Three-D Issue 24: Media policy in Wales

Jamie Medhurst pic_optJamie Medhurst 
Aberystwyth University

The Welsh historian, John Davies, who sadly passed away last month, once wrote that Wales was an artefact created by broadcasting. Whilst space precludes a discussion of this notion, broadcasting, its place in Welsh society and its future in Wales is currently a topic of debate and scrutiny amongst academics, the broadcasters, politicians and a wider circle of civic society. There are, I think, a number of ‘trigger points’ which have resulted in the debate.

The first of these is devolution. Despite the fact that the former Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, stated that devolution was a process not an event, the ‘events’ which have sparked debate in Wales have been the Scottish Independence Referendum last year and the Silk Commission on Devolution in Wales. Both have led to widespread discussion on the role of the Welsh Government and National Assembly for Wales and both have raised the issue of devolving control over media policy.

In the case of the Scottish Referendum, control over broadcasting in particular featured in debates during the campaigning and the subsequent Smith Commission, whilst not recommending devolving broadcasting powers to Edinburgh did recommend giving a stronger voice to the Scottish Parliament in matters such as the BBC Charter renewal discussions.

In Wales, Silk made a number of recommendations relating to broadcasting, including the creation of ‘a devolved governance body within the UK [BBC] Trust framework with powers to provide oversight and scrutiny of BB outputs in Wales’ and the devolving of the public expenditure element of S4C to the National Assembly. It also recommended that OFCOM appoint a Welsh Member to its Board. The Commission did, however, recommend that the regulation of broadcasting should remain at Westminster. The UK Government, in its Devolution Settlement announcement earlier this month, announced that it agreed with the majority of the Silk Commission’s recommendations in relation to the media, although it rejected the argument relating to S4C.

In relation to the Welsh Fourth Channel there is concern over the future funding of S4C after 2017. In 2010, the BBC licence fee became the prime source of funding for the channel (£76.3 million in 2013-14). This is supplemented by a grant from the DCMS and by advertising revenue. There is a degree of uncertainty as to the level of DCMS funding (if there will be any at all) post 2015-16 when the current agreement expires. The level of uncertainty does not make for a stable broadcasting landscape.

There is also concern in Wales over the future of public service broadcasting. The recent OFCOM review of PSB highlights whether or not the public service obligations placed on broadcasters are fit for purpose in a post-devolutionary era. The decline of news output from ITV Wales had led to a concern over the plurality and diversity of voices – the vast majority of news about Wales is now provided by the BBC in English and in Welsh – which begs the question, ‘Is this a healthy state of affairs?’

The concern over plurality is tied to another ‘trigger’ for these debates, and that is what the National Assembly Presiding Officer, Dame Rosemary Butler’ calls the ‘democratic deficit’ in Wales. Citing this issue as ‘one of the most profound problems facing the devolution process in Wales’, this is the perceived gap in coverage of Welsh political life due to the inherent Anglo-centric default position of UK broadcasters.

Already the think-tank, the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA), has initiated discussion on these topics and later this month the first of a series of seminar discussions on the future of broadcasting in Wales will be held at Aberystwyth University in conjunction with the Royal Television Society Wales Centre and the IWA.

It promises to be a fascinating couple of years in this part of the world, so watch this space….

Posted by Einar Thorsen