Bethan Jenkins offers her thoughts on the media landscape in Wales ahead of Lord Hall’s evidence session in the Assembly.
Lord Hall will appear before the newly constituted Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee of the National Assembly for Wales that I Chair this week. It comes following numerous initial scrutiny sessions by this committee of broadcasters in Wales, alongside Ofcom, in an attempt to put a new spotlight on media affairs in Wales. The creation of the committee has been welcomed across the board, after quite some lobbying for it to exist by myself and others over time.
No, this matter is not devolved to Wales, but a new Memorandum of Understanding now exists between the National Assembly for Wales and the BBC, one is also being developed with Ofcom – showing that there is a move to work with the devolved administrations and their parliaments. With ITV Wales and S4C showing that they too are willing to provide us with evidence of their work in Wales, it is vital that we utilise this opportunity as a new committee to assess what is happening in the sector, to not only influence government and how it deals with media issues, but to encourage Welsh people to partake in a dialogue about the future of Welsh media, and how it is shaped: particularly in helping to put forward tangible solutions.
With the enhancement of powers to our National Institution, the irony is that there has been a diminution of representation in the media in relation to Welsh issues and the portrayal of Wales to its people at the very same time – from the hours that ITV Wales devotes to Welsh programming, to the stark decrease in Welsh news on commercial radio, to the closure of many local newspapers, to the distinct lack of effort by the BBC to enhance the provision of English Language drama in Wales, for Wales.
I have heard time and again that not enough programmes on the UK networks tell us anything about Wales. The BBC’s Sherlock, Casualty and Dr Who are all made in Cardiff –which is great news for the Welsh economy – but what do any of these say about Welsh life? Most people in Wales get their news from UK-wide network services, which often says little about how many important decisions that affect life in Wales – from education to the health service – are made in Cardiff and not London. Radio 2 has a million listeners in Wales, and I have long pushed for a news “opt-out” in Wales on this service, so that listeners in Wales can hear news bulletins that specifically address the issues where they live. A campaign was also launched for a Welsh Newsnight, in an attempt to push Welsh political issues to the forefront of the minds of Welsh viewers.
This is not the first time that Lord Hall has visited Wales to make statements. He came to Cardiff in 2014, and made a clear commitment to invest in programming in Wales. He said that English language programming in Wales had been ‘eroded’ in recent years, and said that some aspects of Welsh life were not “sufficiently captured by the BBC’s own television services in Wales”. He urged us to become part of the debate on the future of the BBC. That we sought to do, when he gave evidence to a committee in the previous Assembly on the BBC’s charter renewal process.
Lord Hall confirmed his ambition to introduce a single BBC “service licence” for Wales, to replace existing licences that regulate individual radio, TV and online outlets. We have had very little detail on this idea following on from the November 2015 evidence session, however, and plan to ask for an update on this at our session this week. What would a Wales service licence look like, who would have control over its content, and who will be accountable?
We have also seen an announcement of a new Drama Commissioner that will be based in Wales, and we look forward to asking Lord Hall more about this role. Key to this will be enquiring about how the Commissioner will work. It is all well and good for a Commissioner to be based in Wales, but will that role be working closely with the independent creative sector here in Wales, and seeking to talk to the Nation about what sort of programmes we want to see for the future?
Nobody interested in broadcasting will have missed the fact that a new Nations and Regions post has been created to sit on the main BBC Board. This role did exist before, but was scrapped in 2009, when the Director of the BBC in Wales was given access to the top table. Ken MacQuarrie will take on this new Nations and Regions role, but Rhodri Talfan Davies, as the BBC Wales Director, will no longer be on the executive team. Certainly, we have grave reservations here in Wales about this change, regardless of the BBC spin. This is especially so, given that the detail afforded to us on the structures of new ways of working are minimal. How will the BBC Wales Director be kept abreast of any issues, and what will it mean for that person not to be on the executive board in future? How will the new post reflect all of the Nations and Regions equally and fairly?
And of course, this brings us back to the money. In May 2015, Lord Hall wrote to the First Minister Carwyn Jones, and said the BBC planned to “allocate additional funding” across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 41 AMs then wrote to Lord Hall to ask when this announcement of funding would be made. We were told, vaguely so, that it would be ‘in months to come.’ However, if the scrutiny with the BBC Wales Director to our committee is anything to go by, it seems that there may be a delay in an announcement of this funding until they have made the savings proposed to BBC Wales, and the rest of the BBC , as part of the cash flat licence fee. We need to make sure that any new money to come to English language broadcasting in Wales is genuinely new money, and not simply recycled savings from BBC Wales.
The definition of ‘months to come’ may, therefore, stretch for some time yet. And in the meantime, we wait, while Welsh audiences struggle to make sense of the fact that time and again, we do not have programmes that reflect the Wales that they live and breathe on a daily basis.
The message this week to Lord Hall is that as a newly established committee we will not let these issues drop by the wayside. Making a speech is one thing, but delivering on the promises it contains is another matter entirely.
We have a wealth of talent here in Wales. We have a successful, growing creative industries sector, who are waiting for any announcement of progress for English Language programming.
We also demand that Wales has a strong voice within the structures of the BBC, and that network news and current affairs programmes correctly reflects the realities of devolution. We will not go away, and we will rigorously scrutinise the media in Wales to ensure that the people of Wales are represented effectively.