Whilst there were few surprises in the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee’s report into Welsh radio, the inquiry under the leadership of Plaid Cymru’s Bethan Sayed AM has been much bolder than the Welsh Government in asserting the role of the Assembly in regulating the sector.
The cross-party report falls short of endorsing Cymdeithas yr Iaith’s call for the Welsh Government to have a direct role in regulating broadcast radio in Wales. However, a cursory read of the committee’s recommendations indicate a more ambitious approach than previously articulated. The main takeaways are:
Provision of ‘Welsh News’ should be a condition of commercial radio licences
For some time, the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) have been pursuing a policy of deregulating the radio industry. Whilst some of these reforms, such as relaxing the rules on music formatting, are sensible and pragmatic attempts to reduce to burdensome bureaucracy, others, such as the proposal to reduce the number of approved license areas and the changes to the minimum number of locally-produced hours, could have a potentially devastating impact on local commercial radio in Wales. Particularly on the provision of local news.
It has long been acknowledged that Wales suffers from a serious democratic deficit when it comes to coverage of important areas of devolved policy such as education, health and economic development. One of the key recommendations in the report is to support Ofcom’s Advisory Council for Wales’ call for an ‘All-Wales News’ provision on commercial radio and to make this a licensing requirement.
More controversially, from the standpoint of commercial broadcasters, the report recommends retaining the current minimum number of locally-produced hours, stating that:
“As well as possibly resulting in job losses, as companies take the opportunity to centralise production, there could be a detrimental impact on rural communities, with larger towns and cities being chosen for more centralised production”.
The removal of such licensing requirements has long been popular with the commercial sector, with both Communicorp and Global supporting DCMS proposals to relax this requirement, their argument being that localism should be judged in terms of content, not production location.
Ofcom should look at the concentration of ownership within the commercial sector and promote greater diversity
The commercial radio sector in Wales is highly concentrated with just three companies owning and operating all the stations in Wales. It is encouraging that the report highlights this as a potential concern, stating that:
“Ofcom should explore the issue of competition in the commercial radio industry in Wales to see how greater market diversity and ownership can be encouraged”
However, this vague statement perhaps illustrates the main issue faced by Welsh Government – without any specific competence over issues of broadcast regulation, it can only recommend that Ofcom look at the issue. Currently, the minister has no powers to draw up legislation or instruct Ofcom and it is not clear that the DCMS regard ownership and plurality as key policy issues at this stage.
Greater support for the community radio sector
Perhaps the most ambitious and interesting section of the report relates to community radio. This is an area in which the Welsh Government could have some impact, if not through broadcast regulation, as much as funding and economic incentives. As the report points out, the take-up of community radio licences in Wales is relatively low – this is due to a number of factors, notably restrictions on commercial income (which the report recommends the UK government ‘reconsider’) and problems securing the operating costs required to keep stations on-air.
Of the sixteen recommendations the report made, five relate to community radio directly. The first recommendation suggests evaluating and possibly reinstating the Welsh Government’s Community Radio Fund (ended in 2014). There is also a vague recommendation to publicise the availability of the Community Radio Fund currently operated by DCMS. Unfortunately, this fund is already oversubscribed and releases comparatively small funds, mainly for the purpose of supporting fundraising/business development activities.
As the University of Northampton’s Marc Webber pointed out in his evidence, unlike the commercial sector, community radio struggles to demonstrate impact as most stations cannot afford to be part of the RAJAR (Radio Joint Audience Research) ratings survey, the industry standard for measuring listenership. To address this the committee intends to:
“organise a symposium for Community Radio stations in Wales to provide an opportunity for them to get together and consider a range of common issues, including use of RAJAR ratings services”.
The most striking recommendation comes out of evidence given to the committee by the University of South Wales’ Steve Johnson, which suggests that the Welsh Government and other public bodies support the community sector by placing more public information campaigns and government advertising within the sector – this was an idea rejected by the minister as ‘dangerous’.
The Welsh Government and the minister, in particular, need to be more ambitious
Dafydd Elis-Thomas comes in for distinct criticism with the report describing his approach a ‘fatalistic’. One of the report’s key recommendations includes a call to reshape the ‘powers and duties of Ofcom… as well as influence the issues it takes into account’. Summing up the minister’s position the report suggests:
“The Minister’s approach to radio policy is confusing and disappointing… the Minister seemed reluctant to advance these views beyond appointing a Welsh member of the Ofcom board. This seems a clear instance of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted; seeking to influence how Ofcom exercises its powers and duties, rather than seeking to shape what these powers and duties should be.”
This is not completely surprising: Lord Elis-Thomas has come out publicly against the Welsh Government taking on responsibility for broadcast regulation. However, it is difficult to see how the Welsh Government could exert any meaningful influence over the sector without this. Under Conservative leadership, DCMS has taken a relatively light-touch approach to issues of ownership and production giving commercial radio greater freedom to ‘operate their businesses in the way that best suits them’ (DCMS, 2017). They have also explicitly ruled-out enhanced licensing requirements in the nations stating that:
“…having such a power may disadvantage local stations in the nations and that a better approach is for Ofcom to have regard to the needs of all UK audiences in setting the requirements on a UK basis.”
More needs to be done to support the rollout of DAB in Wales
Whilst the report suggests that in general DCMS need to more to encourage DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) coverage in Wales, the committee seems to be concerned that DCMS should not take a decision about a digital switchover until Wales’ ‘relatively poor digital’ coverage is addressed.
Refreshingly, the report acknowledged the ‘virtual monopoly’ held over DAB broadcasting by DAB multiplex owner Arqiva – a situation which makes DAB broadcasting all but impossible for small or community operators. However, there was no mention of the possibilities of small-scale DAB in the report. Piloted in England by Ofcom, scale-scale DAB multiplexes (or Mini-Muxes) allow for many more stations to broadcast to smaller, more localised transmission areas for a fraction of the price of coverage on commercial multiplexes. It was interesting that this, potentially revolutionary technology was barely mentioned in the report. You can read Ofcom’s report on the Small-Scale DAB multiplex trial here.
The BBC needs to do more to promote distinctly Welsh content
It is clear from the report that the committee regards Ofcom’s current BBC operating licence as offering a ‘lack of challenge’ and suggests that BBC Cymru Wales should be more assertive in ‘promoting news stories from Wales and Welsh music for the UK networks’. The report also calls for an increase in ‘the volume of news and current affairs coverage on Radio Wales and Radio Cymru’.
Broadcast Devolution is an issue we will ‘return to’
Whilst this report makes some encouraging noises and should be commended for its diagnosis of some of the key issues facing radio broadcasting in Wales, without any degree of broadcast devolution, its recommendations remain largely academic. The committee seems to acknowledge this in its final section on ‘Devolution of Broadcasting’:
“This is an issue to which we will no doubt return at some point. For now, while Members
of the Committee have different views on the matter, we acknowledge that it is not the policy of either the UK or Welsh Government to devolve broadcasting to Wales.”
Reading between the lines, the report is critical of both the current approach of DCMS and the lack of ambition from the Welsh Government. The report correctly suggests that the Welsh Government are lacking in strategic direction in this area, however, this would have been more convincing if the committee had been more explicit in its support for broadcast devolution or at least some degree of competency in this area.
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