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Posted by David M Barlow/117

WITH the forthcoming White Paper on UK communications reform expected shortly, Wales finds itself in an unenviable position. Not for the first time, the Principality is peripheral to the decision-making centre in London, its ‘voice ’ on broadcasting matters seemingly subject to the goodwill of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). With broadcasting a ‘reserved matter ’, the National Assembly for Wales has no powers in this area, although the DCMS has agreed to consult the Assembly on broadcasting matters ‘of particular relevance to Wales ’. Apparently, regulatory change in the UK and negotiations over broadcasting in the European Union will fall into this category. The DCMS has also agreed to consult the National Assembly on public appointments to broadcasting organisations. These will include: the BBC National Governor of Wales; the Chair and all Members of the Board of S4C; the National Member for Wales on the ITC; and, a member for Wales on the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Radio Authority However, the notion that a National Assembly for Wales is merely consulted by London on the appointment of Welsh representatives to broadcasting bodies has been rejected by the Welsh Affairs Select Committee in its recent report Broadcasting in Wales and the National Assembly. Responding to suggestions by the Committee that the National Assembly should be making such appointments, the Secretary of State argues that ‘\"constitutional niceties\" required these appointees to be accountable to the Government as a whole ’. Similarly, suggestions that the Assembly should be responsible for appointments to the Broadcasting Council for Wales were rejected on the grounds that it would involve changes to the BBC ’s Royal Charter and could jeopardise the BBC ’s independence. Not so, according to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. They argue to the contrary, suggesting that appointments by the Assembly would ‘enhance the independence ’ of such bodies, demonstrate that appointees were accountable to the people of Wales, and signify a ‘symbolic shift towards devolution on broadcasting matters ’. More recently, concerns have again been raised about the absence of Welsh voices in key areas of influence. This follows the appointment by Chris Smith (DCMS) and Stephen Byers (DTI) of ‘experts ’ to advise on communications reform. This group includes neither a Welsh representative nor, on the basis of the available biographical information, members who have relevant and recent experience of working in Wales. The only apparent - but clearly tenuous - Welsh connection, relates to one of the expert members who is listed as a non-executive director of the Guardian Media Group. GMG Radio Holdings, a company connected with the Guardian Media Group, was recently awarded a new regional Independent Local Radio licence for South Wales. Given the issues to be addressed by the expert group, it is somewhat ironic that GMG Radio Holdings, which is based in Manchester, beat six other applicants—five of whom were from Cardiff or Swansea—to gain a local licence in South Wales. However, on a more positive note, an active rather than passive role for the National Assembly to influence UK communications reform is provided by Section 33 of the Government of Wales Act. This Act allows the Assembly to make representations to Westminster on any matter that affects Wales. The opportunity to exercise some influence is reflected in the work of the Post 16 Education and Training Committee at the National Assembly. The Committee is conducting a review into arts and cultural policy—including broadcasting - in Wales. To date, the review has involved a number of meetings between the Committee and representatives of broadcasting bodies in Wales, such as the ITC, S4C, Channel 4, BBC and HTV. The primary focus of these meetings has been the switch-over from analogue to digital television, concerns about people in Wales choosing (where they can) to watch television from England, and the convergence between television and the Internet. However, underlying these discussions—and clearly pre-occupying the Committee - is the critical issue of identifying aspects of communications reform which are of particular significance to Wales about which the National Assembly might seek to influence the UK government. It was at one of these meetings that representatives of the ITC, S4C, Channel 4, BBC and HTV were asked whether broadcasting matters should be devolved to the Assembly. While most found ways of evading the question, one witness - with tongue in cheek - appeared to relish the invitation to comment, observing how strange it was that health had been devolved but not Casualty! Although prompting some chuckles, the point was not lost on members of the Committee, nor on those in the public gallery.

DATELINE: 24 January, 2010