9 December 2015
Article by Robin Wilkinson National Assembly for Wales Research Service
The rules that set out how the BBC is run and what it should do are currently being reviewed by the UK Government. The BBC’s constitution is set out in a Royal Charter, while further details are described in an Agreement between the BBC and the UK Government. The renewal of the Charter provides a rare opportunity (the current Charter has been in place since 2006) for politicians and the public to influence how the BBC is financed and operated. The Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee has taken this opportunity, and has recently conducted an inquiry into how the Charter should best reflect Welsh interests.
A shortage of Welsh output and portrayal on the BBC
The Committee heard how, over the current Charter period, there has been a reduction of 15 per cent in the number of hours produced by BBC Cymru Wales, and a reduction of 32 per cent in its spend on English language programming in Wales. The Committee also heard that Wales is badly underrepresented in terms of how it is portrayed on the UK-wide network. Dr John Geraint, Creative Director of Green Bay Media, told the Committee that “Wales needs to express a sense of outrage at this state of affairs.”
Increased production spend in Wales
Although witnesses said that the portrayal of Welsh life on the BBC needed urgent improvement, they welcomed the increase in BBC production spend in Wales. The BBC told the Committee that – largely through its Roath Lock drama production development in Cardiff – the BBC now spends 6.5 per cent of its television production budget in Wales (which can be compared to Wales’s 5 per cent share of the UK population). Members of the Committee welcomed the BBC’s increased network spend in Wales, but highlighted the fact that this does not tackle the issues of declining domestic output and limited Welsh representation on network productions.
It was put to the Committee that the BBC had succeeded in moving production outside of London by introducing measurable commitments: proving that the BBC is adept at changing its production processes when it is required to do so. Consequently, an academic panel said that the BBC must be set measurable targets for portrayal, and improve its commissioning processes to ensure it meets these targets.
Members put these issues to Lord Hall, the Director General of the BBC, and Rhodri Talfan Davies, Director of BBC Cymru Wales, on 26 November. Lord Hall stressed what he saw as the “extraordinary success of Roath Lock” and network spend outside of London, but conceded that now “the issue is very much portrayal”. This is one of the issues he felt the BBC could address under a review he had called for of its commissioning arrangements.
New governance arrangements proposed
In the meeting Lord Hall proposed a new set of governance arrangements under the Charter, including a service licence agreement for Wales. This would be an agreement setting out specifically what the BBC’s responsibilities are in Wales. He also highlighted that the Assembly should play a role in holding the BBC to account under any new arrangements.
A “real constraint on the BBC’s ambition”
The backdrop to the Committee’s discussions was a funding settlement – agreed between the UK Government and the BBC in July 2015 – that Lord Hall felt puts a “real constraint on the BBC’s ambition”. The BBC states that it expects its budget to be “cash flat” between 2017-18 and 2021-22: “effectively a real terms reduction of 10 per cent depending on inflation forecasts”. Pushed by the Committee for a response to the Welsh Government’s calls for an extra £30 million of funding for BBC Cymru Wales, Lord Hall said that it is too early to forecast how the BBC’s financial outlook will impact on BBC Cymru Wales’ expenditure.
The BBC’s importance to Wales
As Rhodri Talfan Davies told the Committee, “the BBC has a disproportionate responsibility in Wales”. The Committee heard from a number of witnesses that there was a market failure elsewhere in the Welsh media, increasing the importance of the BBC as a provider of Welsh-specific content. Perhaps highlighting this fact, the BBC currently attracts a greater proportion of viewers in Wales than in other areas of the UK. The challenge the BBC in Wales faces is how it can tackle the shortage of Welsh portrayal on a decreasing budget. CELG committee members will consider their report after Christmas, and how they will feed their views into the UK Government’s review.