Huw David Jones reports on the findings of an Assembly inquiry which calls for a media policy forum to advise Welsh Government
Lately the media sector in Wales has been going through something of a crisis. In October 2011, BBC Wales announced 100 job losses as part of its Delivering Quality First Review. ITV Wales has reduced its Welsh news output to just four hours a week. And Welsh language broadcaster S4C has been forced to merge with the BBC after a high profile management crisis led to the departure its chief executive and chairman. Meanwhile, the Western Mail, Wales’s only national newspaper, has been shedding jobs in the face of growing competition from online media. True, there have been some rays of sunshine, such as the opening of the BBC’s new drama studios at Cardiff Bay. Yet the overall outlook for the media remains like typical Welsh weather: wet, grey and miserable.
In response, Wales’s National Assembly setup a cross-party inquiry in September 2011, to look into the current state of the media in Wales and to identify priorities for the forthcoming Communications Act. After taking evidence over three months from ministers, broadcasters, journalists, academics and trade unions, the inquiry, chaired by Labour AM and former journalist Ken Skates, has just released its report. It makes interesting reading.
While sidestepping the issue of whether broadcasting policy, currently the reserve of Westminster, should be devolved, the report recommends establishing an independent advisory forum ‘to take a strategic, holistic view across all of the media in Wales, and to be able to provide independent policy advice to the Welsh Government and its sector-specific panels’. One of the advisory forum’s first tasks, the report goes on to say, would be to ‘map the media needs of the people of Wales’.
The report also calls on Assembly committees to do more to scrutinise broadcasters and the media regulator Ofcom, and for the Welsh Government to secure a better deal for Wales from both ITV Wales and Channel 4. It even raises the prospect of a separate Channel 3 license for Wales.
Turning to the problems of the press in Wales, the report calls for more research into alternative business models and greater public support for struggling newspapers. Yet it stops short of calling for direct press subsidies of the kind seen in Norway and Sweden, as recommended by the Centre for the Study of Media and Culture in Small Nations in its evidence to the inquiry.
The report’s findings will certainly be welcomed by Welsh civic society, which has long campaigned for a media policy forum. However, at a time of squeezed budgets, the Welsh Government may be reluctant to pay for advice in an area over which it has little direct influence.
Questions also remain about how the proposed policy forum will operate: will it conduct research, perhaps in partnership with local universities, in developing evidence-based policies, or simply become another talking shop for the ‘crachach’, the Welsh media and political elite? Wales has a habit of setting up committees which provide plenty of talking but no real action.
Still, in the absence of any serious move towards the devolution of broadcasting, the Welsh Government would be wise to consider setting up an independent media policy forum, not least to ensure public service broadcasters are fulfilling their obligations to Wales. As the report concludes, ‘given the importance of the media to the culture and economy of Wales, such an investment will bring significant benefits over time’.
This article was originally published on the LSE Media Policy Project blog.