Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report

1.  Memorandum submitted by BECTU


  1.  BECTU welcomes the opportunity to put forward evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee. We believe the Inquiry is timely and that it will be vital, from the start, for the Assembly to have a clear view of its role in relation to broadcasting in Wales.

  2.  We attach a Report produced by BECTU earlier this year on The Assembly and its Implications for Broadcasting[1]. This gives, in some detail, our views on issues relevant to this Inquiry. Our covering submission will therefore cross-refer to the earlier Report. We will seek to address the key issues indicated by the Committee with an emphasis on the points of most importance to BECTU.

  3.  Of all the issues raised by the Inquiry the most significant, in our view, is that of accountability - and specifically the potential role of the Assembly in ensuring greater accountability of broadcasters in Wales to the people of Wales. We are fully aware of the continuing DCMS role in relation to broadcasting. Nonetheless the Assembly is entitled, and in our view obliged, to demand greater accountability in this area. Broadcasting is the primary medium of information on Welsh affairs (including those of the Assembly itself); it is also an industry with a particular focus and complexity in Wales. The Assembly can and should play a key role in leading and informing public debate on the operation and future development of the Welsh broadcasting sector - and in doing so will be following through the democratising mandate which has led to the establishment of the Assembly in the first place.

  4.  What mechanisms could be developed to allow the Assembly to take on such a role? We recommend the following:

    —  The establishment of a standing committee on broadcasting, film and other media issues. This should, in our view, be separate to any broader cultural and arts remit undertaken by the Assembly. We assume its proceedings would be public.

    —  Such a Committee should undertake inquiries; should receive reports at least annually from all the key players in Welsh broadcasting (including BBC Wales, ITC Wales, HTV, S4C, SDN and cable and satellite operators); should scrutinise key appointments; and should call industry representatives and other witnesses to present oral evidence and respond to questions.

    —  Specific proposals along these lines are set out in the attached Report (especially paragraphs 7B,12,23,25,28,30,31).

  5.  Some specific points for consideration are as follows:

    —  We would strongly oppose any break up of the BBC as our leading public service broadcaster. Within a unitary BBC we believe it would be all the more important, however, for the Assembly to take on a role of seeking increased accountability within Wales.

    —  HTV, as the primary terrestrial commercial broadcaster, is now owned by a corporation based outside Wales. In this context, the Assembly could have a key role in seeking the retention of HTV's local franchise obligations.

    —  The Assembly should not, in our view, take-on grant-making powers in relation to S4C (for reasons indicated in paragraph 29 of our Report). The Assembly should, however, pay close attention to the future evolution of the company and should seek maximum transparency in the relationship of S4C to its proposed digital operations, including SDN (with for example, the presentation of full financial accounts for the latter). Increased commercialisation of S4C at the expense of its public service remit is not a development we would welcome and not a model we would wish to be followed by other broadcasters such as the BBC.

    —  The independent production sector in Wales is, despite current difficulties in some areas, a centre of talent and experience which has made an impact on the world market and which is a genuine alternative focus to London. The Assembly should build an awareness of and a concern for this sector as a future cultural and industrial asset for Wales.

  6.  The Assembly can play a key role in all these areas, while leaving editorial control of programming in the hands of the broadcasters themselves (subject of course, to broadcasting legislation and regulations). If it does, it will become the only democratic and accountable public body taking an informed interest in all areas of Welsh broadcasting. Detailed regulation will remain the province of the various separate regulators; Parliament and the DCMS will have an ultimate regulatory role; but no other body will be better or more appropriately placed to ensure increased accountability for Welsh broadcasting as a whole.


  7.  While welcoming any genuinely increased opportunities for programme-making opened up by the development of digital broadcasting in Wales, we have some real concerns about current and future activity in this area.

  8.  While digital technology opens up the possibility of extra broadcasting hours, there is, on all current forecasts, no corresponding increase in budgets or revenue to provide the necessary programming. We have a real fear that digital broadcasting will develop partly at the expense of investment in existing public service broadcasting—with all the implications this has both for programme quality and for the jobs, conditions and training and career opportunities of those who work on the sector.

  9.  In particular, we are unconvinced about the wisdom and merits of S4C's current digital policies, including its involvement in SDN (now jointly owned by S4C, NTL and—with potential conflicts of interest—United News and Media). S4C, which is, of course, a publisher-broadcaster, appears to have switched between a digital commissioning policy based on the use of a small number of independent companies on long (eg two year) contracts, to the use of a larger number (currently up to 40) separate commissioning contracts. The latter approach appears in our view to fail in the aim of achieving significant economies of scale, while still reducing the number of independent commissions currently available—leading to severe difficulties up to and including liquidation for some Welsh independents.

  10.  The Committee and in future the Assembly should, in our view, ask searching questions about the implications of the broadcasters' digital plans for original programming, programme budgets, industry training standards, and the potential undermining of public service broadcasting in Wales. Concentration of scarce resources on investment in original programming of high quality is, we believe, a superior long term strategy to the spreading of programme budgets too thinly in any over-ambitious attempt to provide too many hours at minimum cost.


  11.  As a trade union, we have a very particular interest in the future arrangements for television and radio coverage of the Assembly.

  12.  Our strong preference, in relation to any contract for coverage of the Assembly, is for:

    —  a Welsh company, with a bilingual requirement for all key staff

    —  trade union recognition (surely appropriate in a company wholly geared to coverage of a democratic body such as the Assembly)

    —  fair terms and conditions for the workforce arrived at through collective bargaining.

  13.  We believe that trade union recognition, far from a "burden", can be a strong asset to any such company. BECTU and other trade unions in the sector have detailed expertise in the area of training and skill development, and close links with a variety of training bodies. Coverage of the Assembly is likely to require to some degree a different and multi-skilled approach to the general run of broadcasting. Trade union expertise in this area can make a vital contribution.

  14.  On the scope of television coverage of the Assembly, we believe that an approach based on maximum accessibility (e.g. regular highlight coverage available on free-to-air analogue television and radio) would be preferable to (perhaps more extensive) coverage available only on digital outlets.


  15.  Reception of Assembly coverage should surely, if the Assembly's credentials as a democratic body are to be meaningful, be available to all of the people of Wales.

  16.  Implicit in the Committee's questions on this issue is the recognition that significant pockets of the Welsh population (eg in NE Wales and in SE Wales) cannot currently receive Welsh broadcasting output. A variety of technical solutions may be possible—including filler transmission stations and cable. The mere introduction of digital broadcasting, nor the use of satellite do not, however, resolve the technical problems.

  17.  Whatever the potential technical solutions, there is certainly a financial cost attached. We believe this should be borne by the broadcasters (possibly through a consortium—as in the televising of Parliament, and with rights to use material in news and current affairs coverage). It would be entirely inappropriate for viewers to have to pay (through subscription or purchase of equipment) for access to coverage of their Assembly.


  18.  We have attempted to address all of the issues raised by the Committee, but inevitably with a particular focus on our areas of priority. If there is a single point of emphasis we wish to make, we restate our prime concern to see the Assembly taking on a role of ensuring accountability by broadcasters in Wales to the people of Wales. In keeping with current political trends towards devolution and closer democratic accountability and away from a discredited quango-culture, we believe the Assembly now has the opportunity to lead and inform public debate in Wales on the nation's broadcasting sector.

Roger Bolton

General Secretary

1 October 1998


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