Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report


Annex

THE WELSH ASSEMBLY AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR BROADCASTING

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The establishment of the Welsh Assembly is a measure supported without qualification by BECTU. The specific implications of the Assembly for broadcasting are as yet less clear but are already the subject of an emerging debate within our sector. It is an appropriate time for the union to take at least an initial view on some of the relevant issues—with the immediate qualification that we are currently at the start rather than the end of what will be an unfolding debate. This position paper looks first at the specific role of the Assembly itself and then at the development of the major broadcasting organisations in Wales. Any policy positions we take now should be subject to continuing scrutiny and review.

THE ROLE OF THE ASSEMBLY IN RELATION TO BROADCASTING

  2.  The Welsh Assembly (National Assembly for Wales) will be fully functioning following the first Assembly elections in May 1999. It will be able to pass secondary but not primary legislation. It will have no separate fund-raising powers, but will control a government bloc grant of approximately £7b.

  3.  Under the current proposals, broadcasting remains a reserved subject ie a sector which will remain under direct control by central government (via the Department of Culture, Media and Sport—DCMS). Of those areas in which the Assembly will have a specific remit, the one closest to but not encompassing broadcasting is that of the arts, culture and the Welsh language.

  4.  A recent announcement has made it clear that the Assembly will operate through a "cabinet-style" administration ie departments headed by elected Assembly members who would collectively form an executive council. It had earlier been thought that the model would be closer to that of local authorities, with departments governed by committees of elected members rather than individual "cabinet-members".

  5.  It is still anticipated that the Assembly will have committee or working groups monitoring particular areas. However, there are apparently no current plans for a specific broadcasting committee, and it is possible that the sector would be included within the scope of a committee with a broader remit for culture and the arts.

  6.  The only formal role currently anticipated for the Assembly in relation to broadcasting is to replace the Welsh Office/DCMS roles in the appointment of the BBC National Governor for Wales and S4C Board members ie the Assembly would be consulted and in effect would be able to nominate new appointees.

  7.  What view should BECTU take on the Assembly's role in relation to broadcasting? This cannot be discussed in isolation from specific organisational questions (eg whether to preserve a unitary BBC), and these are addressed below. However, it is possible to adopt some broad principles in relation to the Assembly:

    (a)  Realistically it is not within our power to influence or amend the basic constitutional framework (eg no power of primary legislation). We should therefore accept this for at least the short and medium term.

    (b)  Within this framework, and subject to our policy stand in relevant areas (eg no break-up of the BBC), we should press for the fullest possible strategic consideration of broadcasting by the Assembly through:

  —  a standing committee or working group with a specific remit to consider broadcasting and media issues. When official proposals emerge for the structure and remit of Assembly committees, we should seek to argue for a sufficient priority for media issues (specifically including broadcasting and film) within any given remit (and if necessary a break-up and rearrangement of that remit).

  —  the right of industry organisations such as BECTU and the FEU (Federation of Entertainment Unions) to suggest subject areas for inquiry by the relevant Assembly committee; to given written and verbal evidence to such inquiries; to suggest expert co-optees or advisers where appropriate for such inquiries.

  —  the right of the Assembly to nominate for and/or scrutinise key broadcasting appointments in Wales.

  —  the right of the Assembly to receive reports from all key broadcasting bodies (certainly BBC Wales, ITC Wales, S4C) on at least an annual basis; to debate such reports; and to question representatives of those bodies on their reports.

  8.  In parallel to whatever activity the Assembly eventually undertakes (or fails to undertake) in relation to our sector, it will be useful if BECTU and/or the FEU gives systematic consideration to such developments through periodic and scheduled reports and discussions. Our effectiveness will be maximised not by forming initial views in the abstract and sticking to them blindly but by an informed and evolving process of policy development which matches the development of the Assembly itself.

BBC

  9.  The BBC has a Broadcasting Council for Wales (BCW), whose Chair, as the National Governor for Wales, sits on the BBC Board of Governors. However, all major policy decisions and key appointments (eg Controller of BBC Wales and Welsh Board of Management) are taken corporately through the Governors (overseeing the corporate Board of Management), reporting to Parliament and Government. There is no separate structure of policy making and accountability in Wales.

  10.  The BCW is itself currently selected from among "the great and the good" by a selecting panel of the BBC's General Advisory Council and is ultimately subject to the Board of Governors approval.

  11.  BBC Wales is of considerable significance for the Welsh economy. A recent report by the Welsh Economy Research Unit of Cardiff Business School indicated a direct impact of approximately £70m turnover and 1000 jobs and a total direct and indirect economic impact (ie accounting for commissions and outside spending) of £140 turnover and 2,500 jobs. Not all of this would fall within BECTU's area of interest and we might debate specific figures but this places the BBC within Wales's top 40 businesses. There is therefore every reason for the Assembly to take a specific interest and to require greater and more direct accountability for the activities of BBC Wales.

Devolution and Greater Accountability

  12.  Some specific devolutionary policy options are listed below. These are close to those initially developed in the BECTU Research report to the NEC on the Scottish Parliament (subsequently reproduced, with additional material, in Stage, Screen and Radio, and applied to Wales in the "Media Working Party—Internal Discussion Document").

    —  A strengthened BCW (or an equivalent new body) with delegated powers on BBC Wales policy matters/BBC strategy in Wales and a direct dialogue with the BBC corporately on the resources needed to implement this (including the issue of whether the BBC's Welsh language commitments mean that other programming will suffer without additional resources).

    —  The BCW to report to the Assembly (or the relevant Committee of the Assembly).

    —  Appointments (either the entire BCW or the post of Chair) to be subject to nomination and/or scrutiny by the Assembly.

    —  The key executive post of Controller to be subject to scrutiny by the Assembly.

    —  The composition of the BCW to be structured—formally or informally—on a representative basis taking account, for example, of political parties, key interest groups (including trade unions), gender, race, language groups).

    —  Greater news and current affairs coverage of Welsh affairs (including the Assembly) by BBC Wales.

Separation

  13.  An alternative to these devolutionary options is that of the full-scale separation of the BBC's operations in Wales and the establishment of a Welsh Broadcasting Corporation funded by Welsh licence fee revenue (possibly with a proportion of other income eg from BBC Worldwide).

  14.  BECTU has been and remains wholly opposed to any measures contributing to the break up of the BBC as a unitary public service organisation. Unless this policy is changed, we would be as opposed to a separate Welsh Broadcasting Corporation as we are to a hived off or privatised BBC Resources Ltd.

  15.  The difficult questions which proponents of separation would have to answer include:

    —  Would a "WBC" be forced to duplicate current BBC operations, with a loss of economies of scale on both sides?

    —  Would a WBC be forced to buy in programming (from the BBC) and transmission services (from CTI on a separate basis to any current BBC deal) on a basis which would endanger its viability? Proponents of separation would need to provide comprehensive and accessible cost/benefit figures which have not so far been forthcoming.

    —  What would the impact be on the remaining BBC organisation—both in terms of jobs and in the BBC's current role as a major force for public service broadcasting?

  16.  There seems no reason to alter BECTU's current policy position of root and branch opposition to the break-up of the BBC

COMMERCIAL BROADCASTING

The Current Regulatory Structure

  17.  Commercial broadcasting in Wales ie analogue and digital terrestrial, satellite and cable is—with the exception of S4C—regulated by the ITC (and, of course, the Radio Authority). The ITC is accountable to the DCMS, with no separate accountability in Wales. Commission members are appointed by DCMS and all senior staff are appointed by the ITC corporately.

  18.  A previous anomaly has been corrected in that there is now a Director of the Regions and Public Affairs with a seat on the ITC Management Board. However, this post covers not just Wales but Scotland, Northern Ireland and the English regions. There is no direct representation of ITC Wales on the Management Board.

  19.  ITC Wales has no separate policy making powers. It selects members of the Viewers Consultative Council, which acts as a sounding board on programming issues.

Devolved or Separate Regulation?

  20.  One option would be to devolve more power within a still unitary ITC structure. This could include direct representation for Wales on the ITC Board of Management and more influence in local licensing and monitoring.

  21.  A further step would be the separation of ITC Wales from the ITC in order to operate on a parallel basis, but within the overall framework set by primary legislation (ie the Broadcasting Act etc). This would not have the same serious implications as the break-up of the BBC, since the ITC remains purely and simply a regulator rather than a broadcaster. Nonetheless, there would be inevitable difficulties in respect of duplication of duties and the financing of the operation. Creating a wholly separate Welsh ITC could increase the cost of regulation in Wales and could therefore potentially increase the fees charged to Welsh licence holders. As with the BBC, the cost/benefit figures on, for example, HTV's financial relationship to the ITV Network simply do not as yet exist in comprehensive and publicly accessibly form.

  22.  A more fruitful approach might be to focus on the role of the Assembly as a focus for accountability. From this viewpoint, if the Assembly worked effectively in this area, it could remove any need for a wholly separate ITC Wales.

  23.  The role of the Assembly in relation to the ITC could encompass:

    —  Receiving an annual report—both written and verbal—on ITC activities in Wales.

    —  Scrutinising the appointment of a Commissioner for Wales and of key executives posts in ITC Wales.

    —  The right to initiate independent inquiries and take evidence on issues within the ITC's area of operation.

HTV

  24.  A striking difference within ITV is that whereas the franchise holders in Scotland are (with the exception of Border) owned and controlled from within Scotland, this is clearly not the case in Wales, where we have a very well-established single franchise-holder that is now owned and controlled by a conglomerate (United News and Media) based outside Wales.

  25.  The Assembly has no powers to alter commercial ownership patterns. With sufficient focus on broadcasting issues it could, however, play a role in holding HTV to as devolved a Welsh identity and programme-making remit as possible:

    —  by taking evidence directly from HTV on its activities in Wales;

    —  by publicly examining any proposals for a weakening of local franchise obligations;

    —  by encouraging (through ITC Wales and HTV directly) increased local news and current affairs coverage, not least of the activities of the Assembly itself.

S4C/Independent Production

  26.  S4C is a broadcaster in its own right and falls outside the regulatory scope of the ITC—with the Chair and Board members appointed directly by DCMS. Funding is by central government grant in aid based on 3.2 per cent of net TV advertising revenue (£75m for 1998), supplemented by S4C's own advertising and other commercial activity. Channel 4 is, of course, not available on an analogue basis in Wales (outside of transmission overlap areas), although C4 programming is provided by S4C outside of peak hours.

  27.  Through its wholly owned subsidiary S4C Digital Networks (SDN), S4C has won a licence to operate one of the new multiplexes for digital terrestrial broadcasting (to be shared with C5). While the company's enterprise is forging a role for itself in the future technology for terrestrial broadcasting is to be welcomed, there are serious concerns that without additional funding, the proposed additional digital hours will place undue strain on S4C's ability to continue undertaking its existing PSB responsibilities ie will future digital expansion be at the expense of the existing jobs base (in the independent sector servicing S4C) and existing programme range and quality? Despite wide agreement on the nature of the problem there is as yet—despite the floating of proposals such as a levy for Welsh PSB—no broad consensus on a solution.

  28.  As with the other major broadcasters/regulators in Wales, the Assembly could take on a role of requiring local accountability and focusing debate through:

    —  Receiving an annual report, written and verbal, on S4C activities.

    —  Nominating and/or scrutinising the appointment of the S4C Chair and Board members.

    —  Initiating independent inquiries and taking evidence on relevant issues.

  29.  However, devolving grant-making powers in relation to S4C from central government to the Assembly would not necessarily be helpful—even if it were constitutionally feasible. Unless this was ring-fenced there would be a real danger of competing demands from other, perhaps socially more pressing areas such as education, housing and health. If it were ring-fenced, then in the absence of additional tax raising powers (not available in the foreseeable future), the Assembly would seem to be left as a funding channel, but with no meaningful additional power.

  30.  The Assembly should be encouraged to build an awareness of and a concern for the independent production sector in Wales, and obviously not just in relation to S4C.

  31.  We would therefore argue for the Assembly, through the relevant Committee, to hear representations from representative bodies within the sector and to initiate inquiries and take evidence on relevant issues.

CONCLUSION

  32.  The above discussion encompasses some of the main issues arising from the establishment of the Welsh Assembly and suggest some initial views which BECTU might take on the role of the Assembly and on the development of the principal Welsh broadcasting organisations. We should regard this as a starting position which is itself open to review and reconsideration as the debate unfolds and as the Assembly actually develops.

March 1998





 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 11 May 1999