Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report


18.  Memorandum submitted by Mr Geoff Mungham and Mr Kevin Williams, Senior Lecturers

THE MEDIA AND THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY

INTRODUCTION

  The success of the Assembly in changing political life in Wales depends on broad based support from the people of Wales and the mass media will play a vital role in building that support. The process of political change will, of course, turn upon the impact the Assembly has on Welsh life in all its aspects. Yet the Assembly has still to excite the popular imagination in Wales. The referendum campaign failed to stir half the nation into even bothering to vote. Events since September 1997 (eg The damaging wrangle over the siting of the Assembly) have hardly served to raise the level of public enthusiasm for the "project". How the media chose to cover the work of the assembly will, to a large extent determine the profile of the new body and popular perceptions of it. At the same time, the Assembly's effectiveness will depend, in part on how well it manages to communicate with the electorate.

  Ours is a culture of change. The Assembly is part of a wider process of "redefining" our political culture. At the same time there are other forces at work (commercial and technological) which will not only act to reshape the media in Wales, but also affect the Assembly. Take, for example, the speed and impact of technological innovations. These include the start-up of digital broadcasting, the spread of cable and satellite systems in Wales and the opportunities presented by the Internet and other forms of interactive media. Properly used, the new technologies could determine not only ways in which the Assembly is covered, operates and delivers its services, but affect those services themselves. The potential for job creation, inward investment and innovation in service provision—which can ride on the back of these new technologies—are highly relevant to the work of the Assembly, especially in the areas of economic development, education and skills training. The same technology also offers the prospect of linking the assembly to its various constituencies in new and imaginative ways. For the media in Wales, the new technologies provide both opportunities and problems some of which (as we suggest below) the Assembly should become involved with.

THE STATE WE'RE IN

  Before we consider the relationship between the media and the Assembly, it might be helpful to provide a brief guide to the media "map" of Wales. A few words about the history of the Welsh media should preface these points. Perhaps the most significant feature of the history of the Welsh media has been their failure to establish themselves as national entities. This failure has led Tunstall to state that the "Welsh media are much less Welsh than the Scottish media are Scottish" (Tunstall, 1983, p 228). The lack of a national media in Wales can be seen as a factor in the outcome of the 1997 Referendum. Much of the information people gained about a Welsh Assembly came from media sources based outside of Wales, and the vote against the Assembly was strongest in those areas where the presence of Welsh newspapers and television was weakest, mainly along the borders with England, the North East of Wales and in Cardiff and the surrounding area. The contrast in media consumption patterns between Wales and Scotland has been highlighted to account for the difference in the outcome of the vote in the two countries. Only 10 per cent of Scots buy daily morning newspapers produced outside of their country, while nearly 87 per cent of people in Wales buy daily morning papers not produced in Wales. For broadcasting (radio and television) it is estimated that 35 per cent of the population of Wales live in areas which overlap with English transmitters, whereas only 2.5 per cent of Scots live in overlap areas. The lack of a highly developed Welsh media system has political consequences for Wales.

  Since the early 1980's there has been a rapid growth in the media industries in Wales. This growth has been led by the broadcasting institutions. The first development was the decision, in 1977, to split BBC radio in Wales into two channels, broadcasting in Welsh and in English. This division set the pattern for broadcasting in the 1980's. The most significant step forward was the setting up of Sianal Pedwar Cymru (S4C) in 1982. Both Radio Cymru and S4C treat Wales as a distinct political constituency. This is done by providing Welsh speakers with a Welsh perspective on national and international affairs through current affairs programmes such as Y Byd ar Bedwar and Taro Naw, as well as feature programmes and dramas representing popular culture and life in Wales. The success of Welsh language broadcasting has led to calls for the development of a similar service for English language speakers in Wales. Overall, Welsh television broadcasts around 88 hours a week of programmes specifically made for Wales, but only just over 25 per cent are English language. There is only around 22 hours of television every week for English speakers in Wales, who make up four-fifths of the population. The creation of an English language service for Wales would consolidate the efforts to provide an all-Welsh perspective for English speakers and would confirm the developments which have taken place since the early 1980's which are leading to the emergence, for the first time, of a distinct national media system.

  What follows is a sketch of some of the salient features of the media in Wales, such as ownership, markets, audiences and regulatory mechanisms. There is no space to set out a comprehensive review and we also need to remember the media form a dynamic sector where today's arrangements are liable to sudden change, especially in the fields of ownership, technical innovation and regulation.

Media Regulation

  The issue of regulation is not confined to Wales. One of the issues facing the Assembly is where the Assembly might have regulatory powers, where it might have influence and how sensible would it be to try and exercise either.

  The principal regulatory body for the press in Wales (as elsewhere in the UK) is the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Established in 1991, the PCC is a self-regulatory body, which has drafted its own "Code of Conduct" governing the conduct and content of newspapers and magazines. Concern about the effectiveness of the PCC as an "enforcer" led to the PCC announcing a series of reforms to strengthen press self-regulation in 1993. These included making non-press members a majority on the Commission, tightening up the Code and setting up a hot-line to aid members of the public in making a complaint. Despite these changes the PCC has come in for some criticism as being an ineffective regulator. Nevertheless, there is little appetite among politicians (and probably none among editors and journalists) for any statutory regulation of the press. In addition to the PCC, a handful of newspapers have appointed Ombudsmen to deal with readers' grievances, while the Advertising Standards Authority—another self-regulatory body—deals with complaints about newspaper and magazine advertisements.

  Unlike the press, broadcasting in Britain is heavily regulated by a myriad of statutory bodies. These include the Broadcasting Standards Commission (BSC), the only organisation within the regulatory framework to cover all radio and television. The BSC's three main tasks—as laid down in the 1996 Broadcasting Act—are: to produce codes of practice on "standards" and "fairness"; adjudicate on complaints; and monitor and report on standards and fairness in broadcasting.

  The Radio Authority (RA) oversees all non-BBC radio services and licences and regulates all independent radio services, national, cable, satellite and restricted services (the latter includes short-term, special event radio and highly localised permanent services, like hospital radio). The RA is responsible for monitoring the performances of licensees and to regulate programming and advertising, with the power to apply sanctions to rule-breakers. RA Board members are appointed by the Department of State for Culture, Media and Sport and its operating costs are met by annual fees paid by licence holders.

  Commercially funded television services in and from the UK are licensed and funded by the Independent Television Commission (ITC). Its "Programme Code" aims to ensure "quality and diversity" in programme content and the ITC publishes an annual review commenting on the performance of its licensees. The terms of HTV's licence includes a commitment to producing a minimum number of hours of programming specifically for Wales. The ITC has a Regional Office in Wales (Cardiff) and a Viewers' consultative Council for Wales (whose role is purely advisory). The ITC works with other regulatory bodies when considering licence applications. For example, bids are assessed for "technical acceptability" in conjunction with the Office of Telecommunications (OFTEL) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Part of the ITC's remit is to identify areas for new local delivery services and to advertise and assess franchise bids. Its income derives mainly form fees paid by licensees, while Commission members are government appointees. Recently the ITC was given responsibility to establish Digital Terrestrial Television, which will carry services provided by the BBC, HTV, and S4C.

  The BBC—as a public service broadcaster—operates under Royal Charter; the current Charter, awarded in 1996 runs for ten years. Broad policy guidelines are laid down by the Board of Governors (appointed by government) with day-to-day decisions taken by the Board of Management. The Governors' responsibility for programmes is shared in Wales, with the Broadcasting Council for Wales, which advises the Board on programmes and services.

  S4C is accountable to the seven member S4C Authority who monitor management and programme policy. Authority members are central government appointees and funding comes from a government block grant. Attempts to get viewer feedback on S4C output include doing audience research, running a "Viewers Hotline" and holding public meetings at various locations around Wales.

  There is also an important European dimension to consider in all this. The issue of broadcast regulation has exercised the European Commission (EC) and its thinking clearly has implications for all aspects of UK broadcasting. The EC's 1984 Green Paper (which became a Directive in 1989), "Television Without Frontiers", examined the idea of creating a single market for broadcasting by trying to "sweep away the national regulatory obstacles" to a free market for the circulation of television services within the EU. This idea brought into conflict two sets of interests. The lobby in favour of deregulation, backed by key figures in the European advertising industry and the Association for Commercial Broadcasters. The other included the established broadcasters (joined in the European Broadcasting Union) who, while favouring an "integrated European broadcasting zone" argued for regulation to protect public service broadcasting. The Directive represented a victory for the deregulators and sets a course which seems unlikely to change. As the 1997 EU green Paper of "Media Convergence" puts it: "The global nature of communications and the difficulty of exercising control within a given Member State are leading to solutions which draw on self-regulatory practices by industry, rather than by formal regulation".

  There is relatively little the Assembly can do (even if it were so minded) to alter these regulatory structures. Instead the structures themselves may well crack under the weight of increasingly powerful national and trans-national commercial forces in the broadcast market, towards more "deregulation" and away from forms of public accountability. The only options open to the Assembly in this field might be: breaking up those quangos responsible for broadcasting in Wales (like the Broadcasting council and the ITC in Wales) and replace them with more genuinely accountable and regulatory bodies; pushing for a say in the appointments of key figures in the public service media; and working with the Media Division of the government Relations Unit (a specialist source of advice and assistance to media industries about how best to lobby decision-makers in Westminster, Whitehall and Brussels). Other ways in which the Assembly could possibly support the broadcasting culture in Wales are discussed in the final section of this paper.

Ownership, Markets and Audiences

  The press in Wales has three distinct features. Not much of it is locally owned; recent years have seen what has been described as "fairly dramatic concentration of ownership" (as elsewhere in the UK); and much of the press read in Wales is London produced and written.

  Local ownership is mainly confined to North Wales Newspapers (whose holdings include the Wrexham Evening Leader and a clutch of paid and free weeklies), The County Press, Cambrian News and some small circulation Welsh language papers. While their combined market share is modest, they are important to and widely read in their localities (as are other local papers in Wales).

  The concentration of ownership has been marked by the 1995 take-over of the Western Mail and Echo by Trinity International (now Trinity plc.) Trinity (Cheshire based), the largest owner of regional newspapers in the UK, also owns the Daily Post, Wales on Sunday and 26 other titles in Wales (which include paid and free weeklies covering various localities mainly in south Wales and along the north Wales coast). Another major owner is Southern Newspapers, whose ownership includes the South Wales Argus and around a dozen weeklies operating largely in south and west Wales. Smaller "stables" of titles are run by Tindle Newspapers (mainly in south and west Wales), the Bailey Newspaper Group (based in south-east Wales) and the Northcliffe Newspapers Group, mainly covering Swansea and west Wales. Southern are based in Hampshire (and expanded their holdings in Wales when it bought the Welsh interests of United Provincial Newspapers in 1996), Tindle in Surrey, Bailey in Gloucestershire, while Northcliffe is a provincial newspaper group of the Daily Mail & General Trust, one of the top UK media owners.

  Outside of these groupings are a number of Welsh language publications. These include the weeklies Y Cymro and Golwg (the latter depending on public subsidy) and the Papurau Bro. There are around 50 of these monthly, community newspapers, with a combined circulation of about 50,000. Part subsidised by the Welsh Language Board, they exchange information and news and play an important role in helping maintain the Welsh language.

  The London based press has a significant presence in Wales and enjoys sales figures not matched by any of the press produced in Wales. For example, of the morning dailies, The Sun has the highest household penetration in Wales (22.5 per cent), The Mirror (12.5 per cent) and The Daily Mail (10 per cent). By comparison, The Western Mail and the Daily Post—which claim, respectively, to be "the National Newspaper of Wales" and "the Paper for Wales"—have only 6 per cent. London press "penetration" is even more marked on Sundays, when their only competitor is Wales on Sunday with a circulation of about 65,000. Overall, it has been calculated that less than 15 per cent of the newspapers sold in Wales are produced in Wales (Mackay and Powell, 1996, p 15).

  The coming of the Assembly presents something of a challenge to the press produced in Wales and we discuss later their responses and the (admittedly limited) says in which the Assembly might help sustain a diverse print media in Wales. Arguably a much bigger issue is how to attract interest in the Assembly from the London press and it is by no means certain they will be prepared to offer regular and systematic coverage.

  Welsh television and radio—but especially television—face a number of challenges. The three national broadcasters (BBC, HTV, S4C) operate in an increasingly competitive market place. Competition from cable and satellite systems will intensify as broadcasting moves into a new digital age. Before looking at these developments and their implications, it`s worth outlining the present state of Welsh broadcasting.

  BBC Wales, HTV and S4C have often been seen as having a "cultural mission"; existing not only to provide information and entertainment, but also to help develop a Welsh "identity" (cf Talfan Davies, 1996: Williams, 1997). The BBC Wales Controller has declared that a BBC Wales programmes should be dominated by that which is significant to the lives of the people of Wales''(Talfan Davies, 1992). HTV, in its fight to retain its franchise in 1991 claimed, in the words of its then Director of Television, that the purpose of the company was "the reinforcement of our identity", while the "missionary" role of S4C in promoting Welsh language broadcasting is well known.

  HTV is required to provide a distinct regional programming service for Wales. The 1996 ITC Annual Report showed HTV broadcasting an average of nearly 12 hours of regional programmes each week, an hour above the licence requirement. S4C broadcasts around 33 hours a week of Welsh language broadcasting. 10 hours a week are provided free of charge by BBC Wales (an obligation set down in the 1990 Broadcasting Act), with the rest coming from independent producers, including HTV. In effect this represents a rescheduling of Channel 4's programmes, underlining S4C's role as a commissioning broadcaster, not a programme producer. BBC Wales produces around 530 hours a year of English language programmes made specifically for Wales (mostly news, current affairs and sport). The BBC's radio arms in Wales, Radio Cymru and Radio Wales broadcast about 100 hours a week each. The former is listened to at some time during the week by about half of the adult Welsh speaking population, while the latter has a regular audience of 400,000, around 17 per cent of those in the transmission area (Mackay and Powell, opcit, p 17)

  BBC radio and Welsh television face a common problem; the knowledge that many potential viewers/listeners are tuned into English transmitters. 35 per cent of the population can access television programmes coming from England. It has been estimated that 55 per cent of households in the Vale of Glamorgan tune their aerials to HTV West rather than HTV Wales. In Cardiff the figure is 57 per cent and Newport 46 per cent. In North Wales HTV is challenged by Granada. The problem is not just one of "refuseniks" (who make a conscious decision to reject Welsh TV), but also those who may not be aware they can pick up Welsh services and those who cannot do so (cf Williams, 1997, pps 29-30). This is a problem for the Assembly, as well as the broadcasters. In its 1997-98 Annual Report, the Broadcasting Council for Wales commented: "With the coming of the Assembly, no part of the Welsh population should be deterred from getting news and information services tailored to Wales' own situation".

  If the audience is a problem, so too are the finances of Welsh television. The BBC is dependent on the licence fee as its main revenue source, but is under pressure to increase its funding from commercial ventures. The more the BBC is pushed down this path, the more opposition is likely to grow against the retention of the licence system. When the BBC Wales Controller wrote recently about "the financial walls . . . closing in" he was simply acknowledging the pressures on BBC finance (Talfan Davies, 1996). S4C, until this year funded by a percentage of net advertising revenue from ITV, which generally provided an expanding income base, has now moved to a static one under the terms of the 1996 Broadcasting Act. HTV's problems stem from the burden of having to pay the Treasury £23.5 million every year to operate its franchise, a figure it is trying to get reduced.

  New media technology will alter the contours of Welsh broadcasting, though in ways as yet far from clear. Probably the biggest challenge is posed by the new digital technology. What, then, does the digital age promise? Digital television services can be sent from terrestrial transmitters and by cable and satellite. To receive services, viewers need either a new digital set, or a decoder for their existing sets. The digital system, through "compression", allows many more channels to be squeezed into the same frequency space as one channel on today's analogue signal and will give better reception. Since digital technology economises on the use of frequencies, services can be "bundled" and transmitted together on one frequency, leaving the digital receiver to "unbundle" them into the different services. These bundles are called "multiplexes". Radio will have seven of these; one allocated to the BBC, the rest to commercial broadcasters. Television will have six multiplexes. The BBC has been given one; S4C—as S4C Digital Networks Ltd (SDN)—has been licensed to operate another, in partnership with United News and Media (owners of HTV) a cable company NTL (which operates in south Wales as NTL-Cable-Tel). SDN is obliged to broadcast S4C and Channel 5 in digital format, but is free to use its remaining capacity for new programming. SDN is currently in talks with satellite providers, as well as planning to market its programming in conjunction with Ondigital, a terrestrial pay-TV group owned by Carlton Communications and Granada. Another multiplex will be shared by ITV—which includes HTV—and Channel 4.

  There is certainly no shortage of hyperbole surrounding the impending "digital revolution". Typical is S4C's prospectus on the digital age: "hundreds of new channels will be available. Large, wide screens will deliver a cinematic experience in the home . . . increasingly television will be used in conjunction with the telephone and the PC to enable the viewer to interact with the programme provider . . ." (S4C, 1997, p 3). But as history shows, new media technologies do not always bring the kind of change the pundits have envisaged.

  For example, S4C's plans to fill the space on its multiplex by forging links with commercial operators could compromise its cultural mission. As the BBC has discovered, partnerships between a public service broadcaster (like S4C) and a commercial enterprise, raises the controversial issue of how to avoid cross-subsidy from public funds. Digital technology may also split the broadcast audience in Wales, between those who can access the digital world and those who cannot. It is likely that only some transmitters in Wales will be able to carry the digital system, at least in the beginning. Because of the "brute facts" of geography, Wales has more transmitters than any other UK region, meaning greater costs in putting a digital transmitter on every mast. Even if some of the gaps can be filled by satellite digital service delivery, there will still be a large minority (as much as 35 per cent by some calculations: cf Mackay and Powell: and Williams, op cit) stuck as analogue only users, either through no links being available, or because they cannot afford the cost of the new technology.

  There is also the important point about the future of English language programming made specifically for a Welsh audience. How the resources are going to be found to expand English language provision to something like that in Welsh through S4C, will require closer collaboration between Welsh broadcasters. On the face of it, it does not seem particularly cost-effective or sensible for S4C to be planning to increase its English language broadcasting, while the BBC and HTV struggle to find the funding to expand their own English language output.

  Finally, we need to recognise that in a digitally driven, multiple channel universe, "finding" Wales will be that much more difficult, in a world where the consumer has (nominally) much more choice. More channels, targetted towards specific interests will inevitably fragment the audience. All the more reason, then, for Welsh broadcasters to co-operate to help give programmes made in Wales a clear place on a vastly expanded broadcast schedule.

POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS

  Our recommendations range from the short to the long-term. Some, if adopted, could be acted upon immediately. Others require the longer view to be taken and substantial pre-planning and discussion involving Assembly members, the media industry and other relevant bodies. The recommendations are grouped under three main headings: communicating the message; covering the message; and media policy and governance.

COMMUNICATING THE MESSAGE

  A central part of the "brief" of the Assembly is the pledge to make it a political forum which will be "democratic, effective, efficient and inclusive". The effectiveness of the Assembly will, to a large extent, depend on the ways it manages to communicate with the electorate—which also means devising structures enabling people to communicate with the Assembly.

  There is no shortage of ideas on how this might be done, based on the application of the technologies currently available. Ideas already put forward include:

    —  adopting "best practice" models already being deployed elsewhere, (eg Norway, Singapore) to ensure that all government departments, committees and agencies become Internet-led and then build network links with outside bodies. Closer to home, is the "Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) Government Information Service", designed to help improve public service to the citizen. Its website offers information on Government On-Line, among other services.

    —  developing "electronic democracy" by establishing tele-conferencing facilities to link the Assembly with different interest groups and constituencies. Placed in various locations across Wales, a network of this kind could provide inter-active "highways" between the Assembly and those it seeks to serve.

    —  "gavel-to-gavel" television coverage of the Assembly's plenary and committee sessions. One model to follow could be C-Span's coverage of Congressional politics in the USA, which mixes the "straight" televising of political business, expert commentary and opportunities for viewer participation in matters under debate. Another model will be the new BBC Parliamentary channel (replacing the cable Parliamentary Channel service. A service which had a number of shortcomings; the rules governing coverage were too restrictive and there was little provision for interpretation or comment).

    —  other useful ideas can be found in the last Government's Green Paper, Government Direct; the present Government's White Paper, Better Government and the 1997 Fabian Society pamphlet, Information Age Government. Between them they suggest, among other things, ways of merging central and local government offices into a network of "one-stop" information and service shops, making government more accessible, efficient and "Citizen-friendly" and - more grandly - proposals to "re-engineer" the machinery of the central and local state.

    —  to order this plethora of ideas we suggest the Assembly should set up a "Communications Committee" responsible for shaping and directing the Assembly's own communications. In addition to reviewing those proposal already listed, The Committee would also need to address: the rules of broadcast coverage; how to compile a bilingual, online equivalent of Hansard; the most effective ways of covering the regional committees to convey the Assembly's work in different parts of Wales and meet the needs of the local press; and to consider the problems some have identified around the issue of providing simultaneous translations of the business of the Assembly. The Committee will also have to consider, at some point, the implications of the promised Freedom of Information Act for the work of the Assembly. More immediately, the Committee will need to address the relationship between the assembly and the growing number of public relation firms and lobbyists in Wales who will, no doubt, surround Assembly members after May 1999.

COVERING THE MESSAGE

  How effective the Assembly is in communicating its message will depend partly on the media in Wales cover its work and proceedings (a point which also extends to how the media will cover the campaigns for the first Assembly elections).

  The broadcasters in Wales are already discussing how best to cover the Assembly. The BBC has announced its "post-devolution dividend" with news of a "substantial fund" having been set aside by the BBC in London for Assembly coverage, along with "ambitious plans" to cover the first elections. This promised investment means the BBC—unlike most of the smaller media in Wales—will have the staff and resources to cover most aspects of the Assembly's work. It will probably be in a position to field subject and regional as well as political correspondents, which could significantly help to show the Assembly's relevance to people's lives in the different parts of Wales. HTV has also publicly stated that it will invest in staff and resources to provide comprehensive coverage of the Assembly. As part of its preparations for the Assembly HTV is launching a determined bid to win back those viewers who have turned their backs on Welsh television by watching programmes coming from Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester (most of the "boycotters" live in south-east and north-east Wales). To this end, HTV built, in 1997, its own broadcast aerial to serve Wrexham—one of the biggest "blackspots" for television from Wales—and is now going to sponsor a major publicity campaign to persuade the "boycotters" to turn back to Wales, citing the Assembly, as a good reason for doing so. Just how much HTV can invest may depend on its bid to get a reduction in its annual 23.5 million licence fee it has to pay to the Treasury, a bid to which the Assembly should lend its support.

  The matter of how to provide running broadcast coverage of the assembly is currently being decided by the Welsh Office, who recently short-listed applicants interested in either supplying and installing the necessary technical facilities, or providing the operational service (or both). The prospect of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the assembly raises some complex issues. At present this could only be done on cable (but large parts of Wales will never be cabled), but digital broadcasting, which has already begun on satellite and will begin shortly on terrestrial television, with its promise of multi-channel universe, offers new opportunities. While S4C will have the capacity to deliver "total" Assembly coverage via S4C Digital, it may not have the resources to do so, raising the difficult question of how to fund a dedicated channel.

  Broadcasters and the Assembly need to think about how to deal with the problem of the large proportion of people in Wales who do not watch Welsh television. This issue will certainly engage the attention of those Assembly members with constituencies in areas that overlap with English transmitters. But quite apart from their interest in seeing their voters as Assembly viewers, it will be damaging if the National Assembly cannot access, through television, the new national political community it is there to represent.

  There are two rather more specific points to make about broadcast coverage, which the broadcasters and the Assembly could endorse in the spirit of encouraging more open and transparent government. The first is the restrictions placed on broadcasters by the Representation of the People Act. The Act was a major frustration in their attempts to cover key constituency campaigns in the 1997 General Election and in reporting the subsequent Referendum on devolution. As framed, the law should more properly be called the Representation of the Politicians Act. The Assembly should support broadcasters in calling for either the repeal of amendment of that part of the Act which seriously constrains broadcast election coverage. The case for change is made the more urgent because of the (partially) new method of voting for the Assembly, with the introduction of multi-member constituencies under a system of proportional representation.

  Second, a commitment to open government means the Assembly must oppose any attempt by press or broadcasters to replicate the Parliamentary Lobby as a mechanism for reporting on the Assembly. The Assembly's First Secretary and other major office-holders should, instead, be expected to hold regular, televised press conferences. Further, through tele-conferencing and/or internet links Assembly leaders should be encouraged to answer questions put directly by members of the public, which would give some substance to the concept of an "electronic democracy" at work.

  The assembly also presents new opportunities for the press in Wales. There is every sign that Wales' biggest morning and evening daily papers are preparing to take them. One way they could do so would be by providing extensive online coverage of all aspects of the Assembly's work—using technology they are already applying with some skill and imagination.

  A bigger challenge is around the issue of the local press. They are important to the communities they serve and often have a high level of household penetration in their circulation areas. Few, though, will have the resources to give the Assembly any thorough coverage. Some local papers may be reluctant to even send a reporter to cover the nearest Assembly regional committee, if only a small part of committee business is directly relevant to the paper's locality. There are ways in which these problems might be overcome. For instance, the Press Association (the UK National News Agency) is working on how to provide a news service for the local press. Again, if committee proceedings are put online (either by broadcasters or via the net) then local papers could pick up items of local interest without having someone physically attend meetings.

MEDIA POLICY AND GOVERNANCE

  Although we believe the Assembly needs a media policy it is clear—as we said before—there are major constraints on what it can or should do. However, there are several areas where the Assembly could give a lead, with the aim of helping shape policy and directing resources into Wales' media and cultural industries. This much was recognised in the recent Welsh Office report, Pathway to Prosperity: A New Economic Agenda for Wales, which drew attention to the potential of these sectors to create jobs, add to the "business birth-rate", and attract investment. Elements of a media policy could include:

    —  strenthening the independent film and television sector. Wales is fortunate in having a large, diverse and well-established independent sector for TV, film, video and animation production, with potential for further growth and development. Consideration should be given to ways of supporting the work of independent producers, especially in raising finance, and there may be a case for some mergers in this sector to strengthen performance by combining resources. These is also certainly a case for direct public investment, using the "investment and payback" formula applied elsewhere (there is a line in the Scottish Office budget for film-making, something the Assembly might want to consider as one way of supporting the Welsh film industry). The Assembly could also act as a "facilitator", by helping independent producers identify other sources of public and private sector funding, possibly through joint venture capital deals.

    —  the Assembly should be alert to the different challenges facing film-makers in Wales. The recent announcement by Channel 4 that it would be increasing its regional commissioning by 30 per cent, offers opportunities for local film-makers, 100 of whom met this year with the Head of Factual Programmes and Features at Channel 4 to discuss the network's requirements. The recently formed "Wales Film Action Group"—comprising all segments of the film industry in Wales, brought together by Sgrin—was a response to Government proposals for British film-making in its document, The Bigger Picture. Concerns about these proposals, and the Group's call for a more equitable share of film finance for Wales, are ones the Assembly should take a close interest in.

    —  having the Assembly act as a support for Welsh media and cultural industries by, for example, sponsoring exhibitions and trade fairs and by Assembly leaders playing an "ambassadorial" role in promoting the work and achievements of our media and cultural workers.

    —  encouraging co-operation between broadcasters. As BBC Wales Controller put it: "We will not solve the three great challenges of sustaining Welsh language broadcasting, addressing the imbalance of Welsh and English language provision, and finding our place in a much, much wider market-place, unless we consider our problems in the round and seek collaborative solutions". (Talfan Davies, 1996, p 20). There is scope for the Assembly to play a role here by: considering how broadcasters might pool and share resources to produce the software for the new multi-channel digital environment; and helping identify issues and concerns common to the broadcasting community in Wales.

    —  consider an extension of public investment and other means of assistance to the publishers of minor papers and magazines in Wales, to help sustain and promote a more diverse print media.

    —  providing a forum for representatives from the Assembly and the press in Wales to exchange views and discuss issues of mutual interest.

    —  promoting education and training programmes to equip young people in particular with skills and knowledge necessary to service the media and cultural industries in Wales. Some good work is already being done in this area and should be built upon and where possible co-ordinated in ways outlined in Pathway to Prosperity and other recent reports on how to invest in "human capital" in Wales.

    —  effective policy-making needs an accessible, comprehensive and reliable data base. The Assembly requires a regularly updated "media register" for Wales, logging details of ownership, finance, employment patterns, labour force skills, output and other relevant information. Some information of this kind exists, but not as a single, definitive "audit". Such a reference source would be a useful tool for Assembly policy-makers, for the industry itself and for the wider public—and an essential starting point for any informed discussion about the future of the media and cultural industries in Wales.

    —  developing Internet uses in ways that go beyond the applications already mentioned. For example, the Internet lined with desktop publishing technology, could help secure the future of those community papers (papurau bro) which have taken root in Welsh speaking areas. Or again, the Internet offers immense possibilities for tapping into the Welsh "diaspora", especially the 5-10 million North Americans of Welsh descent. The resources of this diaspora, if harnessed, could: raise the global profile of Wales; encourage more educational and cultural exchanges; and be a possible source of inward investment and job creation.

CONCLUSION

  The Assembly came about as the result of hard-fought and close run election. It faces a daunting task: to live up to the expectations of those who campaigned and voted for it, and to win round those who could not be persuaded to give the Assembly their support. The Assembly, as our new national forum, needs to present a distinct image and a clear voice for Wales—both within Wales and beyond. It is largely through the mass media that this can be most effectively done. Assembly members have to grasp this point. And in doing so, come to appreciate the vital role the different media can have in helping shape the political, cultural and economic life of the "new Wales".

Centre for Journalism Studies, Cardiff University

13 November 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