The BBC and Wales – Time to Deliver

 

Lord Hall, Director General of the BBC, this morning ( 2 Nov 2016) has a session with the Assembly’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee (CWLC). And so…?

And so this, in itself, demonstrates a sea-change in the attitude of Wales to its media. That a committee has been created which pulls together these three core elements is evidence that Wales is determined to get to grips with the communication essential for its democracy and its life as a nation.

It also shows that in the non-devolved area of broadcasting and communications Welsh politicians are willing to shoulder responsibility to the limits of the devolutionary settlement. Here we certainly see a proactive and creative willingness to get the best for Welsh media.

In a speech in Cardiff in 2014 Lord Hall challenged Wales to find solutions to the dearth of platforms and funding that faced its media. Perhaps that was his way of demonstrating that solving that conundrum was beyond anyone but, if that was the hope, it has been frustrated.  Wales stepped up to the mark in the effort to find fact-based solutions.

The IWA, with the ready collaboration of experts, produced the in-depth Wales Media Audit, in November 2015, an undertaking unique in the UK. In the Wales Media Summit last year the full range of interested parties showed their determined engagement. Voices from Wales were prominent in the many BBC Charter Renewal debates. This Assembly created the new CWLC Committee.  In a statement to the National Assembly on 21 June, Alun Davies AM, Minister for Lifelong Learning and the Welsh Language, (whose portfolio includes broadcasting), stated that the Welsh Government, “will establish a new independent media forum for Wales.” This is a recognition of the need to master this fast-moving world so that strategies emerge that are Wales-friendly.

Can there be any doubt whatsoever that Wales demands an end to the old story of invisibility and silence?

When Lord Hall meets the politicians this time it is in a changed landscape. This scrutiny will be happening in a Wales which knows that the challenge this time is to the BBC because the dissatisfactions have been thoroughly aired, thoroughly researched and debated. Delivery time has arrived.

English language television

There has to be movement on the vexed issue of breadth in the English language TV service to Wales.

Figures provided by BBC Cymru Wales to the IWA for the 2015 Media Audit for Wales confirmed the narrowing of genres that has occurred in recent years. While the continued focus on news and current affairs as a priority was understandable, the data covering the three years 2012 – 2015 shows that the provision of comedy, drama, education and entertainment was very limited within BBC Wales’s output. The drama output consisted of an episode of Hinterland, which was broadcast within the fiscal year 2014/15 and a collection of short films produced through the It’s My Shout training scheme. Arts and music output was also limited, amounting to just 12.9 hours during the same period.

Given that there is all-round acknowledgement of the problem, and hopeful that there will be some commitment to a solution, one must nevertheless ask what metrics the BBC will use to measure improvement in English-language programmes?  Wales needs a mechanism against which to hold the BBC to account in a way that is broadly comparable with the out-of-London production quota.

Sustainable Funding and Commissioning

In its 2015 Media Audit, the IWA recommended that the BBC should create a funding and commissioning system that devolves a significant tranche of network funding, so that commissioners in the nations can have the freedom to bring other cultural perspectives to bear, to improve ‘portrayal’ and so diversify the output.

But improvement has to be sustainable. The independent producer, and former drama commissioner, Jane Tranter has suggested, in this month’s Television Magazine, that:

“Wales’s issue used to be one of recognition. It has now become an urgent one of sustainability. If public and private resources can draw together and be clear on what Wales needs from its partners and neighbours, its recent rapid growth suggests that it can become the production centre that domestic and international drama producers want and need. At which point, maybe, it can finally stop feeling it’s a problem to the public service broadcasters – and instead become part of the solution.”

She argues that to achieve sustainability for BBC Wales mandated strands and hours (covering for example, drama) for the English Language TV service should be included within a service licence for Wales and that the BBC should commit to “a Wales-based drama commissioner (as they have in all other nations and regions of the UK)”.

At the conferral of an honorary doctorate on him by the University of South Wales on the evening of 1st November Tony Hall mentioned, almost in passing, that there will be such a commissioner.

Crucially, Jane Tranter outs the metropolitan attitude to Wales. Attitude, the elephant in the room if ever there was one!

“As the BBC’s drama commissioner from 2000 to 2009, what I lacked in the early years was the open-mindedness to see that it was the attitude of the BBC towards Wales that was the problem, not the place itself. All it took was to give Wales a chance.”

Wales is part of a complex economy so, given the cuts faced by BBC Cymru Wales both in 2010 and recently, in which the service has to find a further £9 million of savings over the next five years, how can Tony Hall ensure that the English language television service for Wales has sufficient resources to deliver a full range of programmes for Wales?

In his letter of 12 May this year to the devolved administrations, he made a commitment to allocate additional funding to spend on improving the BBC’s dedicated services to the Nations.

It is also to be hoped that the CWLC committee will press Lord Hall on the likely impact of BBC Studios on Wales.

Governance

We also need clarity on the structure of BBC governance here. It is currently left to the discretion of the BBC and not written into the Charter. What are Tony

Hall’s plans for audience representation and for audience influence on management?

Despite asserting in his letter of 12 May 2016 that sub-committees of the new Unitary Board in each of the nations, including Wales, would, along with dedicated nation service licences, “provide clear accountability for the services provided in each nation and much more ability to shift resources around within each nation’s dedicated services, further devolving decision-making to the Nations.” neither the draft White Paper nor the Framework Agreement make any reference to the governance of BBC Cymru Wales.

The BBC is intent on recreating a Nations and Regions directorate, another idea that is utterly out of step with the devolutionary times. Why should  all the UK’s nations not sit at the BBC top executive table? We know that the reason given was that having only one person would be a cost-saver, but what are the mechanisms by which the method will work?

News

In his letter of 12 May, Tony Hall acknowledged that the BBC would, “adapt our news output in each nation to reflect greater devolution and changes in our democracy”.  He added that the BBC was carrying out a review of the balance between the provision of UK news and dedicated news services in the Nations. Now he can update politicians on this review.

Digital

There has been surprisingly little of great note in this area. In Tony Hall’s speech to the Cardiff Business Club in November last year, he announced that a pathfinder project ‘Open BBC’ would establish a citizen jury in Cardiff ‘in the New Year’ of 2016 to collect views about the BBC Ideas Service.  Did the jury sit, and what was the outcome?

How is he proposing to improve the digital services available for citizens in Wales? And, how does he envisage digital opportunities improving the service to Wales? How can Wales gain from the imaginative use of digital potential?

Culture, Welsh Language, Communications

The BBC is a key factor in all of these, given its many activities and widespread presence and no doubt the Committee will want to both probe and encourage across the spectrum Great play is made of the financial benefit of media production to Wales. Less is heard of the workforce. It has come last in this article but should never be last in the priorities of politicians.

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