Tom O’Malley looks at what needs to be done to improve the future of Public Service Television in Wales.
A Future for Public Service Television (Des Freedman and Vana Goblot, (eds), A Future for Public Service Television (London, Goldsmiths Press, 2018) ISBN 978-1-906897-0) stems from the work of an inquiry based at Goldsmith’s College London chaired by Lord Puttnam, the findings of which appeared as report: A Future for Public Service Television: Content and Platforms in a Digital World (2016). This edited collection develops the debates covered in the report and provides stimulating reading for anyone interested in the issues surrounding communications in Wales.
The inquiry took evidence from November 2015, and held events around the UK, including a forum on the future of television in Wales at Cardiff University. It set out to ‘reflect on the place and performance of public service television in an age of platforms and populism’ (p9). The editors of the book commissioned new chapters from practitioners and academics reflecting on some of the issues in the report. It also prints sections of the report and shares edited versions of some of the evidence submitted.
The overall context within which developments around public service television have to be understood is summed up in the collection by the former Director General of BBC, Mark Thompson: ‘Broadcasting is still broadly following the naïve free market play-book set out by Alan Peacock and others in 1980s’(p20).
The impact of wonderful technological changes that came into play after the 1980s have been diffused in the context of policies pursued by successive governments, framed largely by the principles enunciated in the Report of the Committee on Financing the BBC (July 1986) chaired by the long time supporter of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Alan Peacock. The Peacock Report advocated subscription services as a way of developing what it called ‘consumer sovereignty’ in communications, the growth of commercially funded services and the transformation of public service broadcasting (PSB) into a small element of the system, publicly funded in order to provide services which the market could not, or would not provide. In effect PSB was to be a minor element in the system, remedying market failure.
This policy of supporting the expansion of commercial services has had consequences for television in Wales. Although Ofcom research shows consistently that people in Wales value programming made about the nation, there has been a secular decline in the quantity and spend on programmes made in and about Wales since the 1980s. Using the argument that it faced increasing competition from providers not required to spend on PSB programming, an argument accepted by Ofcom, ITV has stripped back its commitment to Welsh programming over the years. As Caitriona Noonan and Sian Powell argue in A Future for Public Service Television, where English language programming is concerned, ‘There has been a significant decrease within both the BBC and ITV in terms of both output and spend’ (p273). The success of drama production in Wales has been counterbalanced by the fact that this ‘rarely reflects life in Wales’; the country is more often used as a location ‘rather than part of a narrative setting’ (p273). S4C has been subjected to cuts in its budget and has, despite the protestations of many in the higher echelons of broadcasting regulation, effectively lost its autonomy since it was merged with the BBC. The BBC has been forced to ‘top-slice’ the licence fee to pay for S4C and the provision of free TV licences for pensioners (p27).
Chapter 46 details some of the Puttnam proposals for reform. It advocates a ‘devolved approach to public service television that ultimately aims at sharing responsibility for broadcasting matters between the UK parliament and the devolved nations’ (p332). In addition commissioning structures and funding ‘need to better reflect devolutionary pressures …. for spending in the devolved nations’ (p332). S4C should be given a stable source of funding, ‘other than the BBC’. On this last point, the recent review into the future of S4C, disappointingly did not recommend that outcome, in effect endorsing the Channel’s loss of organisational autonomy and underpinning the government’s controversial policy of ‘top slicing’ the licence fee to pay for non-BBC services.
The establishment of the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee of the National Assembly in 2016 was a welcome development, but it can only be the first step towards developing a much more comprehensive degree of oversight by Wales of its own communications policy. The Welsh Government should have legislative powers over the provision of communications in Wales. Puttnam suggested that a fund for public service content be established, funded by a tax on the large digital intermediaries and internet service providers. The Welsh Government could have access to this fund.
In addition, a radical overhaul of the system of regulation is needed. The fashion for ‘unitary boards’ rather than Boards of Governors, which now characterises the regulatory system is designed to make the organisations they oversee run like commercial operations, not as publicly accountable bodies with a wide public service remit. We need a system of proper representation on regulatory bodies of the communities of interest that exist in the UK, based on a combination of direct election and nomination by designated bodies.
This collection of essays testifies to the rich body of thought in civil society, academia and the industry, that points in directions other than those set down by the neo-liberal turn of the 1980s. If we are to progress towards a communications order which balances more properly the competing needs of commerce and public service in Wales, we need a legislative framework, underpinned by a funding settlement, that will foster the development of a popular form of public service communications which serves the diverse needs of the nation and is far more accountable than is the presently the case. This publication is an aid to thinking through those kinds of issues.
A Future for Public Service Television is published by Goldsmiths Press.
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