Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)

MONDAY 7 DECEMBER 1998

MR GERAINT TALFAN DAVIES, MR WILL WYATT AND MR ROGER JONES

  240. Yes.
  (Mr Davies) I think for decades there has been that competition in the early evening and, frankly, I find that degree of competition actually rather healthy.

  241. You consider it competition?
  (Mr Davies) It is a competition for quality of service and I am glad to say, at the moment, we are winning it.

  242. Are you personally persuaded of the arguments for a full Welsh hour?
  (Mr Wyatt) The executive committee, of which I am a member. Have made our recommendation to the Board and it is the one that the Board said, after their last meeting, they are minded to accept.

Mr Lewis

  243. In the earlier session, my colleague Mr Livsey raised the question of how impartial the coverage would be of the various parties and points of view represented in the Assembly and I asked a point about the impartiality provisions of the agreement between the BBC and what is now the Department of Culture, Media and Sport—and I suppose I had better retrospectively declare an interest as in the 1980s I was somewhat involved in some of the framing of this legislation in the media monitoring unit. Am I right in thinking that, whatever the new regime in Wales, the impartiality provisions of that agreement (which are identical to those put into the 1990 Broadcasting Act for independent television and radio) will be carried forward and applied in the new regime?
  (Mr Wyatt) Impartiality is indivisible as a principle in terms of all our coverage so, yes, they would be. Precisely how they will be manifested in practice will depend on the make-up of the Assembly and so on but, clearly, it is indivisible; we must be impartial.

  244. But they always had a nod in favour of impartiality prior to 1990. The fact is that these provisions have been codified in a much more precise way and, in practice, nationally over the last eight years, and what I am asking is whether there will be the same degree of precision and whether the same code will be applied.
  (Mr Wyatt) The code will apply to all our broadcasting in Wales or of Wales concerning the National Assembly. It is fair to say we have followed that code with some rigour since it was introduced and intend to do so in these circumstances.

  245. Fine. Turning to the coverage of the Assembly, will you tell us your plans for covering the Assembly itself, both inside Wales and across the UK network and, in particular, do you have plans for live coverage of the Assembly—for example, on BBC 2 Wales?
  (Mr Davies) Certainly, we do. I have already outlined to Mr Caton some part of our programme plans but, in terms of live coverage, there are many options here. The key, if you are talking in terms of accessibility for the audience, for all the discussion there has been of what can be done on digital, what is going to matter for the audience will be the service on analogue for the next few years and we intend to provide live coverage of the Assembly on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons on BBC 2 analogue. We would also be supplying some live coverage on Radio Wales and Radio Cymru but not so much on a regular basis as coverage of key events. That is on analogue. On digital, as you know, S4C have said there is a spectrum space available on their multiplex which could be given for live coverage. We are in discussion with S4C as to how that might be supplied. Any decisions on other digital outlets will wait until those discussions are complete. There is, clearly, not a lot of point in providing live gabble-to-gabble coverage in more than one place. However, we also have the BBC Parliamentary channel and I would expect to see coverage of all of these democratic institutions being integrated in that channel. Lastly, online: it is our intention to establish a bilingual news online site in the new year and I would expect that that online site will also reflect the full political coverage we give and may well include some audio coverage on the Internet as well.

  246. Thank you very much for that comprehensive reply. Turning to my last point, looking at the submission you have given to this Committee, I see in the forward you refer to the BBC being better equipped than any other broadcaster to do full justice to a major new democratic institution, by broadcasting and analysing its debates. In section 1 you talk about Parliamentary coverage; in section 2 you talk about the unique opportunity to take account of the importance of broadcasting to democracy in the very design of the institution, and you talk about broadcasting providing the widest and most accessible bridge between the Assembly and the public and the document goes on very much in that vein. In other words, you seem to be extremely enthusiastic about broadcasting the proceedings of the new Welsh Assembly to the public in Wales and what I have to ask, particularly Will Wyatt, is how seriously are we expected to take this commitment when we bear in mind that, despite the representations of all the main political parties and of Madam Speaker at Westminster, the broadcasting of the UK Parliament has been turfed off FM radio and is confined to AM, which many people have difficulty in receiving. So is it the case there will be similar treatment after an initial period of novelty of the broadcasting of the Welsh Assembly and, if not, why do you consider broadcasting the Welsh Assembly to its people more important than broadcasting the UK Parliament to the people of the UK as a whole?
  (Mr Wyatt) We do not think it is more important. This hinges on whether you consider the moves we have made in Parliamentary broadcasting to be a downgrading of our coverage at Westminster. I can see you and others may disagree with what we did. There are many members of the House of Commons and Lords who made it clear to us they agreed with the policy and thought it was fine. We have said we will do this for a year and after that we will submit a full report of the effect of it to the Board of Governors of the BBC (who asked to us do that in the late spring of next year) after which, if necessary, we will review it. At the time we did that with Yesterday in Parliament, we increased the coverage of Yesterday in Parliament during the week; we also have taken over the Parliamentary channel from the cable operators (who wanted to dump it, frankly), and we will run that and will find opportunities there to include the Assembly within it. We also have, nightly, live television coverage of the day's political events too. So I think, overall, the depth and comprehensiveness of the BBC's coverage of Westminster is sustained and we would wish, in due proportion, to reflect that within Wales and the coverage of the Welsh Assembly.

  247. I do not think you can deny that the footprint in terms of the numbers of the people reached by the coverage is much reduced. Not only did Madam speaker oppose it and most of the parties but, indeed, I believe in the previous session Mr Roger Jones himself said he thought it was a mistaken decision. Coming back to it, what guarantee have we got that a similar fate will not befall broadcasting from the Welsh Assembly, once the novelty wears off?
  (Mr Wyatt) I would say you have the guarantee that this will be a public promise when we finally make our plans clear and they are signed off by the Board of Governors. They, I know, will make sure this is something under their eyes and they will expect proper review of that. I do not expect them to allow us to change our policy unless there is some overriding reason. It will be a public promise from the BBC that will be held.

Ms Morgan

  248. The contract for televising and sound recording the proceedings of the Assembly for the broadcasters has now been awarded to Barcud Derwen at a cost of 580,000 pounds a year, half of which is to be borne by the broadcasters. Are you satisfied with the arrangement, and how are the costs to be divided between the broadcasters?
  (Mr Davies) Very much so. There has been a very effective tendering process. As a result of that, Barcud Derwen won the contract and I am delighted that, in the last week, we have come to an agreement with the Welsh office that the costs will be shared on a 50/50 basis. That is a very good agreement and it reflects not only the importance of the sound and vision feeds of the broadcasters, but also the importance of the sound and vision feeds to the internal communication infrastructure of the Assembly itself. That is a very fair division of the cost.

  249. What about the actual facilities at Crickhowell House? What do you think of them?
  (Mr Davies) We are not in there and working there as yet. You have to remember that the Assembly's first chamber in Crickhowell House is a temporary affair. Obviously, we want to minimise any costs involved in restoring technical facilities that might have to be moved later. We have managed to avoid that but we were in discussion earlier this week with the Welsh office (and certainly as broadcasters we will be very anxious to talk with the architects for the new Assembly building) to ensure that in the layout of the new chamber, when it is designed, the sound and camera facilities are as unobtrusive as possible and that the Assembly can look as modern and professional as it can on television. In that sense, we did not really want to be tied to the Westminster template where television was really bolted on to the institution pretty late in the day.

  250. Do you think the facilities will be adequate?
  (Mr Davies) They will be very adequate for what we intend to do. The sound and vision feeds are there and we will actually have within the building our own facility, our own news room; you have to remember we are actually servicing four outlets in Wales—Radio Wales, Radio Cymru, BBC Wales television and our Welsh language news service for S4C—in addition to serving UK outlets like Radio 5 Live, News 24, BBC 1 and 2, et cetera.

  251. So you are quite happy?
  (Mr Davies) I am quite happy with the arrangements so far.

Chairman

  252. Going back to the Parliamentary channel coverage, you mentioned there was going to be coverage of the Assembly on the Parliamentary channel. Can you assure us it will not be in the middle of the night for insomniacs? What kind of measures will be put in place to make sure it is at a reasonable hour?
  (Mr Davies) That is still a matter for discussion. We are not absolutely certain yet what sort of pattern of working the Assembly will fall into, nor which parts of the Assembly's proceedings are actually likely to prove of greatest interest or significance to the public. There is bound to be an element of reacting to the significance of the proceedings as they stand.

Mr Thomas

  253. Is it intended that Today in Parliament will include excerpts from the proceedings of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly proceedings for Wales?
  (Mr Wyatt) I have not been directly concerned with the planning for that but I believe certainly the intention is that we try and find a way of reflecting the National assemblies as well as Westminster, wherever that seems to be duly required. If that is not the case I will write to the Chairman, but I believe it is.[2]

Mr Caton

  254. You reminded us just now that BBC Wales is to launch a bilingual online news service for Wales early next year. How much will this cost?
  (Mr Davies) We are currently working on that. It will cost less than half a million pounds, I think.

  255. Can you enlarge on what you said earlier about coverage of the Assembly on the online service?
  (Mr Davies) As Mr Wyatt said earlier, we have the largest news gathering operation in Wales; it gathers a huge volume of material. Only some part of that finds its way on to our radio and television news programmes because of the confines of airtime. Clearly, with an online service, space is almost unrestricted so we are hoping to be able to put on to that online service a volume of information that may not be available within specific radio and television programmes. Given our investment in political coverage, both at Westminster and at the National Assembly, I would expect the political portion of that site to be really very substantial indeed. It is possible, on line, to combine not only text but audio coverage and, in time, video coverage too. Even now, I know that we have experimented by video streaming the Newyddion programme and the Welsh Today programme online so you can watch it at any time of day. Those are for experimental periods; picture quality is not fantastic; but that will improve. I would say, in a matter of some years, you will have the potential there for video, audio and text access at all times of day.

Ms Morgan

  256. You are required to supply ten hours a week of Welsh language programmes on S4C free of charge. How much does it cost you to do this and who decides what you supply them?
  (Mr Jones) The current costs we will be offering are something like 16 million pounds a year. The quality, et cetera, is historical. We have always provided high quality services and programmes to S4C and it would be unreasonable to drop that quality.
  (Mr Davies) In terms of the basic building blocks of that ten hours, clearly the news service is one major building block and Pobol y Cwm is the other, and that is the channel's most popular programme. Again, another key building block has been the Welsh language schools service and also in the past we have supplied substantial quantities of sport and a very important single documentary strand. As the National Governor has indicated, the BBC's approach to quality, in the same way as impartiality, has to be indivisible so everything we would supply to S4C we would want to be of a quality that reflects credit on the BBC.

  257. How do you actually decide what you will supply?
  (Mr Davies) There is a process of discussion. Editorial control lies with the BBC for the content but, as a practical effect, we have regular discussions with officers at S4C; it is very important they know what is likely to be in that ten hours before they take all their commissioning decisions about the remainder of the schedule, so we try and marry our planning cycles as best we can.

  258. You supply the whole of S4C's news and Parliamentary coverage. Will you be doing the same with the National Assembly?
  (Mr Davies) Not every single part of it. We supply all of S4C's news coverage and its basic Parliamentary programme maniffesto, and we have discussed with S4C a programme that will, in addition to that, actually cover the Assembly on a weekly basis. If you go outside the news and Parliamentary programmes, there is also the current affairs coverage and naturally the Assembly will be reflected in our own current affairs coverage—just as it will be in the coverage that HTV supplies and some independent producers supply.

Mr Thomas

  259. You are quite sensitive about your relationship with S4C, are you not, Mr Davies?
  (Mr Davies) I would not say "sensitive". There are genuine issues that arise out of the new situation with digital television. The relationship between two broadcasters between whom there has to be some degree of healthy competition is bound to be a little sensitive if one of them is actually spending 16 million pounds on the services of the other. The key about the relationship between S4C and BBC is to allow that collaboration to work smoothly. There has to be a very clear framework of complimentarity between the public services of the two organisations. The concern has been in recent years whether or not there is any intention to blur that complimentarity in future years. That is the only issue we would raise.


2   See evidence page 102. Back


 
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