery of services. But they rarely have the tools to change culture. This is where public service broadcasting (PSB) can help. It provides a forum where people can debate what matters, change or deepen the views they have, and gradually arrive at better answers.
Except that without adequate funding PSB in Wales will fail the country’s culture. The culture won’t ‘change’ in the sense of ‘develop’. It will atrophy.
But back to Entertaining the whole UK! Here’s a sentence intriguing in its discretion:
We believe that the supply of BBC and commercially funded programming in each of the Nations needs addressing.
For us, this puts the spotlight on ITV Wales (if a spotlight can ever be described as discreet) and rightly so since the contribution and potential of ITV Wales tends to get sidelined. It also gives a nod in the direction of S4C. Yet that phrase ‘needs addressing’ leaves much hanging in the air, un-addressed.
So how is the first aim to be achieved? How are the Nations to be better portrayed and represented to the whole UK? Perhaps the answer is in section 3.2 Portraying the whole country.
It is our commitment to reflecting the diversity of the country—across all its constituent Nations and regions—that has brought some of the best content to our screens. From Gavin and Stacey (yes! Wales! but new more than five years ago) to Mrs Brown’s Boys…
That’s the Mrs Brown’s Boys which, though recorded in BBC Glasgow, is set in Dublin which wasn’t part of the UK last time I looked. Not a good start but at least there is a recognition that money isn’t everything:
During this Charter, we ensured that what we spend on network television in each Nation broadly matches its share of the population. But we recognise that spend is not everything—we need to do more, and better, to reflect the lives and experiences of all licence fee payers.
During the next Charter period we will remain committed to investing in programming across the UK and ensure that the drama and comedy we produce for BBC One and BBC Two better reflect the diversity of the UK’s Nations and regions.
Which sounds great except that there is nothing about how this improvement in diversity reflected in content is to come about; nothing about any changes to commissioning practices, for example.
There will be consultation however, not least with the devolved governments.
Given the new formal role given to the Nations’ Governments in Charter Review, we intend to consult with them and stakeholders around the country, to specify and cost our Nations proposals and any additional funding required.
But we already know that the First Minister of Wales has asked for an additional £30 million of funding for English language programming, stating that ‘we have now dipped below the minimum acceptable level of provision as far as English-language programming is concerned.’
But, given that he has also said:
‘It is important to stress that our call for additional funding for English-language programming should not be top sliced from the funding allocated to S4C (or from the £20m BBC Cymru Wales receives for Welsh language programming).’
and, in a noteworthy indication that Wales is not to become a ‘coolie culture’ production centre, has added:
‘we do not see the development of Cardiff as an important centre for network productions as any sort of justification for reducing the BBC’s investment in local services’
then we can predict what his side of the consultation is likely to suggest.
Diversity in representation and portrayal is not an esoteric matter, of interest only to bean-counters. It affects how people see themselves and how they feel about themselves and their society. I write this on a day when the death of a young man from Cardiff headlined widely. Reyaad Khan, killed in a drone strike, lived about a mile from me and went to the same college as one of my daughters. Can we not recognise the implications of the difficulty the Welsh have of seeing themselves represented adequately in the British media? Representation of the English-speaking Welsh is ‘below the minimum acceptable level’. What does that tell us about the level of representation of Welsh people from English-speaking minorities and from other ethnic minorities?
Wales is a nation of many ethnicities now. In terms of broadcasting provision we should be catering for everyone but we can’t even cater for the majority.
British, Bold, Creative – in Wales that means bilingual Welsh/English and beyond.
The BBC is a crucial part of the democratic fabric of Wales. We need it to work for us and we need it properly funded.