Where are we now? Progress report on the BBC Charter Review

Glyn Mathias takes a look at the implications for Wales of the BBC Charter Review

Glyn Mathias is former political editor at BBC Wales and former Electoral Commissioner for Wales.

We are likely to have to wait until May for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in London to come up with its White Paper on the future of the BBC, following its public consultation on the review of the BBC Charter. That may, however, slip – the referendum on the European Union is interfering with a lot of government business, and this may be another victim.

The public consultation threw up a great deal of public support for the services provided by the BBC, and the Secretary of State John Whittingdale is going to have to balance that against the desire of many Conservative MPs to cut back on what they see as the ever-growing BBC empire.  Behind the scenes, I suspect that the general direction of the next Charter period has by now been broadly agreed between John Whittingdale and the BBC Director-General Tony Hall.

In terms of the future regulation and governance of the BBC, we already have the report by Sir David Clementi in front of us. This proposes an end to the era of BBC self-regulation – and not before time. The BBC Trust will be abolished and the regulatory role will pass to Ofcom, which already regulates the rest of broadcasting in Britain. The management of the BBC will consist of a unitary board, with an independent Chair and a majority of non-executive directors. It is generally assumed that the Clementi report will form the framework for the BBC settlement.

Where does Wales fit into all this?  Contrary to the recommendation of one Commons Committee, Clementi did recommend that there should be a Welsh representative among the non-executive directors on the new unitary board. That was something of a relief – at least there will be one Welsh voice at the top table. He also recommended there should be a separate ‘operating licence’ for each nation, which will be an important tool for holding the BBC to account. At present there are multiple service licences, which not only limit the ability of BBC management to move resources around but also attract very little public attention. With one single ‘operating’ licence, the services to be provided by the BBC in Wales can be set out clearly in one document and the BBC can be held to account for the delivery of those services. That will be a significant change.

But that is all about structure. What about the programmes BBC Wales will deliver in the coming Charter period, and how much funding will there be?  There has been a considerable clamour in Wales about the cuts in funding to television services in the English language for the Welsh audience. This has been a central issue in evidence from all quarters to the ongoing inquiry by the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. And it has formed the centrepiece of the recent report by the National Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee. Echoing the views of the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, the Committee called on the BBC to invest an additional £30 million into the services it provides for Wales.

Will that happen?  In a speech this week at an event organised by the Wales Governance Centre, the Director of BBC Wales Rhodri Talfan Davies agreed there was now a consensus in Wales around the need to expand English language TV services to include drama, comedy and other programming to reflect the nation’s life in the round. He thought the message ‘had landed’ with the BBC management in London and sounded optimistic there would be an improvement in those services as a result of the Charter Review process. He can, after all, quote the speech Tony Hall made in Cardiff last year in which he recognised there was a real issue here. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

The Scots have of course got there before us. BBC Scotland have already extracted additional funding to stage three pilots of the so-called ‘Scottish Six’.  This is the proposed hour-long programme which would combine Reporting Scotland and the Six o’clock News into one programme broadcast from a Scottish perspective. Given the pressure from the Scottish government and from BBC Scotland, this is likely to go ahead. The requirements of such a programme, including for Scottish correspondents in London and abroad, will soak up quite a lot of extra money. It is not surprising that Rhodri Talfan Davies sounded cautious about whether Wales should follow suit with a ‘Welsh Six’.

To be fair, the political and broadcasting context in Wales is very different. With only limited media plurality, there is a big problem around the percentage of the population who, for whatever reason, do not read or switch on to any all-Wales news. So it is clearly a priority for the BBC to extend the reach of news about Wales. The biggest radio audience in Wales is to Radio 2, with Radio 1 not that far behind – but these stations carry England-orientated UK news. The BBC is busy looking at the technical feasibility of replacing those bulletins with news from Wales – the technical problem being those Welsh transmitters which also cover parts of England. In addition, the BBC is looking at the possibility of extending the reach of Radio Wales on FM into those parts of Wales where it can only be heard on AM at present. The BBC has also been in discussion with Ofcom and the DCMS about improving coverage of both Radio Wales and Radio Cymru on DAB in mid-Wales. This would involve putting the two Welsh stations on the relevant transmitters in place of two UK-based services.

So some elements of how the Charter Review will impact on Wales are beginning to emerge from the mists. But there are a whole lot of issues which remain to be clarified:

  • Given that the BBC has to find cuts of something like £800 million, will there really be any extra funding for English language programmes in Wales and, if so, will it be a substantive amount or a just a political gesture?

  • The cut in government funding for S4C is being reversed and there is to be a review of S4C to follow the Charter Review. But what will be the relationship between the S4C Authority and the BBC under the Clementi proposals?  S4C are not happy about dealing with the proposed BBC board in London, and the White Paper should make clear they should deal with Ofcom as the regulator instead.

  • There is widespread anxiety about the suggestion that the non-executive directors on the proposed unitary board will be appointed by the Government. This would clearly compromise the independence of the BBC and should not be allowed to happen.

  • There is no mention in the Clementi report of the governance of the BBC in the nations. Should BBC Wales also have a unitary board with an independent chair and non-executives? It would certainly help to improve accountability.

It is a big question whether all these changes, including the necessary legislation, can be organised before the end of this year when the existing Charter period runs out. It’s worth a side-bet on the present Charter period being extended into 2017 to give more time for everything to be sorted out.

 

This is an updated version of the article, the original estimated the cuts that the BBC has to find at ‘something like £100M’, following a tweet for information by BBC Wales Director Rhodri Talfan Davies it has been updated to ‘something like £800 million’

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