Big Ambitions in “The Big Picture”

Any report whose first word is ‘Although’ is usually heading for a ‘Nevertheless’. ‘Although’ signals an intention to strike out beyond, or push ahead despite, some obstacle, towards a goal that requires a creative sense of the possibilities in a situation and not just the limits.

Hence the significance of the opening sentence of the report from the National Assembly’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee: The Big Picture: The Committee’s Initial Views on Broadcasting in Wales.

“Although most aspects of broadcasting and media policy are not devolved to Wales, the role of broadcasters and the media in Wales is of enormous cultural and political importance.”

This simple statement is evidence of an important stage in the maturation of the devolutionary process. Here are AMs, demonstrating, once again, a determination to inhabit as fully as possible the available terrain. Notably, this does not address the issue of the devolution of media policy. It works with present capacity, with what is possible now.

The report goes on:

“While these issues may not be formally devolved, the National Assembly has a clear and legitimate interest in holding broadcasters, and the media more generally, to account …”

‘Clear’ I take to mean indisputable. This is a significant sign of a conviction that has been developing across parties within the National Assembly: that the nature and efficacy of the means of communication are so deeply bound up with the calibre of all aspects of public life that the Assembly is bound to interest itself as fully as possible in them.

‘Legitimate’ stakes a claim on behalf of the nation in relation to all types of influence or power, whether governmental or commercial.

And furthermore, the members state their particular interest in:

“the way that Wales and Welsh society are portrayed and reflected by public service broadcasters.”

This emphasis on these issues of portrayal and ‘reflection’ requires another pause for thought. Highlighting the centrality of portrayal is an assertion of the existence of ‘Wales and Welsh society’ as something distinctive, a true subject capable of being portrayed well or badly. This belief has implications because it is a contestable claim but the Committee’s position is clear and will be influential.

‘Portrayal’ covers presentation of the subject to itself but also beyond itself, beyond its borders, to those who are not ‘Wales and Welsh society’.

‘Reflection’ refers to content which is analytical and directed more towards Wales. It allows ‘Wales and Welsh society’ to see and consider themselves.

By valuing, on behalf of the nation, these processes of portrayal and reflection the Committee is shaping our media future in a certain image. It is affirming the possibility of considered choice within the exigencies of national and global politics. This is no mean thing.

Nor is it insignificant that the Committee’s remit includes Culture and the Welsh Language. With Communications, this is a natural triad in policy terms.

This is a getting-to-know-you document. The Committee explains that with its broad remit − “all aspects of broadcasting and the media” − the members felt it was “important for us to familiarise ourselves with the broad issues and background before carrying out more detailed pieces of work”.

Not that the National Assembly is new to this area. The previous Assembly recommended the creation of this very Committee with “a specific focus on communications, broadcasting and media”. This brief could hardly be more comprehensive. The strikingly broad scope of this Committee’s interest and the sense of long-term commitment evident in the report are noteworthy and very welcome.

“We intend to look at all aspects of broadcasting and the media during this Assembly.  In the short to medium term we intend to carry out Committee Inquiries to look into:

  • the UK Government’s planned review of the remit, funding and accountability of S4C
  • local media and local news journalism in Wales
  • commercial radio in Wales
  • the portrayal of Wales on UK broadcast networks”

The Committee’s Chair, Bethan Jenkins, has referred to the report as a ‘snapshot of the broadcasting industry as it stands in Wales” and “the basis for more detailed enquiries in the future”. This work will require adequate resourcing. In June 2016 the Minister for Lifelong Learning and the Welsh Language, Alun Davies AM, announced a new expert independent body to “advise on the future of media and broadcasting in Wales”. No further details have emerged. An end to an ad hoc approach is urgently needed.

The potential of digital media within Wales’ communications provision has been somewhat sidelined generally in the face of immediate issues about broadcasting and the press. It is inseparable from them. The role of digital must move centre stage. A collaborative, imaginative focus with government backing is needed. A country such as Wales is vulnerable to marginalisation but digital could be part of the remedy.

ITV Cymru Wales is smarting at what it sees as the Committee’s failure to appreciate its output. The channel can be in no doubt of how important the AMs think it is within the service to Wales and what hopes there are for its success. Is there any leverage here to be exploited within the ITV system? That may be a meritocracy but if spurring ITV Cymru Wales on counts for anything the AMs are letting the network know what they want.

As well as re-affirming the call for a £30 million BBC spend on English language drama and broadcasting about Wales the Committee makes a key observation on the inadequacy of current governance proposals:

“The new arrangements need to ensure that the voice of the audience is captured and represented in the new governance structures.  We are not convinced that the structures proposed give sufficient weight to the audience voice as yet.”

The report’s 11 recommendations refer also to S4C and Ofcom.

There are testing times ahead when aspirations will collide with the limits of authority. What influence can then be brought to bear? What alliances sought? Developing the media future of Wales is indeed a long-term undertaking. The IWA’s Cardiff Media Summit on 29th March is taking that future as its theme.

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