The value of public service broadcasting to small nations, By Ruth McElroy

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Christmas 2015 was soggy in many parts of the United Kingdom. Our television screens and newspapers showed desperate pictures of homes flooded and festive food uneaten. But this was one Christmas when I was not glued to my TV set. Instead I spent Boxing Day devouring Twitter because it was there that I could find the information I needed. Into my feed came details of the rapidly gaining height of the river tide that was threatening my home but also information about road closures, alternative routes and a general camaraderie that social media can capture so well. And one of the things on which many of us in North Wales were agreed was that for most UK news services, we simply do not exist.

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Our floods were not newsworthy, our need for information not a priority. Instead UK news bulletins and papers provided extensive coverage of the floods in the north of England, our compatriots in the water in cities like York and Lancaster. Friends in Scotland called to check I was watching the news because they wanted me to see how absent Wales was from the coverage. Thanks folks, but right now I’ve got sandbags on my mind! Later, when Storm Frank hit the UK from the Atlantic (the Met Office have started to name our storms which makes them no less scary but does help you remember one from the other), I checked BBC News online only to read that England, Scotland and Northern Ireland were being battered by winds and rain. Look at a map. How does a storm from the west leap-frog Wales? It escapes me!

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Television enjoys the power to make some places visible and others invisible. When public service broadcasters make some places and some people invisible, the public have a right to know why. And to expect change. That’s why many of us in Wales (and in Scotland and Northern Ireland) are calling on the BBC in the midst of BBC Charter Renewal to meet the challenge of representing the UK’s small nations to themselves and to the rest of the UK. It is time for change; it is time for a richer, more egalitarian, more accountable relationship with license fee payers in the devolved nations of the UK.

At the heart of public service broadcasting is the principle of inclusivity. This means providing a service that is accessible to all not just those with the ability to pay expensive subscriptions or with the demographic clout to matter to advertisers. But inclusivity extends also to content – to providing a wide range of programme genres catering to the diversity of tastes and interests that a healthy culture is likely to enjoy. That’s why public service broadcasting should never be a news service alone. Reith’s enduring adage reminds us of the public value in aiming to inform, educate and entertain.  Civil society can be enriched through laughter, through feats of the imagination and – as we prepare in Wales for the annual rugby Six Nations – through our shared sports fandom.

PSBs alone are required to represent the nations and regions of the UK.  For so many small nations, it is public service broadcasting that makes an indigenous industry possible. The limited size of many small nations’ markets, the fact that many possess minority-languages, and the costs of delivering services in mountainous geographical areas all contribute to many commercial broadcasters’ limited interest in catering specifically to small nations.

Public service broadcasters like the BBC, ITV/STV, Channel 4 and the Welsh-language broadcaster, S4C are some of the most important cultural resources small nations possess. Without them, we really would lose sight of ourselves on screen. A vibrant, democratic culture does not make great swathes of the population invisible. So we must be critical friends to these services.

The 2015 OFCOM review of PSB noted that it is in representing the nations and regions that the greatest mismatch exists between the public’s expectation of PSB and what it actually delivers. At the point where political power has been devolved to the nations, it is vital that national governments are held to account. Yet as Angela Graham, one of the participants in our first AHRC TV in Small Nations network workshop and chair of the IWA Media Policy Group has argued, ‘the truth is that the BBC has yet to adjust fully to the new shape of the United Kingdom’ (http://goo.gl/v2B8Eh). This is especially visible in Scotland following the Independence Referendum where there were widespread criticisms by those in the Yes camp of BBC news coverage. This week, the Scottish culture minister Fiona Hyslop called for the devolution of full commissioning and editorial decision making (http://goo.gl/G4jtLy) so that the £323 million raised by Scottish license-fee payments can be decided upon in Scotland rather than in central London. That’s a genuinely bold move.

Of all the small nations of the UK, Wales has fared worst in recent PSB funding cuts.  As a member of the Institute for Welsh Affairs Media Policy Group I’ve been involved in producing an audit of the media in Wales since 2008. The news was not terribly encouraging. S4C experienced a massive 24% cut in its public funding in 2010. Overall there was a 30% cut in first-run programming for Wales, cuts which mean that English-language coverage of arts in Wales for example is almost non-existent while drama and comedy about Wales for Wales also seems like a thing of the past. Across the UK, the numbers tell a worrying story. In 1998 spend on first-run programming for all the UK nations and regions amounted to £404million; in 2014 it stood at £277million (http://goo.gl/dezGpO). Reductions over this timeframe and of this scale cannot simply be placed at austerity’s door. The argument here is political and cultural. Do we want public service broadcasters to represent the nations in their diversity or are we content with a uniform diet of British content that means we will actually see less and less of the UK on our screens? Now is the time to shout.

 

Dr Ruth McElroy is Director of the Centre for Media and Culture in Small Nations, and Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of South Wales.

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