David TC Davies says the BBC Charter is an opportunity for unique requirements to be considered for Welsh broadcasters.
Television audiences in Wales rely heavily on their public service broadcasters (PSBs), and to a greater extent than their counterparts in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Yet in recent years there has been a continuing reduction in spend and output of programmes made for Wales in both Welsh and English. This, combined with a consolidation of commercial radio ownership, has seen the state of media plurality in Wales worsen significantly. The way we consume media is also changing. And at a time when the National Assembly is given further powers, it is essential that the legislature and its politicians are subject to comprehensive scrutiny. Furthermore, it is important that Welsh life is captured by a range of broadcasters on screen, on the radio and online.
It is with this in mind that the Welsh Affairs Committee launched the inquiry into the future of Broadcasting in Wales. We hosted 9 evidence sessions in Westminster, Cardiff and Caernarfon, and took oral evidence in Welsh for the first time this Parliament, which we hope to continue doing in future inquiries.
Our report, published yesterday, focuses on the following key issues:
- Funding for public service broadcasters;
- The governance and regulation of broadcasters in Wales;
- Programme content and production, with particular focus on the portrayal of Wales on screen and the programme commissioning process; and
- The impact of future media and digital developments.
Over the course of the inquiry it became clear that the representation of Welsh life on screen is in decline. The BBC acknowledged that BBC Cymru Wales’ non-news output had eroded and the level of media provision both to audiences in Wales and across the UK has decreased. We heard that cuts to S4C funding have already impacted the channel’s output and that any additional cuts could have a serious effect on quality. This is particularly concerning given S4C’s status as the only Welsh language television channel in the world, serving as a bastion of Welsh language life and culture.
The Government’s position on the funding of S4C changed significantly throughout our inquiry. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, John Whittingdale had initially said it would be “reasonable to expect [S4C] to make the same kinds of efficiency savings that the Government are looking for the BBC to make” and announced in the November 2015 Spending Review that the channel’s grant from DCMS (8% of the channel’s overall funding) would be reduced by 25% to £5m by 2019. We wrote to the Chancellor calling for an independent review which was subsequently announced, alongside a withdrawal of the first year of proposed cuts.
We are concerned, however, that previous cuts to S4C funding have already impacted on the channel’s output. As the Welsh independent production companies rely on commissions from S4C, there are implications for that sector’s contribution to the economy, as well as the opportunity to hear the Welsh language on TV. We therefore welcome the Government’s decision to cancel this year’s grant cut, and undertake a review of the channel, to assess its remit and scope, and the level of funding required. However, a prolonged period of financial uncertainly is neither a healthy nor a suitable way for any broadcaster to conduct long-term editorial planning decisions and fulfil their public service remits. It is regrettable that this has been the case with regards to S4C. Therefore we have recommended that the channel be the subject of an independent review as a matter of urgency, and that it is reviewed in future on a regular basis to counter the risk of further financial uncertainty and to ensure it is fulfilling its public service remit.
Decisions affecting broadcasters in Wales should be transparent. They should be taken on the basis of comprehensive consultation with those who understand the industry in Wales, its audiences and its unique requirements. And Wales needs to have a voice at the table when decisions are made. As such, we believe there should be a Board member for Wales on the BBC Governance Board who will be assisted by a Welsh national sub-committee. To provide a service that caters for Wales, we also recommend that a National Service Licence be introduced for Wales to replace the current service licence structure.
We were told that Wales was the only UK nation to see a reduction in original programming output year on year, and that important elements of Welsh national life are not being captured on screen. To address this, we believe that the BBC’s commissioning process needs serious reform. Over the last decade, the BBC has sought to decentralise its production activity, by establishing regional production quotas. But these have not led to an improvement in portrayal on screen. We welcome the BBC’s most recent proposal that each nation have a drama commissioning editor, but we believe this should extend to other non-news genres, and these roles must be based in Wales.
Finally, the way in which we consume media is rapidly changing. There’s been an increase in the use of “Smart TVs” which enable viewers to watch services delivered via broadband and since S4C has appeared on the iPlayer, total online viewing of the channel’s content across platforms has increased by 30%. We therefore recommend that S4C’s statutory remit solely as a “television service” be reworded to take into account its digital offering and the changing context in which the channel operates.
As the Government finalises its plans for the BBC’s new Charter, and commits to reviewing S4C we believe this is a perfect opportunity for the unique requirements for Welsh broadcasters to be given the consideration they deserve. This is integral in the face of such weak media plurality and a vastly changing landscape of broadcasting in the twenty-first century.