Sunday, September 18, 2011

S4C issues for Welsh MPs to ponder.

Been involved in much discussion about S4C, the Welsh Language TV channel lately. Its going to carry on. This post reflects on some of the issues, and outlines some of my thinking - which seems not to be universally popular. The more I've had to confront the issues, the more comfortable I've been with my opinions. Just don't think my critics are realistic - and I don't live in the world of make believe.

A recurring question is whether broadcasting in Wales should be devolved to the National Assembly. Have to concede that personally, I have no real objection to this, but its not going to happen - any time soon anyway. A referendum of Welsh voters was held in March which delivered a new devolutionary settlement, and its not going to be revisited while the signatures are still not dry. The reality is that S4C is accountable to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport at Westminster - and that's how its going to stay. The long-term future is another matter.

A second issue is the level of funding for S4C. Roughly speaking, the budget has been reduced from around £120 million to around £100 million - totals derived from the BBC licence fee, the Treasury and BBC programming costs. This budget figure has steadily grown over the decades by guaranteed annual inflation-proofed increases(written in legislation). In my opinion, it is totally unsustainable that while the budgets of defence, policing, education, welfare, and every other part of the DCMS budget is being cut by large percentages, S4C alone should not be. The link in legislation which guaranteed annual increases has to be broken - which is why its included in the Public Bodies Bill.

A third issue of contention is 'accountability' - and here I share some of the concerns of my critics. Since most of S4C's future budget is to come from the BBC licence fee, I accept that the BBC must be involved in governance arrangements - but it must not be in a position of dominance. We have not yet seen the agreement between DCMS, S4C and BBC. But to listen to the critics, the idea of being 'accountable' at all is unacceptable. While public money is funding S4C, it must be accountable. It cannot be allowed to do just what it wants. No body receiving public money can be. The issue revolves around the right balance between 'accountability' and 'independence'. And there is still work to be done on this before concerns, including mine are met.

Another issue that has not received much public attention is the intention of DCMS to undertake a review of S4C over the next year or so. It seems that Jeremy Hunt intends to take his responsibilities seriously. Important that this establishes the role and objectives of S4C, beyond the reach of BBC. Its also interesting that funding for S4C (currently settled until 2015) will from 2015 to 2017 be decided on by the BBC. Its crucial that there are effective levers over the BBC to deliver budgets acceptable to the DCMS. I need to be reassured that the 'review' process for S4C and licence fee negotiations running up to charter renewal in 2017 are strong enough.

There remain uncertainties, and potential for disagreement and debate - which is why I anticipate an important role for Welsh MPs in ensuring a strong Welsh Language TV channel continues into the future.


Glyn Davies said...

Critical comments are acceptable and will be publishes - but not if they are annonymous.

Lionel said...

You still have a lot to ponder yourself glyn not least where your loyalties lie but you really have cooked your goose on the matter of s4c it will not be forgotten I`m afraid

Glyn Davies said...

Lionel - (if that is your real name). Your comment does not engage in any sort of diologue. I'm very happy to discuss those issues on which we might disagree. The world is often not as we would wish it to be.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

The referendum was on the question of enacting Section 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, it was not about the areas of government which might be devolved. Indeed I understand that your government is about to embark on a Callman type commission on giving the Assembly further areas of competence, so the referendum isn't a reason for devolving or not devolving broadcasting to Wales.

S4C commissions programmes from the BBC, ITV and other independent producers. Often the channel will ask all of its suppliers to pitch against each other for different programmes and will commission the best programme plan offered. If the BBC is involved in the governance and finance of S4C what guarantees can be given that BBC programmes are not given preference over the pitches of other producers?

Will S4C continue to be available outside Wales on Freeview after the BBC takes over? The Corporation is adamant that BBC Alba should not be available outside Scotland – will they take the same attitude towards S4C?

Simon Brooks said...

How can 'effective levers over the BBC' be ensured regarding independence and post 2015 funding for S4C? Surely this can only happen either by a late Government amendment at Report Stage of the Public Bodies Bill, or via the BBC giving ground in their negotiations with S4C on core principles. Are either likely to happen? People are very worried and concerned following the vote and DCMS-BBC agreement announcement on Thursday.

Anonymous said...

I was anon Thu Sep 15, 09:44:00 PM who raised the question, and I thank you for latest entry as explanation.

You say "Important that this establishes the role and objectives of S4C, beyond the reach of BBC" then you say "I accept that the BBC must be involved in governance arrangements". I can see what direction your argument is going in Glyn. It may be wise to slow down the speed of your narrative so your direction of travel is not evident on the very same entry of your blog. How can "independence" be maintained when the "governance" body controls the "role and objectives" ? You answer this with "Since most of S4C's future budget is to come from the BBC licence fee, I accept that the BBC must be involved in governance arrangements - but it must not be in a position of dominance." Surely, to govern effectively you have to have authority. If that authority is not available, then not only is the BBC tasked with something it cannot deliver, the directorship of S4C has a dilemma of who calls the tune. Is this a train operating franchise for broadcasting ? The chances of a group of MPs being able to govern through the Strategic Rail Authority was difficult, but for a group of mainly English MPs to part-govern a Welsh language television channel through a committee of the DCMS is pure fantasy. S4C took it's eye off the ball. Now they'll have two balls travelling in different directions from players who can't understand the game. I've tried to understand your logic, Glyn, but I think you've lost the plot.

The reason for my anon on my original response still exists for this one, but it is not malicious, it's a genuine point of discussion.

Jack Collins said...

"A referendum of Welsh voters was held in March which delivered a new devolutionary settlement, and its not going to be revisited while the signatures are still not dry"

How do you square this comment Glyn with the fact that your government in Westminster is initiating a Calman style commission that will look at futhrer devolution and changes to the fiscal settlement in Wales?

Glyn Davies said...

Some interesting points raised. I'll do my best.

Alwyn - The referendum in March did cover devolved powers. A new schedule of powers is an inherent part of the new settlement.
And the new arrangements for S4C requires that all of its commissioning budget is spent with 'independent' providers - except the agreed provision of around £20 million that the BBC has always provided at no cost to S4C

Simon - This is the area that concerns me most, and where I believe there is an important role for Welsh MPs. There are levers available to DCMS between 2015-2017. Firstly there is the 'review' of S4C which is likely to be very significant, and will outline the shape of S4C ahead. And during the relevant period, there will be negotiations between S4C and DCMS about renewal of the charter in 2017. Perhaps those who criticised me (the Western Mail in particular) when I sought membership of the Culture Select committee rather than Welsh affairs can now understand why. Cannot be a member now because of PPS role. I accept that there is a crucial role for me to play - even if I'm likely to be dismissed as a UK MP by some.

Anon - Not sure what point you are trying to make. Position seems clear to me. Spending of public money has to be 'accountable'. S4C has to be 'accountable' to DCMS, and the Director General of the BBC has to be 'accountable' for BBC spending. This makes 'governance arrangements for S4C very complex indeed. We must ensure editorial independence, and DCMS must ensure that the BBC is not allowed to adopt a dominating approach. I accept that you and others do not regard Welsh MPs such as myself as representing Wales, but until and unless broadcasting is devolved that's the way it is. Because of the current complexity, I do not think either 'operational independence' or 'accoutability' can be total. It requires men and women of goodwill to make it work. So happens, my involvement with the Bill has made my thinking on these issues clear - to me at least.

Jack - I cannot write an essay as a blog post, so not every aspect is covered. Like last month in respect of energy, individual fields are not going to be considered seperately. Of course the devolution settlement will be revisited over the next few years. There are likely to be several commissions looking at it - not least the Gwydyr House Commission considering financial accountability, but another looking at the West Lothian Question. There are many balls in the air at present about how all this is going to be considered. We should have a much clearer idea before Xmas. What I do know is that there will be a lot of scope for thsoe interested in how Wales is governed to engage in debate. Lets hope that the BBC and others take more notice of what is happening at Westminster as well as Cardiff Bay - especially on non-devolved issues. For example, you will know mthe importance of last week's debate in Committee, and my role in it. I spent several hours unable to sleep worrying about it, but the the BBC made absolutely no contact at all.

David Harris said...

I tend to agree with Barry Morgan when opposing the changes to S4C he said:

"When S4C was first established, it was protected by legislation from political interference. With the passing of the Public Bodies Bill, it will have lost that protection."

S4C is moving from a position where it had a guaranteed funding stream in statute, to one where it has none at all. The BBC can make such big cuts to the budget that S4C will no longer be operationally independent. It will be gobbled up by the BBC, simply because there'll be no statutory protection for it.

The question for you Glyn is, do you think there should be some type of funding formula (not necessarily the existing one) in this Bill to protect S4C's independence and long term stablity? Yes or No?

That's what the Welsh Affairs Committee recommended, it's hard to see why you would disagree with that.

Roger Williams said...

Thank you for starting this discussion Glynn. I think it's vital to understand why people are concerned about what's happening to S4C at the moment. The coalition government came to power with a programme of cuts. S4C like other areas of DCMS funding has been cut. However, unlike other DCMS funding bodies, S4C has also seen the legislation on which it was built, and safeguarded, slowly dismantled. It might be argued that the Coalition was elected on a ticket to cut public spending, but the fundamental changes to the way S4C is funded weren't talked about until the DCMS struck a deal with the the BBC. No consultation. Not with Welsh politicians OR S4C.

Promises have been made about an independent S4C and yet last Thursday's announcement that the BBC will now decide S4C's funding post 2015 blow that claim apart.

What we are witnessing is the dismantling of an important institution established not just to make tv programmes but to promote and sustain the language.

If funding levels fall much lower it will be almost impossible for S4C to carry out it's statutory duties. The BBC is under pressure to make cuts across the board. Why would the BBC - unless there was a mechanism in place to safeguard S4C's funding - choose to prioritise Welsh broadcasting over BBC4 or Radio 3?

I'm afraid the Conservatives seem dangerously close to not only weakening a minority language broadcaster that serves an audience far larger than most other digital channels in the UK, but damaging it forever.

I hope the Welsh Conservatives can prove they care about S4C, the language, and the creative industries in Wales by protecting the Channel's income.

Anonymous said...

You say "I do not think either operational independence or accountability can be total."

In fact, it is non existent, Glyn.

Section 6 (3) (b) of the Agreement between HM Sec of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport and the BBC says "The arrangements must contain operational arrangements agreed (subsequent to the governance arrangements) between the BBC and S4C." The point I am trying to make Glyn, is that that you have already agreed to an operational arrangement between S4C and the BBC.

This is not 'governance'. It is 'operational'.
You are being used.

Rhodri ap Dyfrig said...

I am in total agreement with Roger's points.

One other point to add to that is that if there is a review process which culminates in a decision by the BBC on funding levels from 2015 onwards, won't this leave S4C in a position in 2014/15 where they cannot plan anything for the next 2 years? Once again, as has happened with the funding uncertainties this year, the production sector will be left with no idea of how many hours will be available to pitch for. Any media service needs stability in order to plan ahead. Not a healthy state for creativity or business.

The words offered by many Conservatives about keeping the BBC in check give no solace at all for those who worry about the future of Welsh language media.

Glyn Davies said...

Firstly, I must point out that there are certain givens which are above my pay grade. I have made no comment on the decision to transfer part of S4C funding to the licence fee. I did not know it was going to happen until it was announced as a done deal. Now, I would have serious concerns if the feal were not to go ahead. In passing its also the case that I would need to resign as a PPS to challenge a Governemnt decision, and would sacrifice my opportunity to influence. Having pointed out that....

David - I had to face up to the inflation-proofed funding link very early on - when S4C agreed a controversial funding reduction of £2 million. I realised that the end of the statutory link was inevitable. The Public Bodies Bill is but the vehicle for doing it. I will say (and this is a personal opinion) that I would like to see a return to a statutory link at some stage in the future - perhaps when prospects for the UK economy are more stable.

Roger - Anyone who cares about the future of the Welsh Language has concerns about the future management arrangements for S4C. At issue is how we see the best way to protect the Channel. In my opinion, the stautory link had to be ended in order that funding reductions could take place. I saw that as being inevitable.

Of course I have concerns about the future 'independence' of S4C. I did not know about the funding arrangements form 2015-17 until late last week. And I do want reassurance that Parliament has sufficient 'leverage' over BBC to ensure funding is what MPs would wish it to be. And I say MPs because broadcasting is not devolved. Many might wish it to be - but its not. So its MPs who need the 'leverage'. I can grasp what these levers might be, but this will inevitable be an issue that I will raise with the Sec. of State when back at Westminster in two weeks time.

Rhodri - As you can deduce from above I sympathise with the point you raise and will be seeking assurances at the ealiest opportunity.

Bethan W said...

You talk of the management of S4C and that the BBC should not be ‘in a position of dominance’ in the so-called partnership between S4C and the BBC. This means nothing, when the BBC come to decide on the funding of S4C from 2015 any number of constitutional structures can be in place but with the BBC deciding how much money S4C receives they will be in full control.

The talk of a review is all well and good as well but what good is a review when the decissions have been made?

What still needs to happen is for S4C to be taken out of the Public Bodies Bill (like Channel 4) and a full review of the channel to be held with any decissions made on the basis of the outcomes of that review.

Ifor Williams -Llwyngwern said...

Glyn, thanks for standing up for S4C - not only is it vitally important for the language but our economy as well. People in Wales pay for a TV licence as well as English people and with S4C that money gets spent here. It not true that S4C is for the 'privileged few' it's watched by Welsh speakers and employs Welsh & English speakers in our rural Welsh speaking communities and you more than almost anybody know that they are poor areas but because of the wonderful landscape that poverty is largely hidden. Jeremy Hunt and sorry others in your party have got this wrong. The BBC are not taking a massive hit are they? I am sure Sir Wyn is not happy, after all he did as much as Gwynfor Evans (almost) to secure the channel, behind the scenes he fought like a terrier - I know because I was there !

The last thing we want is people going to prison again, after all you've done some much to banish the 'anti-Welsh' feeling that at one time surrounded your party in Wales. In fact if it was led by that David Melding I would join tomorrow.

Come on Glyn, make them see sense in London and don't let Jeremy Hunt bully us !

Ifor said...

Another thing where is 'Lionel' coming from ? Is angry because your standing up for S4C or angry because your not ?

Reg said...

Alwyn ap Huw-

S4C has never been available on Freeview outside Wales, and hopefully never will be.