Joint Committee on The Draft Communications Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 597 - 599)



  Chairman: I think I wrote to you in advance but I do apologise again. The first question, unsurprisingly, I suppose, is from Lord Crickhowell.

Lord Crickhowell

  597. Having been around at your birth, so to speak, can I be the first to welcome you. You say that S4C is committed to openness and accountability and therefore on the whole I think you welcome clause 226 that enables the Secretary of State to review how you are managing the public service remit, for example. You then say not five years, ten. In the present climate of change in broadcasting that seems to be a very long period. Perhaps you will forgive me for adding that in the particularly cosy world in which you operate, one might almost say incestuous world, of the Welsh language, relatively small, "we know everyone", which is one of the advantages you have, that the need for open independent review more frequently than ten years might be greater even that it would because of the changes in television and broadcasting.
  (Mr Jones) I think as we understand it, we recognise the principle that there should be a backstop mechanism for the Secretary of State with regard to S4C which corresponds broadly to the Charter review process and Charter renewal process for the BBC. We understand that is the Government's thinking because, in the absence of a statutory mechanism there is no such equivalent process in place for S4C at the moment. What we have a concern about is as to whether five years is the right period given that there is a preamble, an early clause in the Bill, which specifically seeks to prevent the imposition of burdens which are unnecessary. Our feeling is that the continual review which the Authority itself undertakes of the way S4C carries out its remit is regular, thorough and comprehensive. It is made to Parliament through the Secretary of State, and of course the Authority itself is appointed by the Secretary of State. Therefore, if there were a serious concern, and bearing in mind the review is meant to address the performance by the Authority in overseeing and delivering the remit, then there is a mechanism, an easy mechanism, which has to do with changing the members of the Authority which is a power that the Secretary of State already has and that could be exercised within four years. The other principle, of course, is the arm's length relationship between broadcaster and Government. The shorter the period of review, the greater the danger that the arm's length principle could be compromised. Therefore, we suggest ten years in respect of the period of review would be more appropriate.

  598. You will have perhaps gathered from some of my earlier questions to the BBC that I start by being a little sceptical of self-review processes for internal rules and regulations, therefore I am not entirely convinced that because you carry out a review process and answer the Secretary of State that that is sufficient. In a sense you are in a very special position. You have been a particularly effective lobbyist in earlier Broadcasting Bills and have won the admiration of some of us for the way in which you have achieved your present position in that way. The BBC is under almost continual widespread examination which by its nature is a very public process but the public examination and public debate of S4C by its very nature is going to be much more confined. It was one of the freedoms I had as the Secretary of State for Wales when I operated in a relatively small area of the country with a relatively small population but you are operating in an even smaller sub-settlement in which, as I say, everyone knows everyone and there is a great deal of intimacy. Is there not on its own an argument for having a regular five year open examination of how you are performing?
  (Ms Lewis Jones) I think it is an argument in favour of our present statutory structure. Perhaps I should make clear that when in the past we have lobbied, and we have lobbied energetically, it has been lobbying to safeguard our independence and our impartiality. That has always been the concern of our lobbying, nothing cosier than that, to use the word you used earlier. The Bill, it seems to me, takes some care to accommodate appropriately the statutory framework that we have now and I think it is a robust one both in safeguarding us from pressures from the Government and from pressures that might come to bear on us domestically. Of course there are such pressures and they bear from different directions. Having our high level functions set out in statute, in a way which is only amendable by primary legislation, has stood us in very good stead for 20 years and that is a structure which continues under the present Bill. Of course, the tiers one and two remits will apply to us as they do to other public service broadcasters. The backstop in relation to our tier three remit rests with the Secretary of State. Even if the atmosphere were perhaps as fetid as you suggest in Wales, and I do not entirely agree that it is, that seems to me a robust structure. We take extremely seriously the statutory duties laid upon us, we are the guardians of those duties and we are removable by the Secretary of State if we fail. Given that Parliament has determined this structure it is right that primary legislation should be amended if the structure turns out to be inappropriate.
  (Mr Jones) I also think possibly you do not pay due regard to the intensity of examination of S4C operations by those who are interested in our service, who are Welsh speakers in all their diverse forms and through all the diverse other Welsh media which exist. I think the level of public scrutiny of operations of Wales in general is far higher than exists in most English regions. People coming to work in Wales in the public sector from English regions are often struck by the amount of intensive examination to which our activities are subjected.

  599. The clause gives the opportunity for the Welsh Assembly to be involved in the process and that itself may be a good reason for going down that route. My final comment is you have made all these points and I am certain you have made them to the Secretary of State before, it would be interesting to know why he has not accepted them and come up with something that is different from the BBC.
  (Mr Jones) In many instances the legislation is created with other structures and outcomes primarily in mind. The officers of the Secretary of State do seek very diligently to accommodate S4C's particular circumstances, but at times it can be the case that the S4C position is a little awkward and something is produced which maybe needs to be reviewed before it is finalised.

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