Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 93

Memorandum submitted by the Plaid Cymru Parliamentary Group

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Recommendation 1

  We believe that Wales needs to have representation at the most senior level at OFCOM in order to ensure that the special circumstances and needs of the Welsh nation are sufficiently addressed. Wales should have its own representative on the OFCOM Board.

Recommendation 2

  It must be ensured that the National Assembly for Wales has a strong say in appointing Welsh representatives, both within OFCOM, and on the Consumer Panel. The National Assembly for Wales should nominate the Welsh representatives, with the final decision resting with the Secretary of State. This is the system that is currently used to appoint the Welsh member on the BBC Board of Governors

Recommendation 3

  OFCOM should contain a separate Welsh committee, the members of which should be nominated by the National Assembly for Wales. Its function should be to review all OFCOM procedures in relation to Wales, and also those of the Secretary of State. It should make annual reports to the National Assembly for Wales, and issue guidance to OFCOM and the Secretary of State, to which both should make a formal response within a specified period.

Recommendation 4

  A separate Consumer Panel for Wales should be created.

Recommendation 5

  There should be a much greater role for the National Assembly for Wales, in recognition of the demands of devolution. The Assembly should be consulted on all matters relating to broadcasting in Wales. An Annual Report on OFCOM's activities in Wales should be presented to the Assembly.

Recommendation 6

  The 95 per cent digital take up figure before analogue switch off should be regional as well as UK wide. There must be no analogue switch-off until the 95 per cent target is met in Wales as well as throughout the UK. It is essential that we ensure that there is not a disproportionate concentration of people without access to digital TV in any particular region.

Recommendation 7

  The legislation should include provision to protect and encourage radio and television programming from and for Wales in both its languages. The forthcoming Bill should contain specific provisions relating to Channel 3 and Channel 5, and commercial local radio companies placing contractual obligations on the contractors to produce a high percentage of output in Wales and for and about Wales.

Recommendation 8

  The funding for S4C should be reconsidered in light of the additional challenges facing the channel in the digital age.

Recommendation 9

  S4C should be made directly accountable to the National Assembly for Wales. The Assembly should also be responsible for allocating ring fenced funding.

Recommendation 10

  The Communication Bill should be used as an opportunity to exempt Welsh to English subtitles on S4C from copyright laws. This could then be enforced through first tier regulations. Otherwise, separate legislation should be brought forward to achieve the same aim.

Recommendation 11

  There should be a public service requirement for factual programming on international issues. Furthermore, OFCOM should also encourage broadcasters to reflect the various concerns of the constituent nations of the UK in its factual output.

Recommendation 12

  The rules on joint-ownership should apply at a Wales level as well as on a UK level. The ownership proposals should also be changed to encourage less cross media ownership, in the interests of national and cultural diversity.

Recommendation 13

  The 50 per cent ratio should be increased or too many people will only have access to a radio station that is owned by the same local TV company, thereby breaching the aim of ensuring universal access to a diverse range of services.

Recommendation 14

  The legislation should include measures to prevent regional ITV franchises losing their distinct identity and being subsumed by one ITV "brand". This is particularly important in Wales, where HTV Wales is effectively one of the national channels and part of our cultural identity.

Recommendation 15

  It does not seem, from the draft Bill, that any impact assessment of these changes on production and culture in Wales has been carried out. If any research on this topic has been made, it should be published in order to facilitate a more informed public debate. If no adequate research has been carried out, it should be done with urgency.

Recommendation 16

  OFCOM's purpose should be re-orientated towards promoting public service values across all the media for which it has responsibility.

1.  INTRODUCTION

  The Communications Bill has three over-arching aims:

    —  Creating the most competitive communications industry in the world with the minimum regulation possible.

    —  Ensuring universal access to a choice of diverse services of the highest quality.

    —  Ensuring that citizens and consumers are safeguarded.

  1.1  Plaid Cymru questions the assumption behind the first aim, namely that regulation is necessarily a bad thing. Under the Government's plans, the public service ethos is being increasingly marginalised, with minimum regulation and maximum competition becoming the new mantra. Under such a system, the responsibility of broadcasters to provide high quality programming and to serve minority interests eg regional programming, will inevitably be sacrificed at the altar of increasing profits. The Bill, as it stands, is designed to make broadcasting serve the large corporations rather than the public.

  1.2  The other two aims are laudable, but under the current plan, there is a danger that they will not be achieved in Wales. Our main concern is that the lack of Welsh representation will mean that the needs of the citizens of Wales will not in fact be safeguarded. We need to take action to ensure that a distinct Welsh broadcasting industry, delivering comprehensive services in Welsh and English, continues to develop, and that our national identity is not subsumed by huge UK or global corporations. After all, as paragraph 8.2 of the Policy Document states, broadcasting, "is of profound importance for our democracy and cultural identity." We are concerned that the relaxation of rules on media ownership and public service television will in fact prove to be counter-productive to the last two aims.

  1.3  In this submission, we will divide our response thematically. Within each theme, we will include Plaid Cymru's views and objections on what is currently contained in the Bill, and also our recommendations on how the draft Bill should be changed. The themes covered are:

    —  Welsh Representation.

    —  Distinctive Welsh Issues that Need Addressing.

    —  Public Service Television.

    —  Media Ownership.

    —  The Concept of Deregulation.

2.  WELSH REPRESENTATION

  2.1  We are concerned that this is a very centralist piece of legislation. Where we were previously represented at the highest level on the Radio Authority, the ITC and the BBC, the only representation Wales will have under this legislation at OFCOM is on fundamentally advisory bodies. As the draft legislation currently stands, Wales will actually have less representation than is currently the case. This essentially creates a democratic deficit for the people of Wales, with only the Welsh seat on the BBC Board of Governors remaining.

  2.2  Within OFCOM, a member on the Content Board will represent Wales. This is of course welcome, but since it is the only representation that Wales will have within OFCOM, we are concerned that this is not at a senior enough level. It is not clear from the legislation how much power this body will actually have, since its decision-making and advisory powers will be delegated to it by OFCOM. So it is the OFCOM Board itself that will have all the power, and this is where Welsh representation is lacking.

  Wales will also have a representative member on the Consumer Panel. Again, the lack of powers of the Consumer Panel highlights the fact that Wales is only represented on bodies that lack fundamental decision-making powers. This is an advisory body only, and OFCOM is free to disagree with and reject their advice so long as a public reason is given.

Recommendation 1

  We believe that Wales needs to have representation at the most senior level at OFCOM in order to ensure that the special circumstances and needs of the Welsh nation are sufficiently addressed. Wales should have its own representative on the OFCOM Board.

  2.3  We are also concerned about the way in which the Welsh representatives(s) will be appointed. The Policy Document that accompanied the draft Communication Bill states that OFCOM should consult the relevant Secretary of State and devolved institutions when appointing national representatives to one of its committees, but it is not clear whether this also applies to the Content Board.

  With the Consumer Panel, the legislation merely states that members will be appointed with the approval of the Secretary of State, and there is no mention of the role for the devolved administrations.

Recommendation 2

  It must be ensured that the National Assembly for Wales has a strong say in appointing Welsh representatives, both within OFCOM, and on the Consumer Panel. The National Assembly for Wales should nominate the Welsh representatives, with the final decision resting with the Secretary of State. This is the system that is currently used to appoint the Welsh member on the BBC Board of Governors

  2.4  The representation that Wales has been granted is merely a few individuals in positions of no real power. Not only is there no representation for Wales at a senior level, but also there is no body that is dedicated to representing Wales. Both the Content Board and the Consumer Panel have a number of different responsibilities and they have to represent the interests of everyone in the UK. Having an individual to represent Wales on each body is insufficient—the obvious concern is that the interests of Wales will be drowned out by all the other concerns these bodies will have to consider. If there were a body whose sole aim was to represent Wales, this problem would not occur. This Welsh body should have a sufficient level of powers for its views to make a difference.

Recommendation 3

  OFCOM should contain a separate Welsh committee, the members of which should be nominated by the National Assembly for Wales. Its function should be to review all OFCOM procedures in relation to Wales, and also those of the Secretary of State. It should make annual reports to the National Assembly for Wales, and issue guidance to OFCOM and the Secretary of State, to which both should make a formal response within a specified period.

Recommendation 4

  A separate Consumer Panel for Wales should be created.

  2.5  There is a lack of a clearly defined role for the National Assembly for Wales. As the Assembly is the only body that has Wales as its sole priority within the current structure, it is worrying that the draft Communications Bill only allows the Assembly the most minimal role possible. Wales has distinctive and different broadcasting needs to the rest of the UK. This is why it is essential that we have adequate representation.

Recommendation 5

  There should be a much greater role for the National Assembly for Wales, in recognition of the demands of devolution. The Assembly should be consulted on all matters relating to broadcasting in Wales. An Annual Report on OFCOM's activities in Wales should be presented to the Assembly.

3.  DISTINCTIVE WELSH ISSUES THAT NEED ADDRESSING

  3.1  As it currently stands, the Bill does not adequately respond to the needs of Welsh broadcasting.

  3.2  The debate about which platform is going to be able to deliver comprehensive high-speed internet and digital TV is going to be different for Wales, than it will for England. Access to digital broadcasting (especially terrestrial services) and broadband technology is more problematic in Wales than for England. The population of Wales is unevenly distributed around a physical geography that causes enormous transmission problems. The Government seems to prefer the option of terrestrial digital TV (we note that Sky and the BBC are in talks to fill the void left by the demise of ITV Digital). Even if every household in Wales were to receive a free set-top box, many of them still would not be able to gain access to digital TV through this platform. This is because the television spectrum is much fuller in Wales because the hilly geography led to a greater need for transmitters. This will continue to have a negative impact on broadcasting in Wales after analogue switch off.

  Also, most of Wales is sparsely populated so there is no great commercial incentive to lay cable or fibreoptic wires. Laying cable, is a very expensive task, therefore cable companies will lay cable in urban areas where there is a better chance of gaining a return on their investment, but they are not interested in rural areas where costs will be massive and take up much lower. We note that the Assembly has given £8.5 million to connect every school in Wales with fibreoptic plan—a very laudable plan, but this is nowhere near enough money. Another problem with cable is that there are less phone exchanges, with many customers in Wales more than three miles away from their nearest exchange. Since the cables have to travel further to homes and offices, the signal is weaker. Wales is at the bottom of the UK league for broadband connectivity.

  3.3  The White Paper and the draft legislation has failed to take this into account. We are concerned that the aim of 95 per cent digital take-up before analogue switch off is a UK wide figure. Since Wales only represents 5 per cent of the UK population, and it faces severe physical challenges to transmission, there is a real danger that a vastly disproportionate percentage of Welsh viewers will make up that final 5 per cent of UK viewers still unable to receive a digital signal.

Recommendation 6

  The 95 per cent digital take up figure before analogue switch off should be regional as well as UK wide. There must be no analogue switch-off until the 95 per cent target is met in Wales as well as throughout the UK. It is essential that we ensure that there is not a disproportionate concentration of people without access to digital TV in any particular region.

  3.4  The other distinctive aspect to broadcasting in Wales is the need to provide comprehensive services in both of its national languages, Welsh and English. At present, Wales lacks a dedicated English-language television channel, offering a comprehensive service that is the equal in every way to that which is available in Welsh on S4C.

4.  PUBLIC SERVICE TELEVISION

  4.1  We have some fundamental problems with the three-tier regulation system for public service television, and we believe that it needs to be altered. A system should be devised which starts from the presumption that all major terrestrial broadcasters will be expected to fulfil a wide range of public service broadcasting obligations.

  4.2  The use of quotas for regional and national programming is also problematic. Quotas are generally about particular types of programming, with no guarantee of quality. Also, within the context of intense competition, the pressure will be on OFCOM to flexibly interpret these quotas. The wording suggested in the draft Bill is nowhere near strong enough to protect regional and national programming. The Bill merely states that companies "include what appears to OFCOM to be an appropriate range and proportion of programmes made outside the M25 area" (181) (5) (h). All of this raises major questions about the kind of regional and national programming that will be developed under the new system. The most recent quotas demonstrate that the hours of regional coverage have already begun to decrease. The Bill provides no regulatory incentives for commercial TV operators to maintain a high level of national production in Wales, or anywhere in particular.

Recommendation 7

  The legislation should include provision to protect and encourage radio and television programming from and for Wales in both its languages. The forthcoming Bill should contain specific provisions relating to Channel 3 and Channel 5, and commercial local radio companies placing contractual obligations on the contractors to produce a high percentage of output in Wales and for and about Wales.

  4.3  The provision of a Welsh language broadcasting service is one of the most important public service needs within Wales, and so we are disappointed that no measures seem to have been considered to safeguard Welsh language broadcasting. We are concerned that there are no regulations to ensure that there is an adequate level of Welsh language TV. The second tier will include rules on quotas for independent production, original production and regional programming, but no quotas are included for Welsh language TV. Whether quotas are the most suitable tool or not, the important point remains that there is no responsibility or accountability created for Welsh language TV. There seems to be a worrying accountability gap. Of course, there is the Welsh Authority for S4C programmes, but Welsh language broadcasting also covers television output made by HYV and BBC Wales as well as the BBC's Radio Wales and Radio Cymru, community and commercial radio, and a growing range of online services eg BBC Cymru'r Byd. Here is a clear case where lack of regulation is not necessarily a good thing. There is a danger that the Welsh broadcasting industry may be taken over by large corporations, with no regard for the distinctive needs of the Welsh-speaking communities of Wales.

  4.4  Within Welsh language broadcasting, S4C fulfils a critically important role, so there must be adequate financial support for its services, and appropriate-channels of accountability. While we applaud the continuation of the funding formula, we note with concern that S4C's advertising revenue will inevitably fall, as most of this revenue comes from sponsorship and commercial breaks during the C4 output, which S4C will no longer have when it is digital. Also more channels will probably mean a smaller share of the audience, so advertising revenue may fall because of this also. S4C has not received any additional funding as a result of the expansion of digital broadcasting, which contrasts starkly with the BBC's experience.

Recommendation 8

  The funding for S4C should be reconsidered in light of the additional challenges facing the channel in the digital age.

  4.5  The Bill keeps the current governing system for S4C. The ultimate backstop power will remain with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. We would like to see S4C, along with all the other providers of radio and television services specifically targeted at Wales, made directly accountable to the National Assembly for Wales. In the meantime, S4C will be under similar levels of supervision by OFCOM as the BBC—and, of course, OFCOM has no adequate Welsh representation. Therefore, as it currently stands, S4C is not accountable to any institution representing specifically Welsh interests.

Recommendation 9

  S4C should be made directly accountable to the National Assembly for Wales. The Assembly should also be responsible for allocating ring fenced funding.

  4.6  It has been brought to our attention that copyright laws obstruct the provision of subtitles for Welsh songs and lyrics on teletext page 888 for S4C. Obtaining copyright holders' agreement to the wording of English subtitles for Welsh songs is proving to be a significant barrier to providing full subtitling provision for S4C. Welsh songs are an important feature of Welsh cultural festivals such as the Eisteddfod, and it is unfair that English-speaking Welsh people are denied access to this vital part of Welsh cultural life.

Recommendation 10

  The Communication Bill should be used as an opportunity to exempt Welsh to English subtitles on S4C from copyright laws. This could then be enforced through first tier regulations. Otherwise, separate legislation should be brought forward to achieve the same aim.

  4.7  We are also concerned about the lack of detail regarding the provision of current affairs programmes in peak time. We would like to seek assurances that the regulations will not simply set a quota on the number of current affairs programmes, but that there should also be variety between domestic and international affairs. The provision of adequate coverage of international development issues has major implications for British citizens and the way that we view the world. Broadcasting should be used to strengthen the availability of information, knowledge and understanding about the wider world. Since 11 September especially, who can question the importance of understanding the wider world? Another pressing need in Wales is for a peak-time slot for news bulletins working to a world-wide agenda from Cardiff on BBC1 Wales, to complement the excellent service of this kind already provided nightly on S4C in Welsh by BBC Wales.

Recommendation 11

  There should be a public service requirement for factual programming on international issues. Furthermore, OFCOM should also encourage broadcasters to reflect the various concerns of the constituent nations of the UK in its factual output.

5.  MEDIA OWNERSHIP

  5.1  We believe that the proposed measures on media ownership will be counter-productive to the overarching aim of retaining a diversity of content. We are concerned that too much deregulation will lead to more of the media being concentrated in the hands of a few powerful tycoons. Not enough regard has been given to the public interest.

  5.2  We note that the rule limiting the joint-ownership of a substantial share of both the newspaper market (ie 20 per cent) and Channel 3 will apply at a regional level as well as on a national level. We are however concerned at the lack of definition of "regional", particularly where ITV and commercial radio are concerned. We would like this rule to apply on a Wales basis, and would seek a guarantee of this in the legislation. Without this guarantee there is a danger that one company could own the major Welsh newspapers and HTV Wales (itself just one part of the wider HTV group which is in turn owned by Carlton), as the Welsh population only constitutes 5 per cent of the UK population. Wales should not be a small part of a larger designated "region".

Recommendation 12

  The rules on joint-ownership should apply at a Wales level as well as on a UK level. The ownership proposals should also be changed to encourage less cross media ownership, in the interests of national and cultural diversity.

  5.3  The new rules will allow joint ownership of a regional Channel 3 licence and a local radio licence, so long as there are another two radio stations that can reach 50 per cent of the adult population in the area. This means that half of the local population could only have access to a radio station that is owned by the same company as the local ITV company, which is clearly unacceptable.

Recommendation 13

  The 50 per cent ratio should be increased or too many people will only have access to a radio station that is owned by the same local TV company, thereby breaching the aim of ensuring universal access to a diverse range of services.

  5.4  Since the rules preventing one company from owning ITV will be abolished we are concerned that HTV Wales will lose its distinctive identity and that it will be subsumed as part of one ITV brand. Since moves towards a Carlton and Granada merger are already under way, this is a worrying possible development. It will be inevitable that budgets, staffing and slots will increasingly be apportioned by centralised accountants rather than autonomous Welsh managers.

Recommendation 14

  The legislation should include measures to prevent regional ITV franchises losing their distinct identity and being subsumed by one ITV "brand". This is particularly important in Wales, where HTV Wales is effectively one of the national channels and part of our cultural identity.

Recommendation 15

  It does not seem, from the draft Bill, that any impact assessment of these changes on production and culture in Wales has been carried out. If any research on this topic has been made, it should be published in order to facilitate a more informed public debate. If no adequate research has been carried out, it should be done with urgency.

6.  THE CONCEPT OF DEREGULATION

  6.1  This is very much a business-centered piece of legislation. The aim of the Bill is to make the communications industry more business friendly. The needs of the people are lauded as an equal priority, but it is clear that they are in fact a secondary consideration. The people are not even called citizens, they are called consumers and customers, which highlights that the business and market context is the only context within which this Bill has been considered. We would like to see a fundamental reversal of thought. The first priority should be ensuring that the public interest is met, and business should be encouraged to meet that priority through an appropriate and regulated market.

  6.2  We need a fundamental rethink on how regulation is viewed. This Bill always sees regulation as being burdensome. OFCOM will have a statutory duty to make sure that regulation is the minimum possible. This ignores the fact that regulation is often there for a good reason, ie to protect the public interest. The Bill also allows OFCOM to remove further regulation if they decide that they have become too burdensome or unnecessary. We may see regional and national production and programming quotas being abolished because they are too burdensome. Almost 40 years ago, the ITA decided that Wales could not sustain a commercial TV franchise on its own. To be viable commercially, Wales had to be linked to a more prosperous region of England. This thinking has not changed. Put bluntly, the market has not yet created a comprehensive and dedicated radio or TV service in English for Wales, let alone in Welsh. In the Welsh context, there is no alternative to the public service model.

Recommendation 16

  OFCOM's purpose should be re-orientated towards promoting public service values across all the media for which it has responsibility.

7.  CONCLUSION

  7.1  When introducing the draft Bill, the Secretary of State stated that a healthy diverse media sector with plurality of views and diversity of provision in every corner of the UK is crucial to our democratic future. We agree wholeheartedly with this statement. However, we believe that many provisions within the Bill will be counter-productive to achieving this in Wales.

  7.2  The impact on Wales will be a reduction in plurality and diversity; and the media will increasingly be concentrated in a limited number of hands.

  7.3  The ultimate aim of Plaid Cymru policy in the broadcasting industry is to bring all the disparate national services for Wales which are currently available under different brands on various analogue and digital platforms together under one unified Welsh brand, regulated by a single Welsh broadcasting authority, answerable to the National Assembly for Wales.

  7.4  Until this aim is achieved, it is absolutely crucial that the Communications Bill recognises the different circumstances for broadcasting and the communications industry in Wales, and that measures are taken to ensure that Welsh interests are fully taken into account and met. If the draft Bill remains as it is, this will not be achieved.

June 2002


 
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