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S4C seeks judicial review of BBC 'merger'

Mark Sweney

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20 October 2010

Chairman of S4C's governing body accuses government of showing 'contempt' to Wales in spending review deal with BBC

John Walter Jones said the government had shown 'contempt' towards S4C. Photograph: BBC
The government is facing an immediate Welsh revolt over its hastily negotiated licence fee deal, with S4C today launching a judicial review of the decision to "effectively merge [it] with the BBC".

John Walter Jones, the chairman of S4C's governing body the S4C Authority, which has been completely sidelined during the frantic negotiations between the Treasury and the BBC over the past few days, accused the government of showing "contempt" for the broadcaster and "the Welsh people and indeed the language itself". The S4C Authority faces extinction if the government plan is implemented.

In a strongly worded statement, S4C added that it had "no prior knowledge" of the discussions between the BBC and the government, which resulted in the corporation agreeing to take over responsibility for the funding and operation of the Welsh-language broadcaster from 2015.

"I was informed of these ill-conceived plans by [culture secretary Jeremy] Hunt, and was told that it was a non-negotiable agreement, only after they were leaked on the BBC last night," added Jones. "This is no way to conduct public affairs and surely is an affront to the good conduct of public policy and the democratic process."

He said that the S4C Authority is "unanimous" in its desire to seek a judicial review of the decision "and the way it was taken behind closed doors without any kind of consultation with S4C". "I am astounded at the contempt that the London government has shown not just towards S4C, but also towards the Welsh people and indeed the language itself."

"The effect of the financial cuts agreed between Jeremy Hunt and the BBC will have a disastrous effect for viewers across Wales, and this at a time when the BBC has already cut spending on both English- and Welsh-language programming in Wales.

"Under such an arrangement it is inevitable that Welsh-language television would have to compete with every other BBC service and the S4C Authority believes that this would pose a serious risk to the provision of Welsh-language television."

S4C is facing a series of staged cuts to its £102m annual budget up until 2015 when the BBC is due to take over full responsibility for the broadcaster. The final details of the S4C funding deal are still being hammered out between the government and the BBC.

It is understood that the Department for Culture Media and Sport will reduce its S4C funding commitment on a sliding scale over the next five years. The BBC will top up S4C's budget from the licence fee, with its contribution growing year by year as the government grant diminishes.

The BBC already provides £23.5m a year in Welsh language programming for S4C, on top of the DCMS grant. Earlier this month the BBC announced that it would be cutting the amount it spends on S4C programming by 17%, to £19.5m, next year.

Although full details are still yet to emerge, it is understood S4C will ultimately be overseen by the BBC Trust. S4C is likely to retain day-to-day independence, perhaps with a separate board, with some speculating that it would include BBC Trust members.

One source said that it seemed that S4C had been "thrown in at the last minute" during the frantic negotiations between the BBC and the government.

It is understood that S4C effectively sowed the seeds of its own demise as an independent entity when it suggested a closer working relationship with the BBC in its own report submitted to the DCMS earlier this month on its future and how to deal with the comprehensive spending review cuts.

The report was written up by S4C's acting chief executive, Arwel Ellis Owen, with input from expert advisers including Geraint Talfan Davies, the chairman of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, who spent 10 years as controller of BBC Wales from 1990 to 2000.

Proposals in the 28-page report included "the investigation of the possibilities of co-locating BBC Wales and S4C at a single media centre that would deliver operational savings to both organisations".

The S4C changes will hit the independent TV production industry in Wales, which relies heavily on the Welsh language broadcaster. As a publisher/broadcaster, S4C commissions all its programming from outside suppliers, including the BBC.

However, the BBC only has to commission 25% of its programming from outside suppliers, with a further 25% contestable between independent and in-house producers.

TAC, the trade body for the Welsh independent production industry, is meeting today to discuss the developments and formulate a response.

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