Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report


3.  Memorandum submitted by the National Union of Journalists

  The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) welcomes this enquiry into Broadcasting in Wales, coming, as it does, on the brink of a new era in the political history of Wales, as we look forward to the first elections to the National Assembly. The NUJ believes this a crucial period of change not just for politicians, but also for journalists, as the broadcasting companies, and their workers, views and listener, embrace new technologies.

  It was clear from the referendum result, not only that there were deep divisions in Wales about the Assembly, and whether it was needed, but indeed a high level of either disinterest or apathy over the whole decision. Now that the Assembly is to come into being, its clear broadcasters have a pivotal role in informing the public about Assembly proceedings, and in assisting its members in their efforts to be publicly accountable for their actions.

  This is particularly true in Wales, where apart from the "Western Mail", with its limited readership, there are very few column inches devoted to Welsh National life in major newspapers. As members of the Committee will be all too aware, there are no welsh editions of UK papers, and scant coverage of welsh affairs in the London based broad-sheets or tabloids. Therefore there is a special onus on broadcasters in Wales to provide a public service in terms of their coverage of all aspects of life in the country, and every area where the Assembly will have a remit, including of course, politics.

  Yet current trends in Broadcasting pose a threat to the idea of national or regional identity. Ownership of the ITV companies is being increasingly concentrated in a few large conglomerates. HTV is now owned and run by London based United News and Media, who also own Meridian and Anglia. Ironically HTV is the only broadcaster with a legal obligation to reflect a National Regional identity, but with ownership now outside Wales, that commitment could be weakened on franchise renewal. BBC Wales relies for its income on money provided by the central BBC "topped up" with any extra income won by selling commissions for network TV or radio programmes. While there is no doubting BBC Wales efforts to sell ideas to network in recent years, and the BBC's own declared intention to have proportionality; we have yet to see large sums making their way down the M4, BBC Wales is facing a 5 per cent cut in its income next year, on top of a 4 per cent cut this year, when the licence fee has actually increased by more than the RPI. S4C, Wales' other Public Service Broadcaster, is about to undergo a dramatic increase in its broadcasting hours as it begins transmission on its digital channels. However, the NUJ shares the concerns of the other media unions in Wales that more will be less, certainly in terms of programme quality.

  The advent of digital broadcasting has been welcomed by the companies. According to them the viewer can only benefit from the increased choice these services will bring. Yet in reality, digital transmissions will be available to very few people for quite some time to come. More worryingly, there is to be a massive expansion in programme hours without a corresponding increase in resources. Journalists and other broadcast workers have already had to adapt immensely to new working practices and limited programme money. The NUJ fears the advent of digital will mean a declining standard of programme, not just on those channels, but more alarmingly on the traditional analogue channels also. More is not always better.

  We live in an age where audience figures are becoming more of a priority even, in some cases, than quality of programmes. This is true in radio, just as much as television. Wales has only two National Radio stations, both run by the BBC. The schedules of both Radio Cymru and Radio Wales are being changed by their respective Commissioning Editors to appeal to a younger audience, with more music orientated programmes predominating. The NUJ is concerned that Commissioners may feel that their efforts to attract a larger, younger audience might not sit happily with the kind of extensive news and current affairs and factual coverage the union believes that the Assembly will warrant.

  In television terms the BBC in London is considering altering its output in news. The NUJ believes any attempt by the BBC to incorporate "Wales Today" within a revamped, lighter "Six O' Clock News" will be disastrous for BBC Wales, and do a grave disservice to the viewing public. And on ITV, news scheduling is still under discussion and it remains unclear what impact any change will have on the Regional News at 6.30 and 10.30.

  The NUJ welcomes BBC Wales' plan to expand its operation to cover the National Assembly, but since those plans have not been formally shared with the union in any detail it is hard to know how they will work in practice. The union believes that any increase in output from Cardiff and around Wales should not be at any great expense to BBC Wales' operation at Westminster, particularly since the Assembly will have powers of secondary rather than primary legislation. The past few months have seen changes to the coverage at Westminster of the English regions, changes the union feels have been to the detriment, not only of the viewers in those areas, but also to Westminster itself.

  The NUJ is concerned that not all viewers in Wales can receive transmissions from Welsh Broadcasters in radio as well as television. This is obviously an area of crucial importance for the assembly, if people are to be informed of its deliberations and decisions, and if the Assembly is to take its place at the centre of National life. Yet the union does not believe that improvements to the transmitter system should be paid for out of programme cash, which is already stretched to the limit. For this reason the union also believes that it should be government and not the broadcasters, which pays a significant share of the start up costs of Assembly coverage. The infrastructure will then be owned by the Assembly, giving it a say it may not otherwise have in the future of broadcasting in Wales. Moreover, if the Broadcasters have to bear this cost, there will be more savings in programme cash, more redundancies, and a greater strain on the workers who remain behind; once again the quality of output will be under threat.

  As we have already stated, the NUJ is concerned that the increase in programme hours created by digital has not been, and will not ever be, matched by an increase in programme resources. It is particularly worrying that with a level income, the only way these new channels can be financed is out of existing programme money, thus threatening quality across the output. Nonetheless digital is with us and journalists have always accepted the inevitability of technological change. The union can see possibilities, if the extra channels are used in the right way, of giving the National Assembly considerable coverage. But it is also essential that the Institution is given adequate time on the traditional analogue channels, which can be received by a significant number of viewers. These programmes should be scheduled at times when they are accessible to large numbers of people. The Broadcasters, and their workers have a duty to provide programming which is interesting enough to both inform and entertain the viewers.

  The NUJ believes the Assembly should also have a role in scrutinising broadcasting in Wales alongside the other four "London" Ministries responsible at present. The broadcasters must, of course, retain their editorial independence, but the appointment of the BBC's National Governor, and the Chair of S4C, should be transparent and under the remit of a committee of Assembly. The Assembly must also surely have a role in the decision making process which accompanies the tendering for franchises in the ITV sector. Only then can it be assured that the broadcaster which wins the franchise for Wales will be obligated to provide indigenous programmes of the highest quality.

CONCLUSION

  The coming of the National Assembly represents potentially the biggest extensions of democracy in Wales since Universal Suffrage earlier this century. But extensions to democracy depend on a better-informed society. Obviously in Wales the broadcasters have a large role to play, alongside their duty to represent the new Wales to itself, with an increased self-confidence based on a greater sense of identity. Unfortunately however this opportunity is coming at a time when across the board there is an increase in output matched by a decrease in resources. Members of the Committee should be under no illusion that the extra channels will have a mass audience, certainly for the next few years; or a standard of output that matches that currently provided by the BBC, S4C or HTV.

  Members of the NUJ in Wales look forward to working with the new Assembly, covering and scrutinising its proceedings. We hope the elected members will realise the increasing pressure all workers in the broadcasting industry face on a day to day basis. Quantity must not be provided at the expense of quality.

Julie Barton

NEC Member, Wales

2 October 1998





 
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