BBC Wales yesterday announced its “saving” plan – or cuts, as most of us call it – as part of the Delivering Quality First (DQF) measures which have in turn come about as a result of the UK Government’s decision to freeze the Television Licence, and its plan to call on the BBC to cut budgets by 20% across the board.
BBC Wales told us that its budget would be cut by ￡10.7 million and that 100- 120 jobs would go in the next five years. Some 20 new posts will be created, which I’m sure will be of little comfort at all to those who will have to find new careers in a country where the media is already very weak.
Naturally, BBC Wales’ management has tried to put a positive spin on this, saying that it is protecting news, creating two new correspondent roles, for the economy and for the arts, and establishing a new investigation and research unit to aid journalists on key news programmes both through the medium of English and Welsh. The emphasis, I am told by those around the management team, is on making changes and savings to “non-content” areas of the BBC – which, I take it, are those who are not directly involved in making programmes. Management also maintains that the quality of service for the viewer will not diminish. Time will tell whether this will be possible with less staff and squeezed budgets.
Statutory consultation by the BBC Trust will now take place, with Elen Clos Stephens, Wales’s representative on the Trust, leading this process. The public can now have its say, but it will clearly be based on the announcement yesterday, and I question what weight this consultation will carry.
The Trade Union BECTU has stirred the debate up somewhat by calling on Clos Stephens to resign for failing to challenge the cuts to BBC Wales at Trust level. This is not a new line of thinking, as Cymdeithas yr Iaith also called for her to go over the BBC-S4/C funding debacle which is – for anyone who doesn’t know – still ongoing (it might be able to happen at a quicker pace if S4/C’s new chief executive were in post, but let’s not go there today).
These cuts are politically driven by the UK coalition government, and this is far from good news for Wales. The atmosphere at BBC Wales, I am told, is already tense. Dragon’s Eye will go, to be replaced by a show commissioned out to the independent sector, with a remit of creating a programme on ‘public life’ in Wales. The mid week politics show in Wales AM:PM will only be aired on a Tuesday and discontinue on a Wednesday, as it currently does. This will concern those of us in opposition parties at the National Assembly, whose opposition debates (which are always on a Wednesday afternoon) may suffer as a consequence, and thus affect people’s access to Welsh democracy by default. Staff should be rightly worried that detail on which jobs will actually go is currently vague, and this is bound to affect morale in the meantime.
When you consider the big picture it can be seen that the BBC has opted for keeping the Westminster government happy, by salami slicing budgets across the UK rather than thinking about what sort of services it should be providing, or by providing a clear vision. And in relation to Wales, of course, the key question is, if the UK Government has such little regard for BBC Wales, what is it going to do to S4/C post-2015, when the future of the channel and its funding is far from certain?
Naturally, these cuts must frame our discussion on the newly-formed task and finish group looking in to the future of the media in Wales at the National Assembly, and integral to this work, in my opinion, is making the case for the devolution of broadcasting to Wales. This is to ensure that we can make key decisions over the future of our media here in Wales, in a post-referendum-on-further-powers age, where retaining and developing interest in Welsh democracy is vital to the make up of BBC Wales, and the media at large.
Labour in Wales is opposed to devolving broadcasting at this stage, despite Peter Hain appearing to be very worried in today’s Western Mail “at the continuing cuts to political coverage”. It’s all very well to grandstand on this issue, but as far as I can see, it’s time for Labour in Wales to actually stand up and challenge the UK government on this very issue. The fact that I have been unsuccessful on two occasions already this term in attempting to encourage the Welsh Government to initiate a debate on broadcasting and the future of the media in Wales in the Senedd chamber, in government time, shows how ministers are failing to prioritise an issue that others consider is of the utmost importance to democracy in Wales and scrutinising those of who are making decisions on behalf of the people of Wales.