Exploring the devolution of broadcasting

Published 22/03/2021   |   Last Updated 22/03/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

On 24 March Plenary will debate the recent Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee report, Exploring the devolution of broadcasting: how can Wales get the media it needs?

“The supply of media content for Wales is inadequate”, according to the Senedd’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee. It called for further powers over broadcasting to be devolved to Wales, including a formal role in setting the licence fee, and responsibility for Welsh language broadcaster S4C.

Devolution of broadcasting is not a binary issue

“Broadcasting and other media” is currently a reserved matter, meaning that the power to pass laws in this area rests with the UK Government. But in recent years, the Welsh Government and Senedd have gained a number of formal roles, from appointing the Wales member of the Ofcom board to scrutinising public service broadcasters on their activities in Wales.

Broadcasting expert Professor David Hutchison described the evolving distribution of power and activity around broadcasting in the UK as “creeping devolution”. From this perspective, the devolution of broadcasting stops being a binary issue, but becomes a matter of degree. The important question, the Committee therefore felt, was not “should broadcasting be devolved?”, but “how much of broadcasting should be devolved?”

The Committee unanimously supported further devolution of broadcasting, as well as changes within the current constitutional arrangement, but was divided over how far this devolution should go.

Funding: “Wales needs greater influence in licence fee discussions”

The biggest public intervention in UK broadcasting is the licence fee, which funds the BBC and S4C. In 2018-19 the total the total licence fee generated spend in Wales (including network content) was £253.5 million, £69.5 million more than the BBC estimates is raised in Wales.

Since 2010 the UK Government has used the licence fee to fund additional activity, from rural broadband rollout to S4C, reducing the amount of funding otherwise available to the BBC. Most recently, in 2019, the UK Government decided to stop funding licences for over-75s whilst passing the responsibility to decide on the future of this concession to the BBC.

The cumulative effect of these changes to the BBC’s funding has been a real terms cut to public funding for services aired for UK audiences of 30% in the past decade.

Professor Justin Lewis noted that the centralisation of broadcasting power in London meant that the “Westminster government has taken decisions about the BBC licence fee settlement which the Welsh Government is likely to have opposed”. He advocated what could be called a ‘federal model’, where Wales has power over broadcasting, but uses this power to make decisions collaboratively with other UK nations about broadcasting at a UK level.

The Committee endorsed this view, in relation to setting the licence fee. Currently the licence fee is set by the UK Government following negotiations with the BBC and S4C. An improvement, the committee thought, would be for this to be done by an independent commission, with distinct Welsh representation.

Regulation: will broadcasters pay more for a devalued resource?

Direct funding, as happens through the licence fee, is one route to securing media content for Wales. Another is by the state providing a scarce resource (a coveted slot on the television electronic programme guide, for example, or a broadcasting frequency) to a commercial broadcaster (such as ITV or commercial radio broadcasters) in return for a set volume of public service content (such as local news).

The recent trend has been towards deregulation. This reflects the diminished commercial value of regulated platforms (such as broadcast television and radio) in a world of unregulated online competition. In 2009 Ofcom relaxed ITV’s requirements for Wales in the Channel 3 licence, and more recently Ofcom, under instruction from the UK Government, has been relaxing the conditions of commercial radio licences.

The question for anyone looking to secure more public service content through regulation is whether commercial providers would, in essence, pay more for the regulated resource?

Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg thought they would, telling the Committee “it's very common worldwide that there are regulations in favour of minority languages in places such as the Basque Country and Catalunya” and that the Committee should not listen to “capitalists whose only concern is profit”.

Nation Radio’s Martin Mumford, however, warned that commercial operators take the “route of least resistance”, and that in the advent of further regulation of commercial radio in Wales, broadcasters may leave the country.

The Committee identified several areas where they felt further regulation was needed, and could be borne by the market. ITV’s network spend in Wales is consistently the lowest of all the PSBs, by both spend and hours. The Committee therefore called for the Welsh Government to have a new role in contributing to the terms of the next Channel 3 licence, which should require ITV to produce more network content in Wales.

Ofcom currently does not have powers to require the inclusion of particular content – such as Welsh language requirements – in commercial radio formats. Campaigners feel this has led to a diminution of Welsh language content on commercial radio. The Committee agreed, calling for the UK Government to provide a regulatory body with the power to require Welsh language content in commercial radio licences, again, with input from the Welsh Government.

S4C: an “anomaly” that powers over Welsh language broadcasting do not lie in Wales

Welsh language broadcaster S4C operates according to a remit set by the UK Government, which has a statutory duty to ensure that S4C receives “sufficient” funding. The Committee called it an “anomaly” that powers over S4C reside in London, and not in the country where the language of its content is largely spoken.

It called for powers over S4C (such as setting a remit for the broadcaster, and ongoing accountability) and other public service Welsh language broadcasting matters to be devolved.

Should the Welsh Government be saying ‘Please remember Wales’?

The Welsh Government has consistently opposed the devolution of broadcasting, with the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism telling the Committee in 2017 “the policy role of Welsh Government here is to ensure that the UK Government is aware of the needs of Wales in any of its decisions in this whole area”.

However, in 2018, during the Committee’s radio inquiry he said he was not “particularly fond of this idea that the role of Crown Ministers is to go, cap in hand, to ask DCMS Ministers, ‘Please remember Wales’”. Instead, he felt that the correct approach was to ensure Wales had “robust representation on the UK regulatory bodies”, which, in the case of Ofcom, and the BBC, he felt it had.

The Committee has called for the Welsh Government to set out how the provision of media content for audiences in Wales can be improved. How much will further devolution of broadcasting be part of its answer?

Article by Robin Wilkinson, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament