Welsh television takes biggest spending hit

Geraint Talfan Davies discovers a decline of viewers of television news about Wales

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA and a former Controller of BBC Wales.

Ofcom’s latest annual survey of the communications market in Wales reports on the past year in which we became the first part of the UK to go fully digital. The media regulator headlines the fact that the digital divide between Wales and the rest of the country has narrowed, with the take up of both digital television and mobile broadband now higher in Wales than in the other nations of the UK.

But dig deeper and you will find that the report also underlines just how far the erosion of the English language television services has gone, along with worrying data about the consumption of television news in Wales.

The Ofcom report records the fact that in 2009 the joint BBC and ITV spend on television services in Wales declined by no less than 16 per cent over the previous year, and by an average of 11 per cent per annum over the five years since 2004. And when Ofcom publishes a similar report in a year’s time it will have to tell us that this catastrophic slide has gone even further. By then the decline in the ITV spend in Wales may have slowed or halted, but the cuts at BBC Wales go on.

Even more worrying is the fact that the decline in Wales is greater than that in Scotland or Northern Ireland. The 16 per cent drop in Wales in 2009 – from £33 million to £28 million – compares with an 11 per cent drop in Northern Ireland and, rather surprisingly, a 1 per cent increase in Scotland.

Between 2004 and 2009 this amounted to an absolute spending cut for Wales of a staggering 44 per cent – more than the UK culture minister, Jeremy Hunt, is demanding, even at his most punitive, from all the public bodies under his control, including S4C. The Welsh annual average of 11 per cent over the period compares with 10 per cent for Northern Ireland, 9 per cent for England and 7 per cent for Scotland. And all this even before the UK Government starts to raid the S4C budget.

The unanswered question is, why has Wales suffered the largest decline? It may be partly accounted for by the fact that ITV Wales is but a branch of ITV plc, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own indigenous ITV companies. But the BBC must also shoulder part of the blame, since it insists that its commitment to maintain its statutory obligations to S4C is paid for out of the rest of the BBC Wales budget – a budget that is declining despite the fact that the BBC licence fee has increased year by year.

One possible consequence of this is that in 2009 people in Wales watched only 16.8 hours of early evening television news (per head across the year), four hours less than in 2004, and five hours less than the Scots did in 2009. An Ofcom survey reported that fewer people in Wales (44 per cent) rely on television for news than in any of the other nations – Scotland 64 per cent, Northern Ireland 50 per cent, and England 48 per cent. Although more in Wales rely on radio than elsewhere, it is worrying that the 8 per cent of the Welsh population who say that they ‘do not get/watch news’ is four times higher than the UK average of 2 per cent. These are deeply worrying figures.

The data will only buttress the case that the IWA and many others have been making that, even within the BBC’s existing resources, there is an overwhelming argument for halting the slide and giving Wales a higher priority. (See also here.) Given that the pass was sold on ITV’s commitments long ago, the future of an English language service for Wales now rests primarily with the BBC.

Two weeks ago the BBC Trust chairman, Michael Lyons, was in Cardiff for a day to meet with the First Minister, Carwyn Jones and the BBC’s Audience Council for Wales. In a response to the IWA, Lyons – a week before announcing that he is not going to seek a second term in the job – did say that he had asked Mark Thompson, the BBC’s Director General to plug the total absence of any reference to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland in the BBC’s Strategy Review. But we do not yet know the precise nature of the brief that the DG has been given by the BBC Trust.

We can only hope that last week’s news that the BBC is, voluntarily, to forgo an increase in the licence fee next year, does not mean yet more pain for Wales.

While Wales copes with this depressing picture, Scottish viewers were given some hope this week when the Scottish Government announced that it has commissioned a feasibility study into a new Scottish public service network to compete with the BBC. This marks the revival of a concept – the Scottish Digital Network – developed by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission two years ago under the leadership of Blair Jenkins, a former senior executive of BBC Scotland. Jenkins has been asked to lead the new study.

It is interesting to note that Scottish ministers, without fretting over whether broadcasting should be devolved, have grasped the nettle – admittedly safe in the knowledge that that their more generous Barnett settlement will prevent them being stung. The situation in Wales will not change unless Welsh Ministers start banging very hard on doors in London. And soon.

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