The Welsh Government’s decision to go for broke by demanding an extra £30m from the BBC licence for broadcasting in Wales, is a matter for both relief and rejoicing. In the last decade it has been strangely reluctant to take up the issue of service deficiencies in Wales. In the face of the decline of the ITV service, unending cuts at BBC Wales and reductions in S4C funding it has been tepid in its responses to calls for action by both the Institute of Welsh Affairs and the National Assembly’s own committees.
This change of heart – set out in a letter from the First Minister, Carwyn Jones to the BBC’s Director General, Lord Hall – has come not a moment too soon, though there is cause for regret that it was not made before the last general election, and before the UK Government’s precipitate backroom settlement of the licence fee for the BBC’s next Charter period.
It also comes only weeks after Ofcom’s latest review of public service broadcasting showed that since 2008 the programme spend for Wales had reduced by no less than 30.5% to around £20m, a bigger cut than in Northern Ireland (-21%), while Scotland actually enjoyed an increase of 13.6% – from £60m to £68m.
One might have expected an open debate about the future purposes of the BBC before the licence fee was settled. Instead, that debate now has to take place in the context of a settlement that will provide the BBC with standstill funding at best, and more probably a further reduction. The case for a better service for Wales will, therefore, involve a much more painful debate about the BBC’s future priorities.
The basis of the Welsh case could not have been put more clearly than by the Lord Hall himself, in a speech in Cardiff in April last year. This is how he put it:
“English language programming from and for Wales has been in decline for almost a decade. The reduction in ITV Wales’ contribution has played a big part in this – but the BBC’s output has also been eroded. What does that mean for audiences here? It means, inevitably, that there are some aspects of national life in Wales that are not sufficiently captured by the BBC’s own television services in Wales, and I would include comedy, entertainment and culture in those categories.
“Does this matter? Of course it does: the vitality of any nation must surely rest on more than its journalism. One cannot fully realise a nation’s creative potential or harness its diverse talents through the important, but narrow, prism of news.
“Let me say there are no easy solutions here. Our recent proposal to close BBC Three as a broadcast channel tell you something about the hard financial choices that the BBC currently faces. But I do believe the BBC will need to think hard about how it strengthens its support for national and regional self-expression as it prepares its case for a new charter. And I would like to invite you all to be a part of the debate.”
The First Minister has taken him at his word, perhaps encouraged by his current Culture Minister, Ken Skates, who, when a backbencher, himself chaired an Assembly investigation into the media in Wales, producing a lively report to which the Welsh Government’s response was disappointingly muted.
The Welsh Government has always recognised the benefits of the BBC’s investment in network drama production in Cardiff, but in his letter to the BBC Carwyn Jones adds an all-important proviso: “We do not see the development of Cardiff as an important centre for network productions as any sort of justification for reducing the BBC’s investment in local services.”
On the contrary, at a time when the BBC’s own Audience Council for Wales has stated publicly that “cuts have brought BBC Wales’s non-news television provision closer to the cliff edge”, he has been absolutely right to insist on increased investment, and equally right that that should not be found by further cutting S4C. The disparity in English language provision in Scotland and Wales is wholly unacceptable.
The only gap in the First Minister’s letter relates to the BBC’s governance arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, an issue that exercised the Silk Commission. It called for the replacement of the BBC’s Wales Audience Council for Wales with a devolved trust with “responsibility for oversight and scrutiny of the policy, content and allocation of resources in Wales”, although this would operate within the BBC’s UK framework. There is still time to return to this issue. With more powerful governance Wales might not have been in its current position.
The agenda for the coming debate is clear, and it is heartening that, for once, there is a powerful consensus in Wales regarding the necessary direction of travel. Moreover, earlier this month the culture ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland met in Glasgow and expressed their joint determination to ensure that the BBC does not use financial pressures to defend a default centralist position that would be hideously out of tune with the way the UK is now shaped and governed.
The creation of this alliance did not get the attention that it deserved in Wales. The three ministers insisted on a formal role for their governments in the review of the BBC’s charter, amongst other things “to ensure the BBC’s clear obligation to provide services for all of its communities, is fully met in relation to both English and indigenous language broadcasting.”
The Welsh Government deserves support for its stand, but in pressing the case Wales must take care to avoid some obvious pitfalls. In particular, within Wales this must not become an argument between provision in each of our languages. More generous funding for English language output for Wales should also increase the opportunities for cost effective co-production between the BBC and S4C.
There will also be a temptation for the BBC simply to promise no more cuts for Wales. That is a not the solution to our problems. The claims made for the smaller nations are not unreasonable when seen against the BBC’s total income of around £3 billion, and it is clear from Ofcom’s figures that Wales has taken disproportionate cuts over the last Charter period.
And as the First Minister has suggested, neither should we fall for the argument that the scale of network production in Wales is sufficient compensation. Wales is scarcely visible in most of that network production. It needs to be able to commission and tell its own stories. In doing so it could also deliver an extra bonus in diversity for the network.
Lastly, we must also reject any argument that improving the services for each of the smaller nations and strengthening their role in the governance of the BBC is something that will do injury to the union. If the union is to work, all nations must have fair opportunities to reflect themselves to themselves and to determine their own creative priorities.