On 16 June 2016 the Welsh Affairs Committee published its First Report of Session 2016-17, Broadcasting in Wales (HC 14). The Government’s response to the Report was received on 7 September 2016, and is published as an Appendix to this Special Report.
The Government welcomes the Select Committee’s report ‘Broadcasting in Wales’. As you will be aware, we published our White Paper ‘A BBC for the future: a broadcaster of distinction’ on 12 May setting out the Government’s policy on the BBC. I hope that this has addressed a number of the issues identified in your report, and I will set out our policy on these areas below. I’d be most grateful if you could therefore accept this letter in lieu of a formal response.
Throughout the Charter Review process the Department has undertaken and commissioned a range of reviews, studies and research, this included taking into account the 192,000 responses received to our public consultation, the results of which were published in March 2016. We also took into account reports from the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Lord’s Communication Committee, and from Committees in Devolved Parliaments and Assemblies.
Your report makes some welcome recommendations regarding the forthcoming S4C Review. The Government is committed to Welsh language broadcasting and to the future of S4C and, as you mentioned in your report, we have committed to carrying out a review of S4C in 2017. We will be considering options for how the review will run, including the terms of reference, in due course. The findings and recommendations set out by the Committee will be fully considered within this process.
With the abolition of the BBC Trust the Operating Agreement between the BBC and S4C will need to adapt to fit the new arrangements. We are working with S4C and the BBC to put in place interim arrangements to safeguard S4C’s independence until its forthcoming review has taken place.
I welcome your recommendation that the BBC should be externally regulated and a Unitary Board set up. You will be aware that this was one of the key recommendations put forward by Sir David Clementi and we set out our intention to do this in our White Paper. We have also agreed that the Board will include a member for each nation, although we have been clear that they should possess other relevant skills and expertise. This will bring the voices of the nations right to the heart of BBC decision making.
The operation of the Board including decisions about whether sub-boards should be created is a matter for the Chair and BBC to decide. You will be aware however, that Lord Hall wrote to the First Minister of Wales in May to confirm that they do intend to create a sub-committee for each nation to oversee their dedicated services. The letter has been published on the BBC Website here: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/nations-progress-update.pdf.
Both the Government and BBC agree with the recommendation that there should be an Operating Licence for the nations under the new framework, and the BBC will be required to report against these.
I agree with your recommendation that the BBC needs to do more to ensure that the commissioning process portrays Wales and the other nations within the UK. I am pleased that Lord Hall’s letter sets out this commitment. This is however, an operational matter for the BBC and therefore not something that Government should become involved in. The BBC have committed to appointing a commissioning editor responsible for television drama in each nation, as well as setting ‘portrayal’ objectives for commissioners so that all areas of network content reflect the lives of audiences across the whole of the UK. In addition the BBC have committed to spending more on English-language television programming in all three nations; with a particular focus of efforts in Wales to address the decline over recent years. As with commissioning, this is a matter for the BBC.
With regards to your recommendations that the Wales Bill should require a Welsh Minister to appoint one executive member of Ofcom and for Ofcom to lay its annual report before the National Assembly, the Wales Bill was introduced in Parliament on 7 June and includes the provisions made in the draft Bill relating to Ofcom.
In your report you recommended that the regulation of Smart TVs be reviewed, and that manufacturers ensure PSBs are given prominence on the Electronic Programme Guide. The recent Government consultation response concluded that it was difficult to predict how discoverability of on-demand services and smart TVs functionality will develop, (especially with devices with advanced IP search or algorithm functionality starting to appear in the market), and the Government is mindful not to regulate services which will be out-dated as soon as the regulation comes into force. Government believes that it would be best to see how UK consumers interact with these types of newer innovative content delivery mechanisms, and how they actually affect PSB prominence going forward before looking at further regulatory measures.
Your report raised a specific point on the deregulation of commercial radio. The provision of local content, such as local news, by commercial radio remains very important to listeners and in terms of ensuring media plurality. According to Ofcom, 51% of the UK population listens to local commercial radio each week. This is a much larger share than BBC local radio which has a 17% reach. It is therefore important that proposals to reform the commercial radio licensing regime take full account of the wider impact on media plurality in the nations.
I am extremely grateful to the Committee for this report and for all the evidence and testimony that has been collected over the last few months.
19 September 2016