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Thursday, October 14, 2010

The devolution of broadcasting and the future of S4C

Former First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, has just said on Radio Wales that the Welsh Government were offered responsibility for S4C by the previous Labour Government but turned it down because they did not want to pit its funding against their other responsibilities for health and education.

I am not sure whether this has been publicly admitted before, perhaps others can enlighten me. However, what Rhodri's admission does do is put the current row over the funding of S4C into stark perspective.

Plaid Cymru have been making a lot of fuss in the chamber and in the media over what they see as an assault on the Welsh Language. How will they react now that they know that their coalition allies could have taken action to protect the channel from these cuts and that they did not do so because they knew they would have had to take exactly the same sort of decisions as the UK Culture Minister as to its future funding?

Update: This revelation takes on new significance with the announcement today that the UK government plans to reform the funding mechanism for S4C. They are right that the current arrangements are unsustainable in the current climate but the Welsh Government's protests now sound hollow in the light of the fact that they had an opportunity to take direct control of the channel's future and turned it down.
Peter, the mistake you're making is to think that responsibility for funding S4C is the same as devolving broadcasting to Wales.

RhM made the point very specifically in the interview: that it is meaningless to devolve just one part of the broadcasting mix. You have at the same time to devolve oversight of the BBC in Wales, the terms of the channel 3 licence, the terms of bids for bandwidth on Freeview ... and everything else, including radio. You can't fly a plane if you only have control of one lever, with all the other levers still in firmly in the hands of the DCMS in Westminster.

It's all or nothing. But I hope that the row that is going to erupt as Jeremy Hunt is now forced to try and change the law in Parliament in order to get his way—rather than try and bully through a "voluntary" cut behind closed doors—will bring devolution for the whole of broadcasting that much closer.

Let me put you on the spot, Peter. Do you think that responsibility for broadcasting as a whole should be devolved to Wales and Scotland?
Peter, this is not a particularly helpful post.

Most Welsh-speakers know that Rhodri Morgan has always been deeply ambivalent about support for the Welsh language. My interpretation of his comments are that they are a backhand attempt to undermine S4C.

However, little is gained by seeking to justify the cuts on this basis. These cuts to a public broadcaster cannot be justified unless the BBC licence fee is cut by a similar percentage. This would hold true regardless of whether Cardiff or London held the purse strings.

It would be good if the Lib Dems AMS could follow the Welsh Tory example in the Assembly, and oppose these cuts in a vocal manner.

If this is impossible then the shrewd thing perhaps might be to keep mum about the whole business.
MH: I do now the difference. This post is about the funding of S4C and how the Welsh Government could have taken control of the situation by accepting responsibility for it when offered. I accept that in reality we would have wanted much more but that is not the point. Yes, I am in favour of devolving broadcasting and have said so a number of times on this blog.

Simon, sorry if the post is not helpful but it reflects my view.
But why is this your view, Peter?

What exactly are the principles which justify cutting the budget of Public Broadcaster A (S4C) by 25-40%, while the income of Public Broadcaster B (BBC)is merely frozen?

Why should a minority group/small nation be singled out in this way?
The great majority of Welsh viewers probably only watch S4C for the rugby. If they were paid in proportion to the number of people who watch their programmes...they would be in a very parlous position!
Simon, I have blogged on this before and a search of my blog will find more detail. S4C is funded from general taxation, the BBC is not. I do not see how it can compete with health and education for funding. It needs to remain sustainable but it cannot escape cuts when the economy is in such a mess.
The BBC is funded by an effective poll tax. This at least seems to be their attitude, given the exceptionally strong wording of letters they send to households who do not own aerials. It isn't particularly helpful to differentiate funding on the basis of whether it has been laundered in Whitehall or not: it is still public money, paid for by effective taxes. One has no option to decline to subscribe to the BBC: it is a tax, not a subscription. If anything, it would be best to merge S4/C and BBC Cymru, retaining the funding structure of the latter, then making the Whitehall money launderers redundant. Then we could stop paying for English BBC1's dubious view of talent and actually develop multiple channels with BBC4-sized budgets in both languages here in Wales.
Peter, According to Betsan Powys in this post on her blog, when Rhodri Morgan was offered control of funding S4C it was with "not much money attached". I'll take her word for it, although RhM didn't actually say that in the interview.

So the picture is this: the Welsh Government was offered the chance of paying for S4C out of its block grant, but without that block grant being increased to the same degree as S4C was financed under the funding formula set out in the Broadcasting Act.

Now, Peter, you cannot seriously think that anyone with more than a dozen brain cells would accept such an offer. So why (apart from to indulge in a little political sniping) are you criticizing the then Welsh Government because "they had an opportunity to take direct control of the channel's future and turned it down"? Be careful what you say. For all I know, this offer might well have been made when the LibDems were part of the Welsh Government. I bet you wouldn't be so eager to criticize if it was.

No, in my opinion the Welsh Government should be praised for turning down any offer made on such terms.

Betsan also said that Jeremy Hunt's current aim is to transfer the funding responsibility for S4C to the WG, but with "absolutely no money". Are you going to tell us that you, or any other LibDem politician, approve of this aim? That certainly seems to be what you imply when you say "they knew they would have had to take exactly the same sort of decisions as the UK Culture Minister as to its future funding.
Sorry, the way I read Betsan's blog she has no more information that you or I. She is interpreting Rhodri's comments as saying there was not much money attached but he did not say that. He actually said that the Government did not want to put S4C funding into the mix with education and health. i.e. they did not want to make the difficult decisions now being made in Westminster. It is likely that the offer would have been to transfer S4C with the actual funding so it would have been revenue neutral. It is also likely that this would have been the same offer from Jeremy Hunt, after all she is mostly reflecting Welsh Govt spin here. That is the reality of taking on functions like this.

The UK Government, whatever its colour will do nobody any favours on this. You either take responsibility and all that goes with it or you do not. In these circumstances you soon find out who the true devolutionists are.

The offer was not made when the Welsh Lib Dems were in Government.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that you said that you would prefer that S4C's budget was spent on health rather than broadcasting!

Would S4C be safer if devolved to a coalition government that included Lib Dems than it is under the current arrangement that includes Lib Dems?
Alwyn, I said no such thing. What I said was that in terms of priorities, when it comes to cuts in budget health and education are more important. That does not mean that a situation is created where S4C is unsustainable, just that they should contribute to the rebalancing of the economy in the same way as anybody else.
How anyone can expect a government committed to cutting public expenditure to protect S4C is difficult to understand. The problem with this debate is that here we have a service which has no relevance to most people in the UK but which a small minority of people in Wales expect UK taxpayers to finance even when services in England are going to be hammered. It's just not logical. What would be logical would be to transfer the service to an Assembly which had revenue raising powers in Wales. The Assembly could then raise taxes to finance S4C.Failing that who knows perhaps some Welsh politician might suggest that the TV licence could be increased in Wales to finance S4C. Whether either of these options would be popular with the majority of voters is of course another matter. But at least it would lead to a more grown up mature approach to politics other than it's all the fault of those nasty 'London based' parties. No responsible politician in the present financial climate can support a policy which guarantees a public service an income which automatically rises with inflation. Only this week the UK Coalition announced that in future pensions and benefits will increase in line with the CPI instead of RPI or the Rossi Index. This decision will see thousands in Wales worse off. Yet not a word of protest. Yet hit S4C and the full force of the Welsh establishment is mustered against the State.Meanwhile the majority of people living in Wales wonder when will in the words of Nye Bevan politicians will start to represent their 'hopes and aspirations'.
Jeff, you are yet another politican who has not answered the central question here.

Why, in the middle of this spending crisis, does the BBC licence fee remain unchanged?

Isn't the licence fee of £145.50 rather expensive and would not a reduction of say 40% to £87.30 not help the ordinary man and woman in the street?

The answer is that the BBC is regarded as "above cuts" because public broadcasting is seen as central to a nation's DNA.

But if so, why should the S4C budget be reduced by up to 40%? Is it not essential to the survival of Welsh-speaking Wales?

What we need on the issue of cuts is parity and fair play.
Simon if broadcasting is essential to a nation's DNA as you claim then the obvious solution is for the Assembly to take control of S4C . Assembly politicians of course wouldn't do this because they know that the majority of voters in Wales would probably not support any money going to S4C. In exactly the same way none of them want revenue raising powers for the Assembly even though every community council has such powers. It's far easier it seems to give interviews criticising the UK Coalition rather than taking responsibility. It reminds me of student union politics in the early 1970s. You should ask yourself why do so many Weslh speakers not watch S4C? I might not understand the programme but I can't understand how anyone believes that broadcasting what often appears to be a Welsh version of the White Heather Club at peak time in the 21st century will ever attract viewers. There has to be something radically wrong with a TV channel when its most watched programmes are often rugby matches.
Peter, I do acknowledge that the LibDems want to see broadcasting devolved to Wales; and I know that you were on the National Assembly's Broadcasting Committee, so I'd expect you to have a fuller picture than most.

The trouble with devolving broadcasting to Wales (and Scotland) is the relationship with the remainder of the UK. The large majority of progammes broadcast are for a UK-wide audience, and the amount of Wales-specific (or regional-specific) broadcasting is shrinking rather than growing. Rhodri Morgan's response a couple of days ago was to dismiss devolution of broadcasting on the grounds that you can't split BBC Cymru/Wales from the rest of the BBC ... which I think is a red-herring, because I don't think it is necessary to do that.

However, I would be interested to know more about how the LibDems see devolution of broadcasting working. I wouldn't expect you to give me a full answer here on the blog, of course, but has someone in your party produced a proposal or policy paper on the subject? If not specifically for Wales, perhaps you might have done it for Scotland ... for I guess the principles would be the same. My reason for asking is in order to find some common ground between the LibDems and Plaid on this subject. As we both want the same thing, it would be worth comparing notes about how we see it working in practice.

To be frank, I personally don't know if Plaid has produced a policy paper either, but I'll ask on Monday. Though perhaps others reading this can point me in the right direction. My own thoughts on how devolved broadcasting might work are here.
I think the Broadcasting Sub Commttee report is going in the right direction on devolution of powers though I did not disagree with much of what Ieuan Wyn Jones outlined a few months ago.
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