Examination of Witnesses (Questions 597
THURSDAY 20 JUNE 2002
Chairman: I think I wrote to you in advance
but I do apologise again. The first question, unsurprisingly,
I suppose, is from Lord Crickhowell.
597. Having been around at your birth, so to
speak, can I be the first to welcome you. You say that S4C is
committed to openness and accountability and therefore on the
whole I think you welcome clause 226 that enables the Secretary
of State to review how you are managing the public service remit,
for example. You then say not five years, ten. In the present
climate of change in broadcasting that seems to be a very long
period. Perhaps you will forgive me for adding that in the particularly
cosy world in which you operate, one might almost say incestuous
world, of the Welsh language, relatively small, "we know
everyone", which is one of the advantages you have, that
the need for open independent review more frequently than ten
years might be greater even that it would because of the changes
in television and broadcasting.
(Mr Jones) I think as we understand it, we recognise
the principle that there should be a backstop mechanism for the
Secretary of State with regard to S4C which corresponds broadly
to the Charter review process and Charter renewal process for
the BBC. We understand that is the Government's thinking because,
in the absence of a statutory mechanism there is no such equivalent
process in place for S4C at the moment. What we have a concern
about is as to whether five years is the right period given that
there is a preamble, an early clause in the Bill, which specifically
seeks to prevent the imposition of burdens which are unnecessary.
Our feeling is that the continual review which the Authority itself
undertakes of the way S4C carries out its remit is regular, thorough
and comprehensive. It is made to Parliament through the Secretary
of State, and of course the Authority itself is appointed by the
Secretary of State. Therefore, if there were a serious concern,
and bearing in mind the review is meant to address the performance
by the Authority in overseeing and delivering the remit, then
there is a mechanism, an easy mechanism, which has to do with
changing the members of the Authority which is a power that the
Secretary of State already has and that could be exercised within
four years. The other principle, of course, is the arm's length
relationship between broadcaster and Government. The shorter the
period of review, the greater the danger that the arm's length
principle could be compromised. Therefore, we suggest ten years
in respect of the period of review would be more appropriate.
598. You will have perhaps gathered from some
of my earlier questions to the BBC that I start by being a little
sceptical of self-review processes for internal rules and regulations,
therefore I am not entirely convinced that because you carry out
a review process and answer the Secretary of State that that is
sufficient. In a sense you are in a very special position. You
have been a particularly effective lobbyist in earlier Broadcasting
Bills and have won the admiration of some of us for the way in
which you have achieved your present position in that way. The
BBC is under almost continual widespread examination which by
its nature is a very public process but the public examination
and public debate of S4C by its very nature is going to be much
more confined. It was one of the freedoms I had as the Secretary
of State for Wales when I operated in a relatively small area
of the country with a relatively small population but you are
operating in an even smaller sub-settlement in which, as I say,
everyone knows everyone and there is a great deal of intimacy.
Is there not on its own an argument for having a regular five
year open examination of how you are performing?
(Ms Lewis Jones) I think it is an argument in favour
of our present statutory structure. Perhaps I should make clear
that when in the past we have lobbied, and we have lobbied energetically,
it has been lobbying to safeguard our independence and our impartiality.
That has always been the concern of our lobbying, nothing cosier
than that, to use the word you used earlier. The Bill, it seems
to me, takes some care to accommodate appropriately the statutory
framework that we have now and I think it is a robust one both
in safeguarding us from pressures from the Government and from
pressures that might come to bear on us domestically. Of course
there are such pressures and they bear from different directions.
Having our high level functions set out in statute, in a way which
is only amendable by primary legislation, has stood us in very
good stead for 20 years and that is a structure which continues
under the present Bill. Of course, the tiers one and two remits
will apply to us as they do to other public service broadcasters.
The backstop in relation to our tier three remit rests with the
Secretary of State. Even if the atmosphere were perhaps as fetid
as you suggest in Wales, and I do not entirely agree that it is,
that seems to me a robust structure. We take extremely seriously
the statutory duties laid upon us, we are the guardians of those
duties and we are removable by the Secretary of State if we fail.
Given that Parliament has determined this structure it is right
that primary legislation should be amended if the structure turns
out to be inappropriate.
(Mr Jones) I also think possibly you do not pay due
regard to the intensity of examination of S4C operations by those
who are interested in our service, who are Welsh speakers in all
their diverse forms and through all the diverse other Welsh media
which exist. I think the level of public scrutiny of operations
of Wales in general is far higher than exists in most English
regions. People coming to work in Wales in the public sector from
English regions are often struck by the amount of intensive examination
to which our activities are subjected.
599. The clause gives the opportunity for the
Welsh Assembly to be involved in the process and that itself may
be a good reason for going down that route. My final comment is
you have made all these points and I am certain you have made
them to the Secretary of State before, it would be interesting
to know why he has not accepted them and come up with something
that is different from the BBC.
(Mr Jones) In many instances the legislation is created
with other structures and outcomes primarily in mind. The officers
of the Secretary of State do seek very diligently to accommodate
S4C's particular circumstances, but at times it can be the case
that the S4C position is a little awkward and something is produced
which maybe needs to be reviewed before it is finalised.