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
2. We attach a Report produced by BECTU
earlier this year on The Assembly and its Implications for Broadcasting.
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
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
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
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 broadcastingwith 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
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 andwith
potential conflicts of interestUnited 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 availableleading 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 possibleincluding 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 consortiumas
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.
1 October 1998
1 See Annex page 74.THE ROLE OF THE ASSEMBLY IN RELATION
TO BROADCASTING IN WALES Back