Public service broadcasting in Wales is on a knife-edge and there are loud demands for reform. The response will cast light on whether Wales is genuinely seen as a full partner within the UK.
Small but perfectly formed. Is that a fair description of Wales? Small Wales certainly is, with a population of 3.1 million compared to the 53.9 million of its neighbour, England. This part of the British Isles claims distinctiveness as a nation while remaining attached to the union. Democratic devolution was endorsed initially by the slimmest of margins but the people of Wales went on to vote 2 to 1 for full legislative powers as the devolutionary process established itself. That process continues. It is the context for any valid consideration of broadcasting in Wales. Here, in broadcasting terms, there is a nation to be served with all that implies about complexity and breadth.
But broadcasting in Wales is challenged by two particular weaknesses: market failure and inadequate influence over its media policy. Together these create in Wales an unhealthy paradox: while the public clearly supports increased self-determination as a nation within the UK, the media − whose function is to enable national self-understanding − are increasingly disabled.
This can only result in a stunted Wales, struggling to assess its own potential or needs and, ultimately, unable to benefit properly from devolution or to contribute distinctively to the UK ‘project’. A withered branch tends to get lopped off. For Wales, in the debate around Public Service Broadcasting, the stakes are very high indeed.
For Wales to function properly as a nation it needs media (not only broadcast but press and online, and in cinema and publishing also) which carry out three crucial functions:
(i) To be a constant, inquiring two-way conduit of information, connecting government, civil society and citizens
(ii) To provide a full reflection of that society to itself – its diversity and creativity, its achievements and failures, its languages and arts, its glories and its foibles
(iii) To enable Wales to represent itself to the rest of the UK.
The market has not delivered adequately on these. Market forces respect bulk and it is increasingly difficult for a small nation to find and maintain its place in a fast-moving media landscape. PSB channels provide an essential service in the UK nations and nowhere more so than in Wales. Wales is served by BBC Wales, ITV Wales and S4C. The Ofcom report ‘Public service broadcasting in the internet age: the nations of the UK and their regions’ states that:
‘ …Wales is served less comprehensively, outside the BBC, than any of the other UK nations, with weaker print media and commercial radio services offering a reduced challenge to the BBC in terms of a plurality of voices.’
It goes on regarding broadcast media:
‘In Northern Ireland and Wales, the BBC has formed the backbone of programming specific to those Nations, particularly outside news, although it is worth noting that from 2008 to 2014 the number of BBC non-network first-run hours in Wales decreased by 15%.’ (This is new output specifically made for viewers in Wales.)
Between 2008 and 2013 the number of hours of first-run originated programming for Wales from all broadcasters fell by almost a quarter to 923 hours. Output and spend on English language television for Wales made by the BBC and ITV has contracted sharply over the last eight or so years resulting in a severe narrowing of genre range.
The Welsh-language channel S4C has also had its funding drastically cut. In 2013/14 a new agreement was made between the BBC and the UK Government including an arrangement for S4C to be funded until March 2017 by the BBC licence fee, together with S4C’s own commercial income and a UK government grant. In addition, the BBC supplies ten hours a week of Welsh-language programmes to S4C free of charge, including its news service. Since the bulk of funding transferred to the licence fee there has been a danger that S4C will be perceived as something to be funded out of a ‘Welsh share’ of overall funds. Programming in Welsh should never be at the expense of programming for Wales in English.
In the field of news provision the BBC has taken an increasingly central role. Plurality suffers and has resulted in the so-called democratic deficit. This term was first used by the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly, Rosemary Butler in 2012 to describe the shortcomings of the media in communicating the workings of the National Assembly to the people of Wales.
Wales, the invisible nation?
As the BBC’s own Audience Council for Wales noted in its most recent Annual Review, plurality is not the only casualty. The Council endorsed BBC Wales’s decision to prioritise news and sport in its English language TV output for Wales but warned of the consequences:
‘It believes that the lack of providers of other news of Wales means that this was the correct decision and is reassured that BBC Wales TV News reaches just over half of all adults in Wales each week. However, it remains a matter of deep concern that this decision is having such a significant impact on other genres, and in particular on drama and comedy.’
In a speech in Cardiff in 2014 BBC Director General, Tony Hall acknowledged that the English language TV service for Wales had been ‘eroded’ over the last ten years and he specifically mentioned comedy, entertainment and culture.
To grasp the implications of this erosion it helps to note that ‘culture’ covers at least Theatre, Fine Art, Literature, Architecture, Music, Dance, Digital Arts… and when one adds to the list other genres not seen on BBC Wales TV such as Science and Religion, Business and Commerce, Children’s Programming and Agriculture plus the genres of Drama, Entertainment and Comedy, perhaps only then does one get a sense of the aspects of life in Wales which are increasingly invisible on television to its own people. The Council also expressed grave concern about the absence of portrayal of Wales and its people on the network.
There are similar problems about ‘presence’ on radio in Wales as on TV. The two main challenges are the decline in local news on commercial stations and the unbalanced demographics of the two national stations, BBC Radio Cymru (Welsh language) and BBC Radio Wales.
Shortcomings in media policy
A nation that can’t see itself properly and can’t be seen by others faces an existential crisis. Citizens turn to government in such a circumstance but here Wales faces the second challenge: its inadequate leverage on media policy.
Broadcasting is a matter reserved to Westminster but the broadcasting needs of Wales are not high on that body’s agenda and there is a persistent lack of understanding of how things look from Wales. For example, the UK government’s Green Paper on BBC Charter Review, in discussing ‘native languages within the British Isles’ acknowledges that commercial broadcasters are unlikely to serve them well but, referencing drops in audience reach, comments, ‘these services come at a cost’, which is to state the obvious in such a way as to imply it as a burden, perhaps not to be shouldered.
Wales in the conversation
There has been vociferous debate inside Wales about the BBC’s services. Yet the Charter Review Green Paper did not consider their scope and nature, their quality, management or (apart from the most general reference) how accountable they are. This seems out of step with the mood in all the nations and with the concerns expressed in the several Ofcom reviews of Public Service Broadcasting.
It also seems at odds with a shift among Welsh politicians of all hues towards an acceptance that broadcasting is a responsibility they want to face up to. Notably, the St David’s Day Agreement, while rejecting the full devolution of broadcasting to Wales, endorsed a partial move towards greater accountability to the Welsh Assembly:
‘Public service broadcasters of specific content to Wales should provide an annual report on performance to the National Assembly for Wales, including more transparent data on trends in Welsh broadcasting output.’
The need for better representation for Wales in BBC governance and on the Ofcom board was also accepted. The Welsh Affairs Committee at Westminster is conducting an Inquiry into Broadcasting in Wales.
The Welsh Government has been very active in encouraging investment in high profile media productions such as ‘The Bastard Executioner’ and ‘Da Vinci’s Demons’ but until recently has been lukewarm about acting to the full extent of its capacity in terms of domestic broadcasting. Inexplicably it took the stance that this Charter Renewal period was not a good time to get a grip on the facts about media in Wales.
In the absence of reliable facts, the development of good policy is unlikely. The Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA) took the initiative of auditing press, online and broadcast media in Wales. The Wales Media Audit 2015 is a 145-page dossier with policy recommendations, conducted without government funding, which formed the basis for the IWA Cardiff Media Summit in November.
Significantly, First Minister, Carwyn Jones has called for an extra £30 million for BBC services in Wales. Welsh Government may be persuaded to attend further to its domestic media by the developing expertise and evident appetite for increased accountability among AMs on the National Assembly for Wales Inquiry into the BBC Charter Review. Welsh Government’s account of its recent engagement on broadcasting can be found here.
Towards a service fit for Wales
As far as the BBC is concerned, to achieve real progress in Wales, we need to aim at these four main goals:
(i) Increased devolution to BBC Wales of decision-making
(ii) Better portrayal of Wales in network programming
(iii) Better coverage of Wales in network news
(iv) A broader range of TV made specifically for Wales
One hopes that the first is on the cards as a welcome correlative to the decentralisation of production. But this is now in the hands of the somewhat rushed review of BBC governance being conducted by Sir David Clementi. The IWA has submitted analysis and recommendations. To be heard, Wales must acquire proper representation in the governance of the BBC.
It’s uncertain how the second goal – better portrayal – is to be achieved and, crucially, to what extent decentralization of commissioning will be in the toolkit. The third is being addressed by the current BBC review of news provision in the light of devolution.
It’s the last issue that receives least attention because it is the one that costs money to achieve. The BBC has been blunt about its future service to Wales, as in its submission to the Assembly Charter Review Inquiry:
‘…significant new investment in a broader range of programming, such as drama, comedy and entertainment cannot be delivered within the current Budget agreement with the Government.’
This attitude was shown at a BBC Trust seminar in Cardiff last November, when BBC Director of Strategy James Purnell acknowledged that money could be given to the service for Wales but “it would have to come out of things like War and Peace”. The audience bristled at the implication that Wales should fall on its sword for the sake of the greater network good. Ironically War and Peace is a BBC Wales co-production.
The Charter Renewal debate has alerted Wales to the fact that every aspect of its public service broadcasting, not just the BBC, is on the cliff-edge. It has sharpened awareness that the media knit the country together, enable its practice of democracy and its bilingualism, give it a voice at home and abroad and fit it to be an intercultural country able to foster other languages and other cultural inputs within a Welsh polity. It has increased calls for adequate participation for Wales in governance and for broadcasters to be more accountable within Wales. There has been a major shift in political willingness to step up to the level of responsibility currently possible. The influence of Scotland and Northern Ireland has played a part in this as we have seen the three culture ministers make a joint statement on broadcasting.
The fate of broadcasting in Wales is a test of whether the country is genuinely seen as a full partner within the UK and of Welsh Government’s will to actualize the potential of the devolution settlement. It will take vigilance from the public – audiences, politicians and programme-makers − to achieve the broadcast service Wales needs.
This article first appeared on the OurBeeb site 18 January 2016.