MENNA Richards, the former Director of BBC Wales, delivered a lecture last week in which she criticised politicians for focusing on the future of S4/C to the detriment of BBC Wales and its English language output.
First of all, I’d urge Menna Richards to look at what some AMs like myself have raised in the Senedd on this matter, or look at news stories regarding the BBC’s Delivering Quality First agenda – its cuts programme – before laying any blame at the door of the Assembly or further afield.
If Menna Richards hadn’t been in post as Director of BBC Wales for the last 10 years, presiding over cuts to staffing and programming, then perhaps her words might carry weight. Searching the web to find examples of her opposition to reductions over that past decade, there is nothing to find apart from her views following her announcement to leave the Corporation, which is telling.
I cannot, for example, find comments from her expressing concern about problems to English language output on the BBC, but I can find praise for BBC Wales produced programmes such as Doctor Who and Torchwood.
In October 2007 she announced cuts to staff in Cardiff and Bangor, saying: “The next five years are going to be a real test of our creative abilities. But the ambition is simple, our audiences must regard us an indispensable part of their lives’. No sign of any urgent concerns over the future of BBC Wales there.
And of Doctor Who, she was quoted in 2008 as saying: “I think the idea that Wales is producing the single most successful television series on British television for a generation says something not only about the talent that exists here, but also about the confidence Wales has about going out there and producing output that is as good as – indeed, better – than anything else.”
All very positive and confident. There is nothing here regarding her concerns that programmes created by BBC Wales under her watch do not reflect the “obsessions” and “passions” of Welsh life. It is all about celebrating the fact that made in Wales programmes have a network audience, and which successful outside of Wales.
How does this fit with her recent concern that programmes that reflect Welsh life are not being created? The out-of-London BBC quota means that there is a statutory obligation for many shows to be made and created outside of London. I invariably hear widespread support for this quota, but this does not necessarily lead to programming that reflects our everyday lives as Welsh citizens, though it does mean that more Welsh people can make said programmes, and gain experience in the creative industries sector. There is a key difference. But the blogger Dic Mortimer, (whatever his political motivation) has made this key point in a blog about BBC broadcasting in Wales:
“While the budget for programmes made in Wales for Wales shrinks each year, the budget for programmes made in Wales for the UK correspondingly rises, making a nonsense of the whole purpose of BBC Wales and turning it into just another London out-station. After a decade of striving Richards has achieved her aim, and now a whole 1% of BBC programmes broadcast across the UK emanate from Wales. Wow. And even in those Wales is never the subject but, at best, just a backdrop or a name-check, as in Doctor Who and its spin-offs.”
Some of you may disagree with this quote. But while in no way endorsing it, it is a point worth exploring to the extent that some independent companies – in fact, it was mentioned by Green Bay Media in the evidence session to the Assembly’s Task and Finish group on the future outlook of the media in Wales only last week – that quotas for programming should be developed into regional quotas as part of the new Communications Bill. This could mean that developing programming could be specified for a particular area of the UK, as opposed to being ’out of London’.
This could encourage more investment in Wales, rather than production moving to other parts of England. But on top of that, the condition for change, in my view, should include creating more programmes in Wales for network specifically about Wales. For example, as TAC mentioned in their evidence session to the Task and Finish Group, a progamme could not only be developed for BBC Wales and network, but also in Welsh for S4/C, and adaoted for our national radio stations. This could widen its appeal and reach, as opposed to being confined to one broadcaster or to one medium.
There is a fine line between promoting the success of made in Wales programming internationally, and creating programmes about Wales that reflect our heritage and culture. Ideally, ideas for programmes should be developed so that the ones about Wales could be equally as successful, and resonate so that they become commissioned across the network.
We are finding ourselves in the position where Welsh-based and indigenous Welsh companies are winning commissions from channels outside of Wales to develop programmes about a wide variety of issues that have no bearing on Welsh life, partly due to cuts to both BBC Wales and S4/C. While we must encourage companies to look outward, it is deeply frustrating for companies that were created mainly with the aspiration and goal in mind to tell stories about Wales and its people, to be hindered in their creative development due to the current cuts climate.
This situation is intensified by the fact that current BBC Wales management seems to be continuing the stance that Menna Richards took when she was controller, spinning the fact that “efficiency savings” to BBC Wales will somehow make the channel better, and more effective in the future. How is this so?
It is all well and good for Menna Richards to say, now that she has left the Corporation, that politicians need to concentrate more on BBC Wales cuts. But when the people currently at the top do not recognize that there is a problem, what can we do? If current management will not say to BBC bosses in London that they are being hindered in developing programmes about Wales that reflect Welsh life, then that makes our lives more difficult in communicating our concerns to the wider public. When management seem to question our public concerns over cuts and restructuring to BBC Wales, albeit in a more private fashion, how does this help us formulate an agenda of concern to take to BBC chiefs in London?
This was possible with S4/C because those in charge of the channel stated at every possible opportunity given to them that they opposed the cuts to S4/C. BBC Wales management have been more or less silent, while acknowledging that it is a difficult time for staff at the corporation. And has Menna Richards’s concerns been raised with Elen Clos Stephens, BBC Wales’s representative on the BBC Trust?
In my work as an AM, I try to look at the situation of broadcasting and media across the board in Wales, and do not set out to single one element out as more, or less important. People would have been quick to judge us if we had ignored the problems S4C have faced in this last year, it is worth noting.
I see that there are issues, but on a wide spectrum – in the paper industry, in broadcasting regarding BBC Wales and S4/C, and also ITV Wales, whose license comes up for renewal soon, in commercial radio regarding welsh language provision, in delivering the Hargreaves Review and so forth.
It is not helpful for a former BBC Wales Director to somehow imply that politicians are prioritizing one channel or one broadcaster over another, without truly assessing the facts, or recognizing how harmful to Wales such comments are in the current climate.
What we need to realise is that much is happening now to look for viable and creative solutions for the future, to develop the Welsh media industry so that in 10 years time we are not still looking back and talking of a crisis in an industry that is so integral to shaping our culture, heritage and way of life.