Opinion

Wales is exceptional in not having its own national public service broadcaster. Is it time that changed?

14 Dec 2020 11 minutes Read
Watching the First Minister Mark Drakeford on TV.

Richard Martin

‘Who Scrutinises Me?’

This question was asked by Labour MS Lee Waters in a recent episode of the Hiraeth Podcast. It wasn’t just the asking of the question that caught the ear, framed as it was within the context of the death of local news reporting in Llanelli – it was the tone of incredulity with which it was spoken.

Later in the episode, the deputy minister described only ever being truly challenged on a decision by the media once in his ministerial career, a withering criticism of our national and local news landscape.

There is nothing new to add to the already well-rehearsed analysis of the poor state of journalism and non-news media production here. There are emerging causes for hope in the digital space as a growing network of local/national digital platforms have evolved and been supported by Welsh Government, powerfully championed by Emma Meese and the Independent Community News Network, among others.

But however good some of these organisations are (and some are very good), there is a challenge of legitimacy that each of them faces (Waters even describes some as ‘cranks’) when trying to communicate with audiences that large, monied, established brands (like the BBC or The Times) do not. So while there is considerable potential, there are also significant constraints.

All is not lost, however. The ever-growing realisation that the status quo is detrimental to the – still fledgling – modern democracy we have in Wales provides fertile ground for new and positive ideas to grow. We are not without significant assets as things stand. Despite Reach Plc’s best efforts to devalue its platform, Media Wales continues to produce our sole significant English language paper to a good standard, recruits and trains journalists of high calibre, and provides a platform for thoughtful opinion from civil society.

BBC Wales also continues to provide its essential services as a national broadcaster (in the Welsh language), a regional one in English, and a local one via local news and local democracy reporting services. ITV Wales and Channel 4 make essential but sadly limited contributions. And S4C continues quietly along, largely ignored by the majority of Welsh citizens except in times of key sporting activity where it remains the last free-to-air alternative for so many sporting events.

So what are key problems to solve, what are the routes to a solution and what provides the impetus to act?

 

Dangerous

The catalyst for action is the very live and active threat to what little self-government we have. Not since the mid-1990s has there been a UK Government as opposed to any degree of autonomy for Wales and Scotland. The incorporation of Anglo-centric British nationalism into the mainstream of Conservative thought (as channelled by PM Johnson but reflected in the grassroots of the Welsh branch of the party) has accentuated the worst characteristics of, and empowered, Whitehall to undermine our parliament.

Wales, unlike Scotland, is not defended by a government willing to rupture with the British state to protect its citizens and economy from the worst excesses of the worst UK Government in recent memory.

As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government”. The urgent question for all parties interested in defending the Senedd’s existence is whether they are doing enough to inform their citizenry because the abolitionists are actively undermining trust in both Welsh Government and the decisions of the Welsh polity to elect them. These are dangerous times.

The key problems are largely known in the English language sphere. Wales’s half-in, half-out relationship with England’s institutions (a regional opt-out for most broadcasters and an unacknowledged recipient of unacknowledged misinformation in print) is forever unsatisfactory.

And while the Welsh language sphere has two good digital news services in Cymru Fyw and Golwg360, and a reasonably healthy periodical and hyperlocal print ecosystem (Golwg, Barn, papurau bro), the stark reality is that upwards of 80% of the population do not know of its existence, let alone engage with it.

Is it any wonder that the reliable pipeline of excellent journalists that come from our well-reputed schools of journalism end up feeding the media mill of the imperial capital rather than our own?

Measures

So what is it to be done? Our situation is neither inevitable nor permanent and our policymakers and legislators can and should begin to address this in their manifestos for 2021.

Much good work is already being done without additional money or political capital being spent and that should continue. Support for hyperlocals from Welsh Gov is essential, both in terms of business support and validation at news conferences at the Senedd. The digital public sphere grown by volunteers and civil society should be supported by Cllrs, national and union parliamentarians and candidates being willing to participate further, even if it transpires to be a challenging experience.

Whatever happens to the future of Anglo-UK public service broadcasting, the time has come for Welsh Gov to insist on non-regression rather than stand on the sidelines. Provision is already wafer-thin and the mood music from DCMS is that there is little appetite for expansion, quite the opposite.

So to the difficult measures. There are two that stand out as key above all others:

  1. Better regulation

The case for this has been made repeatedly and powerfully and should now be heeded. The stubborn resistance of Welsh Government to push for greater influence has perplexed many over the years and continues to do so. What value does it do in the long-term to be continually complaining about low levels of portrayal and inconsistent or inaccurate reporting without ever wanting to actively enforce course correction?

The sight of the Welsh Government’s official Twitter account tweeting corrections to Anglo-UK news organisations in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic was both a victory for those wanting action but equally a depressing reflection of reality for others. What other national government has to quote tweet the state broadcaster – the state broadcaster! – to ask for corrections? Pretty damning for all involved.

While the coronavirus crisis has forced a rapid education in the fourth estate about what is and isn’t devolved, print and online media continues to be an unregulated space that a smaller, more agile government in a smaller country, born of the digital era, could lead in regulation if it wanted to.

As Lee Waters notes, light-touch regulation through OFCOM hasn’t worked and neither has self-regulation in the form of IPSO. Time for our parliament to assert itself and demand the devolution of these responsibilities to be exercised in partnership with our island neighbours.

2. A national broadcaster

This remains the one crucial building block missing in our media landscape. For all the good that is done by energetic independents and hyperlocals, by plucky upstarts and passionate individuals, nothing carries the same weight as a national broadcaster.

Wales is the exception in Europe in this regard. NRK in Norway, DR in Denmark, RTE in Ireland. These all combine the essential characteristics of national broadcasters – broadcast and digital news/current affairs, sports, factual and drama. It is not to deny the excellent and committed work of BBC Wales, in particular, but it (like so many ‘Welsh’ organisations) sits in the uncanny valley between a national opt-out (as Scotland) or a regional opt out (as London).

In English, that is. For the picture in the Welsh language is different. It is both the biggest issue and the biggest opportunity for change. There is a far greater similarity between ‘Newyddion’ on S4C and the network BBC News – truly national, not local, in character.

S4C itself was created in a different era. It was a fourth channel created for a time when a fourth channel of scheduled programming was a luxury and the concept of video-on-demand was manifested through the magic of wound electromagnetic tape.

To be clear, television channels are now dead as a species. They persist in a zombie state as the demographic and technological baselines catch up but the extinction event has happened, it simply has not yet completed. So S4C needs to change to survive. This need was recognised by Dafydd Elis-Thomas before he became the minister with responsibility for culture, stating that S4C is “a uniquely established public service broadcaster in Wales of 25 years standing and therefore their time for reviewing their governance has surely come. Does it make sense that a Welsh-language broadcaster is a creature of a UK government department?”.

That UK Government department has managed to shed itself of most responsibility for a channel it has largely shown benign neglect for two decades – passing the buck to the BBC after the Senedd, in a moment of disastrous self-ownership, decided to pass on the opportunity.

S4C has public trust, has physical and intellectual assets (and yes, Yr Egin is an asset no matter how ill-conceived it originally was). What it lacks is services that comparable national PSBs have such as in-house news and sport, digital news and sport platforms and a radio offering. It also lacks an audience. Gone are the days when people would point their antennas to the West Country to pick up Channel 4 but the residual nature of Wales’ language divide is that while most people are happy S4C exists, only a minority of the Welsh speaking minority use it.

So as Lee Waters observed in the podcast, the decision to create a Welsh language online news platform has been a success, maybe it’s time to look at English language provision.

Understandably, there will be those that will oppose any English language service provided by S4C. Those arguments are coherent and well-intentioned but are perhaps borne out of the troubled history of language relations in our country and the legendary battle to establish S4C in the first place.

But the 2020s are not the 1980s nor the 1960s (let alone the the 1840s) and there are no significant opponents to the language in the way that both the conservative and labour movements of the 20th century encouraged mass disengagement, tacitly or overtly. Of course many of the challenges remain and many new challenges present but modern Wales is almost universally content with its bilingualism. Any state broadcaster should and would reflect that.

Thanks to technological changes we also have opportunities in Wales to establish a digital-only PSB. Although the Welsh Government has been forced to subsidise the UK Gov’s awful track record in broadband provision (mirroring such activities in police support and rail), we now have almost universal coverage. Provision via the internet is the irresistible directions for all media platforms in the future so infrastructure costs for a future all-Wales PSB are far less than comparable developments in the 20th century (though not entirely immaterial).

As we see the growth in similarly digital-only platforms across the border (Times Radio being the clearest example) the templates available to an ambitious and visionary minister for culture will be plentiful.

Cost

Funding such an enterprise is, of course, a hurdle perhaps too high for a relatively poorly funded parliament and one whose tiptoe into exploring new mechanisms to raise revenue on matters such as vacant land have been unfairly obstructed by a government in Whitehall cut from a different cloth.

The sums involved are not small and it is right to acknowledge that. S4C’s current budget of approximately £100m is now largely borne from the license fee (itself under threat from this UK Government). RTE in Ireland, a close approximation of what we could envisage for the future of S4C costs the state in the region of £330m.

High but not prohibitive, perhaps? These costs are annual and as we enter one of the most painful recessions in modern history, it is perfectly right that any such proposal should be vigorously challenged.

The question for the future Welsh Government and the future Welsh nation is whether the financial cost of establishing a trusted national media sphere is truly greater than the democratic cost of not doing so.

Is journalism, in fact, a public good?

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