Why press and broadcasting should be devolved

Tom O’Malley warns that without democratic oversight by the National Assembly our media faces a bleak future

Professor Tom O’Malley is Director Research with the Department of Theatre Film and Television Studies at Aberystwyth University. This is an edited extract from evidence he has given to the Silk Commission.

The history of the press, radio and TV in Wales shows that a mixed ecology of private and public intervention has worked. However, the diversity of the press in Wales has declined as the market has developed. And as the internet eats into its revenues it lurches from crisis to crisis.

The true strength of Welsh communications has rested on public regulation. The neo-liberal approach to media regulation embodied in the 2003 Communications Act has led to a decline in Welsh focused commercially produced radio and television. It is the publicly funded BBC and S4C that have sustained Welsh focused content since then.

The conclusion must be that, left to the market, Wales will become a minor market with little to distinguish the offerings from those made to the rest of the UK. Without stronger public intervention we may also see the marginalisation of the BBC and S4C. Just as the banking crisis showed the absurdity of letting relatively unfettered market forces govern provision, so the changes in commercial broadcasting in Wales in the last decade have shown the problems associated with allowing the market to gain a stronger hold on communications.

To strengthen the media in Wales it is necessary to bolster the powers and role of public authorities in this area. They should be held democratically accountable to the electorate and have no remit to interfere in programming, but they should have powers to intervene in the market in the interests of sustaining a plural and diverse communications environment in Wales. 

If Wales has devolved powers relating to education, taxation and health, it is difficult to see why it does not have greater powers in relation to its communicative space. After all the ways in which a society communicates internally and externally plays a central role in fostering understanding of a wide range of political and cultural issues. In that context it is right that just as the democratically elected institutions of Westminster have traditionally exercised the right to regulate the UK, so the National Assembly and the Welsh Government should have that right conferred on them as far as is reasonably possible.

The Welsh Government should have at least the following powers:

  • Oversight of the activities of Ofcom and the BBC Trust’s activities in Wales, with an obligation on those bodies to consult and reach agreement with the Welsh Government on matters of:
  1. Programme policy in general
  2. Quotas of Welsh focused programming
  3. Development of services
  4. Questions of ownership and plurality
  5. Establishing commissions able to investigate the state of the industry and make policy recommendations
  6. Funding independent research into the media in Wales.
  • The power to appoint Welsh members of the Ofcom Board, and the BBC Trust, after consultation, via the National Assembly and Civil Society organisations.
  • The right to levy income from the profits of commercial networks, be they radio, TV, cable, satellite or internet, at a fair and reasonable level, which could be used by the Welsh Government to promote the development of the Welsh media industries.

The BBC should not be broken up. Its strength comes from the fact that it gathers resources from across the UK which can then be channelled into UK wide services. However, it has long been a point of considerable debate whether or not there should be greater devolution of powers to Wales at both the operational and governance level.

Ideally, it would be possible to devolve greater financial and strategic independence to Wales mainly by establishing a Welsh version of the BBC Trust, peopled by elected representatives from a range of nominated constituencies in Wales, whose job would be to oversee the strategic direction of the BBC in Wales. People working with the BBC in Wales would be employed by the organisation and answer to it. The BBC Wales Trust would conclude an agreement with the BBC Trust in London setting the parameters for such an arrangement. The BBC Wales Trust would also answer to the Welsh Government as above, were it to be created. 

The removal of S4C’s independence was the latest, and possibly most scandalous example of how people exercising power in London, in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the BBC, could take a decision which altered radically the balance of power in Welsh broadcasting behind closed doors, in a short period of time and with no proper consultation.

Arguably, Welsh language broadcasting will never survive without subsidy. The funding that the DCMS has sought to remove and make ultimately a responsibility of the BBC should be restored and given to an independent body. A priority for the Welsh Government must be to ensure that funding is secured and that governance of the channel is removed from the BBC. This would be to the advantage of the BBC which should not have to spend its licence fee on S4C and should not be overseeing a commercial public service broadcaster.

The Board of S4C should be appointed in consultation with the Welsh Government and should be made up of people representing a wide range of interests in the Welsh language communities of Wales.

However, there is the wider question of the role of the Welsh language across the media landscape in Wales. The future should be about developing a mix of provision so that Welsh is both available in a mono-lingual form and part of the menu offered to all people in Wales across all platforms. 

The newspaper industry has resolutely resisted the mildest of reforms in relation to the proposals that were put forward in the Leveson report. The argument that establishing statutory underpinning of a new system for regulating the standards in publications constitutes the slippery slope towards state licensing and censorship is spurious and was dealt with in the Leveson report. Nevertheless these arguments are pressed home by UK wide and Welsh publications whenever the subject arises.

As long as the newspaper owners can dictate what kind of system is used for the redress of complaints the problems of inaccuracy and intrusions into privacy that affect people living in Wales when they read newspapers or when they are the subject of stories in newspapers will continue to exist. The only constitutional implication of this is that in the short term the mild reforms proposed, with cross–party agreement in March 2012 that provide statutory underpinning for an industry created system of self-regulation, should be supported.

The future of commercial broadcasting in Wales, and the relationship that has to the promotion and sustenance of social, political and cultural issues specific to Wales is a matter of continual concern. Until the Welsh Government and National Assembly have more powers of oversight and intervention in this area then decisions about what gets disseminated in Wales and whether it has any bearing on Welsh society will remain in the hands of company boards and regulators based, usually, in London. Giving more power to Wales in these matters is therefore necessary.

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