The discussions about Channel 4 being pushed to move out of London, and about the BBC being forced to spend more of its programming budget outside the capital show that there is a shift towards better regional representation in UK programming. Attracting less media interest than Scotland and Northern Ireland, Wales is a particular case. In this post, Dr Ruth McElroy of the University of South Wales and member of the Media Policy Group at the Institute for Welsh Affairs looks at two major policy challenges affecting media in Wales: representation of Wales in public service broadcasting programming and lack of quality journalism covering Welsh affairs.
Representing Wales: funding and portrayal of Wales by PSBs
Both the BBC and S4C (a Welsh-language public-service television channel located in Cardiff) have endured substantial funding cuts since 2010 which have had a direct impact on what audiences see or do not see on screen. For example, in 2015-16 BBC Cymru Wales’ English Language television output (excluding repeats) was 641 hours. This compared with 814 hours in 2006-7, a 21% reduction. In his first speech in Wales as Director General of the BBC, Tony Hall admitted:
‘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.’
It has taken three long years to see substantive action but in February, the BBC announced a 50% increase in its funding of English-language programming for Wales amounting to £8.5 million (in contrast with £11 million for Northern Ireland and some £20 million for Scotland). This sum falls a long way short of the £30 million which the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee recommended was needed to bring BBC Wales’ service delivery up to suitable levels, but it is a substantial enough figure that viewers can expect visible improvements soon. Less headline grabbing was the announcement of a drama commissioner to be based in Cardiff and a BBC Writersroom team. Whether such initiatives will deliver meaningful change and get more Welsh-authored dramas on screen is moot; both the autonomy and budget of a Welsh drama commissioner is vital if s/he is not to be a mere gatekeeper for London commissioners.
Meanwhile, S4C has faced budget reductions of at least 36% in real terms since 2010, a fact which is largely responsible for the high proportion of repeats now shown on the channel. A reduced budget has knock-on consequences for the Welsh independent production sector.
S4C has published its strategy for the future while it continues to await a date for the independent review long-promised by DCMS for 2017. When it happens, it will need to address the fact that its remit is woefully outdated, reflecting the broadcasting realities of the 1980s when it was established not the present digital age. It will also need to consider the future funding of the broadcaster, its relationship with BBC and ITV which both provide it with content (with the bulk of S4C’s funding now coming from the licence fee), and also to the Welsh Government’s stated policy objective of ensuring 1 million Welsh-speakers by 2050. Digital innovation such as Pump, the Welsh-medium YouTube channel established by S4C’s former head of digital strategy Huw Marshall, will be needed to support children and teenagers’ use of the language, but this will have to be balanced alongside serving the 60-something audience which is core to both the BBC and S4C’s viewership.
Informing the Nation – quality journalism for citizens
Since the 2008 King report, there has been pressure on the BBC from Wales and the other devolved nations of the UK to improve the accuracy and range of representations of Wales on screen. A key strand of debate has focused on news and the need to deliver journalism that reports accurately on those policy areas such as health and education which are devolved. The BBC’s own research shows clearly that the public’s understanding of politics in Wales lags considerably behind their grasp of UK-wide politics. BBC Wales controller Rhodri Talfan Davies explained at the first Media Summit in 2014, ‘Despite nine in every ten adults saying they have a real interest in news about Wales, our latest survey found just half of adults in Wales could name which party was in government at Cardiff Bay, and only 31% could name Wales’ First Minister unprompted.’
Wales does not have Scotland’s daily newspapers; Welsh citizens are more likely than citizens in any other part of the UK to turn to PSBs for their daily news. This is why BBC and ITV’s coverage on both network and opt-out news services matters so greatly. They are vital in plugging Wales’ democratic deficit. While newspaper circulation has been in decline across the UK, Wales has seen more papers close than any other part of the UK. There has also been significant concentration of ownership of Welsh titles in firms based outside of Wales. Speaking at the IWA Cardiff Media Summit 2017, Claire Enders noted the largely unregulated oligopoly of Google and Facebook and argued that ‘the future of media lies with global players who produced no original content relevant to Wales’.
At the very point where devolution means greater political powers now reside in Cardiff Bay, there is a real risk that citizens in Wales will benefit from fewer sources of quality journalism and access less by way of informed debate about the policies that directly affect them.
For more quality research and informed debate about Wales, follow the work of the Institute for Welsh Affairs (IWA). The IWA Media Policy Group conducts research and creates policy suggestions that respond to the challenges facing media coverage of Wales.
This post gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.