What Wales wants and what Wales gets
It is often said that when it comes to the Welsh media, Assembly Members just don’t get it.
They don’t know what the problem is, they don’t understand the industry and they don’t know how to fix it. And there is plenty of evidence to support this.
Anyone with the slightest interest in the Welsh media and Welsh Assembly policy will know that report after report has failed to address media issues in a realistic or coherent way. The thesis that Welsh politicians are fairly clueless when it comes to the Welsh media problem used to be, therefore, largely uncontested. That remained the case until March of this year.
Although the Welsh Assembly has no power over broadcasting, its members recognised the importance of the OFCOM proposals for Independently Funded News Consortia. So they had a debate.
The Conservatives, towing the Westminster line, made clear that they didn’t support IFNC. They suggested that ITV, (whose Chairman Archie Norman had performed a remarkable u-turn the day before) should continue to provide public service broadcasting in Wales.
A passionate and informed discussion was had and the Assembly voted in favour of supporting the IFNC pilot scheme. This was despite the fact that IFNC looked to be dead in the water should a Conservative government be elected. Jeremy Hunt, then Shadow Culture Secretary, had made it clear that a future Conservative government would do all they could to unpick contracts on IFNC if they were signed before the election. When the preferred bidders for the pilots were announced the celebrations were, therefore, mixed with a heavy dose of realism. The champagne was on ice, the nibbles were in the bowls, the lights were dimmed a bit, but no one was really in the mood for a party.
Yesterday Jeremy Hunt put paid to those celebrations all together.
The Culture Secretary made clear that the government would not be following through on the IFNC pilot process, and that the alternative Conservative plan of city based television stations would be progressed instead. Money that would have gone towards IFNC schemes will now be spent on rolling out super-fast broadband.
Now, those who work in any sort of digital media, and perhaps in any sort of business, will be pleased at the plans to roll out super-fast broadband. Broadband inequality countrywide is a huge issue and is particularly significant when it comes to those people in Wales who live in isolated and remote communities. The decision, therefore, to invest in broadband is a sensible one. As more and more products and services become available online only, broadband is acquiring ever greater importance. It may not be a modern essential yet, but it will be in the next five years.
Despite getting this bit very right, Hunt is, unfortunately, way off the mark when it comes to regional public service broadcasting. Two proposals in particular stick out like sore thumbs. The first is the decision to relax cross-media ownership rules. This is the opposite of what is required; particularly in Wales where monopolies have slowly killed off local media. What is needed in Wales is plurality of media. It has always been the case that there has been too small a range of media production and ownership in Wales. This limited plurality has led to limited voices. And voices are the only game in town when it comes to the market place of opinions.
This lack of plurality takes on extra significance in the light of the new Welsh democracy. There is too little political coverage, for instance, and too limited diversity of opinions. Relaxing cross-media ownership rules, as Martin King pointed out in his blog today, may offer a lifeline to local newspapers. This is, of course, a good thing for local newspapers and a good thing for their owners. But is it really a good thing for plurality, and for the media-political complex as a whole? Cross-media ownership means more media outlets owned by less companies.
This isn’t the only bad decision Hunt has made. The proposals for city-based television channels are to be adopted despite the fact that there are serious and fundamental problems with the concept. For a start, as Plaid Cymru AM Bethan Jenkins pointed out in her speech to the Assembly on IFNC, there will be problems with acquiring spectrum for these channels. This is spectrum that is expensive and limited. But this problem, as Jenkins points out, is nothing compared to the problem of the huge costs involved in producing content for these channels. These two may be big problems, but they aren’t the only ones. The danger of niche broadcasting such as this, is that no one watches it. If anyone is worried about S4C’s viewing figures they need only wait until city-based TV is introduced to see really low numbers. This is niche broadcasting at its most limited.
The example that was most often referred to by supporters of these proposals was Channel M in Manchester. Channel M was, at the time the Tories were drafting the proposals, doing quite well. It isn’t anymore. The channel has ceased broadcasting after allegedly losing around £200,000 a month. Surely this isn’t the flagship model on which the Tories are basing their hopes.
In short, though there were problems with IFNC (many), they are as nothing compared to the problems associated with the idea of city-based television channels.
IFNC may not have been a definitive answer, but at least they were an answer.
So the situation the Welsh media finds itself in is the same as it ever was – a mess. The solutions being offered won’t work. Meanwhile we race towards a complex referendum on powers which will require the electorate to be better informed than they have ever been. If there is a referendum in the autumn, and the Welsh media is not improved, then the WAG can expect lower turnout and engagement than they have ever had. At this key moment in Wales’s history a strong media is essential.
The final, and for some the most important point, is that the desires of the Welsh Assembly Government have been completely ignored. The Assembly made clear its preference for IFNC. This should have sent a strong message to Westminster that they should proceed with it; at least in Wales. The importance of this decision in Wales is greater than it is elsewhere. The English regions do not have a burgeoning democracy which is asking the electorate complex questions. And, for all that it has suffered of late; Scotland still has a strong and independent print media that Wales can only aspire too.
The only sensible solution to ensure that the wishes of the WAG are not undermined on issues like this in future is to devolve power over broadcasting, at least in part, to the Welsh Assembly government. Then maybe there won’t be such a noticeable gap between what the Welsh government wants, and what it ends up getting.
This is my new blog – however you can still find old posts hereTagged in: ifnc, journalism, media, television, wag, wales
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