The New BBC Charter Needs to Reflect Devolution

In three years' time, the BBC Charter will be up for renewal. It is safe to say that this Charter renewal will be more significant than others for a number of reasons...

In three years' time, the BBC Charter will be up for renewal. It is safe to say that this Charter renewal will be more significant than others for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the media and its conduct in the United Kingdom is a state of flux. The Leveson Inquiry has looked root and branch at how the print media has been operating - albeit in a very London-based context. The BBC itself has been under fire following extraordinarily high pay-offs for senior executives and editorial mistakes which have damaged its reputation. The Scottish Referendum also throws an added dimension to initial proposals.

I am delivering a speech to the Institute of Welsh Politics in Aberystwyth where I am calling on the new BBC Charter to recognise devolution within any new model.

Often when people in the UK press talk about the "NHS" or "the education" system they often mean in England. In Wales we have had a shift in broadcasting to recognise this. BBC Wales regularly cover events in the National Assembly and report on almost every devolved competence. There are dedicated political shows like the Wales Report and Sunday Supplement which regularly discuss events in Wales and the work of policy makers.

At present, the BBC in Wales has a near monopoly of reporting of devolution for a number of factors. Firstly, the print media in Wales at a National level is far too weak and is unlikely to get stronger. UK coverage of Welsh politics is rare and coverage of the activities of the National Assembly in local papers is varied. Competitors like ITV Wales and commercial radio do not have anywhere near the same reach in Welsh and English as the BBC. In practical terms there are two BBC operations at work - BBC Wales and BBC Cymru - both televised, online and on radio. That reach is because it is an arm of one of the largest and most important broadcasters in the world.

Online - the BBC does have the ability to extend its reach on news, perhaps to the detriment of other news outlets who usually need advertising revenues or online charging schemes to pay for anywhere near like for like presence. In the Welsh context, it is near on impossible for a competitor to emerge because of the dominance of the BBC's website - it is free, extensive and accessible on portable devices. BBC Cymru Wales' online services in the last financial year cost £3.7 million.

For an organisation as important to national life as the BBC (especially in Welsh language coverage), the decisions it takes no longer are decided centrally in London and its present difficulties do extent to other parts of the UK. The BBC in Wales needs to be a beacon of transparency and editorial neutrality. This can only come from accountability.

The BBC Trust needs to extend its role properly to Wales. Currently, there is an audience council which operates along the basis of audience feedback and quality control. We now know after recent errors in judgement by the most senior members of the BBC board that change is needed in London. But it can't stop there. The scrutiny and the capacity of the BBC Trust needs to be extended properly to Wales, so that senior management and senior editors can be accountable for the actions they and their teams take in our changing devolved circumstances.

Any organisation that operates for the public should be fully accountable and now is the time.

The Charter sets out the public purposes of the BBC and its constitutional basis. Alongside its renewal are important protocols. These formal documents carry out the functions of its public purpose, its standards and strategy, its compliance, but most importantly its accountability.

Therefore, today I have written to the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport to make this view clear and to explain how important it is for the BBC in Wales that the Charter renewal process looks fully at how future governance will look.

To be clear, the BBC is one of the most important broadcasters in the world. It is for this reason that we need it to operate in our changing circumstances. Devolution has changed the UK since its advent and it is important that an institution like the BBC has an important role in reporting on devolution to adapt alongside it.


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