ITV is to be allowed to slash its Welsh programming by more than half in a new blow to the media in Wales.
The proposals come under the second phase of Ofcom’s review into public service broadcasting, launched as the industry prepares for the digital switchover.
One media expert today described Ofcom’s decision as a “lose-lose” situation for ITV staff and for viewers in Wales, while a politician called it a “giant leap backwards for devolution in the UK”.
ITV Wales’ peak-time news output would remain unchanged, but the minimum volume of non-news programmes in Wales will be slashed from the current four hours a week, to just an hour-and-a-half after January.
The proposals will allow the quota for ITV1 programmes produced outside London to be reduced from 50 per cent to 35 per cent.
Ofcom’s Wales director Rhodri Williams said the proposals provided a “sustainable settlement” despite “the extensive economic pressures faced by ITV”.
Few others agree.
Wales’ Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones today expressed “huge concern” at the report.
“It is strongly in the interest of viewers in Wales to retain public service programming from ITV at a realistic level rather than risk losing such delivery altogether,” he said.
“It is a matter of huge concern to me that cutting the services offered by ITV Wales will deprive Welsh citizens from receiving a diverse range of programmes which reflect their everyday lives.
“Welsh audiences, loyal to ITV Wales, could also be deprived from gaining access to information about the democratic institutions which serve them – this, in turn, could affect their level of participation in those political processes.”
Mr Jones wants to meet with UK government ministers to discuss the assembly government’s concerns.
Peter Black AM, culture and media spokesperson for the Welsh Liberal Democrats, described the decision as “outrageous” and “a giant leap backwards for devolution in the UK”.
“The bottom line for ITV is that they have a public service obligation,” he said. “Quite how much service you can provide in 90 minutes, we will have to see. ITV Wales were pitching their new schedule – which already cut the amount of made in Wales current affairs programming – at around three hours a week. That was already a backward step for the people of Wales. Ninety minutes is a giant leap backwards for devolution in the UK.
“Devolution allows the nations of the UK to do more and more things in a way that is different. While TV is the main source of information people have about the politics of where they live, there can be little justification for cutting the legs from under the ITV Wales operation. There is a real danger of Wales being left with a single broadcasting monopoly.
“The BBC does a great job of reporting Wales to its own people and the world beyond. But without competition, who will keep the BBC on its mettle? Where will the alternative voice come from?
“Plurality of voice matters – Ofcom’s decision shows a regulator unwilling to regulate. It has failed democracy, and it has failed the people of Wales.”
Media professor Tom O’Malley, of the University of Wales, agreed that today’s news revealed a “failure of regulation and a failure of Ofcom”.
Speaking on the BBC, he said: “What’s going to happen is that there will be less programmes about Wales, talking to people in Wales about Wales, it will weaken ITV news in Wales, there will be less plurality of perspectives on it and of course the people who work in ITV in Wales will suffer as well.
“So this is lose-lose all round.”
He called on the Government to force Ofcom to change its attitude to public service broadcasting.
There is growing concern in Scotland about a decision to award the multi-million pound 2011 Census contract to a marketing and information company called CACI Ltd.
CACI Ltd is a wholly-owned subsidiary of CACI International Incorporated, an American company which is doing rather well in these troubled times.
It is a publicly-listed company on the New York Stock Exchange with an annual revenue in excess of US $2bn.
But it is how it makes its money that concerns campaigners: it is a key partner in George Bush’s homeland security and “war on terror” – and its staff worked with the US Army in the prison and interrogation blocks of Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
The US Army was forced to close Abu Ghraib after news reports of the torture and humiliation of prisoners. Eleven US soldiers were convicted of breaking military laws for mistreating prisoners, and five others were disciplined.
CACI International Incorporated has produced a book defending itself for its part in the Abu Ghraib scandal and says “we were not involved with horrendous abuses such as death or sexual assault at Abu Ghraib”.
But it is one of two private contractors who are the subject of lawsuits from four Iraqis over allegations that they were tortured there.
CACI’s growing role in UK information systems prompts another concern: in a world which has become one big database and surveillance job, do we really want our personal information handled by a company so closely linked to the US intelligence services?
As CACI International Incorporated boasts in its mission statement: “(Our) mission is to be a leader in providing the information technology and consulting solutions America needs to defeat global terrorism, secure our homeland and improve government services. We are ever vigilant in aligning our solutions with the nation’s highest priorities.”
Realistically, CACI Ltd already plays a larger role in our lives than we know. The UK Government uses the company’s ACORN (“A Classification of Residential Neighbourhoods”) model in areas such as the monitoring of crime to classify us (some of us are “wealthy achievers”, some “hard pressed”).
The company is a major collator of health information too.
Welsh local authorities regularly use their expertise on retail matters. Ceredigion County Council and Bridgend County Borough Council are recent customers.
The Welsh edition of The Big Issue is moving production to its Scottish office.
Two out of its three editorial staff – including its editor Rachel Howells – are being made redundant. The editor of The Big Issue Scotland is to become the editor of both titles.
The decision is a blow to the homeless people who sell the magazine, to the media in Wales and to readers.
Plaid Cymru AM Leanne Wood has written to Welsh Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones and the Welsh Language Board “to see what pressure they can put on the owners to ensure we don’t lose Big Issue Cymru”.
“The Big Issue Cymru provides news from Wales that you don’t find in many other publications,” she says. “Many people buy it because of its local stories. Big Issue Cymru has played an important role as a campaigning magazine promoting people who don’t have their voices heard. The loss of the Welsh language column is also something which will be felt by a lot of people.
“All of these factors combined could result in fewer people buying the Big Issue in Wales. This is bound to impact on the vendors who are homeless people.”
I have to declare an interest in this. I’ve had a column in Big Issue Cymru for almost four years and will be sad to see Rachel leave.
I haven’t heard from the new regime so don’t know what they plan for the rest of the magazine or how much of it will have any Wales-led content at all.
As Leanne Wood says Big Issue Cymru has often looked at issues which don’t get discussed elsewhere, including ironically the on-going downgrading of our media in Wales.
The Children’s Commissioner for Wales Keith Towler has condemned the “shocking” treatment of asylum seeker children in the UK.
Mr Towler said the way some children were dealt with beggared belief, according to today’s Western Mail.
He went on to describe the highly distressing way one young family was recently removed from Swansea. He is the latest in a long line of people to speak out on the issue this year.
The Government’s sell-off of military training continues to go badly.
It is planned that a consortium of private companies (the Metrix Consortium) will set up and run the massive new St Athan training academy.
Other training sites are to be closed with the land sold off to raise funds by Metrix.
One of the sites expected to go was RAF Cosford in Shropshire.
But now – with the credit crunch biting and few developers queuing up for the MoD land sell-off – it appears that might not be so.
According to the Defence Management Journal, Cosford’s closure might be put on hold during a review of the Government’s scheme, which is known in official circles as the Defence Training Rationalization.
“The DTR is facing an extended period of difficulty and a full blown financial review because its financing was dependent on the sale of surplus MoD land,” the DMJ reported yesterday. “Now the MoD may have to keep the RAF Cosford open as a contingency plan in case the deal at St Athan collapses.
“If the deal at St Athan were to fall through, the MoD would need a backup site for the programme.”
Psst, do you want to know a secret?
It’s the story of a heroic Welshman, although it doesn’t start off very courageously.
I mean, our heroes are rarely “mean-spirited” and “bony-faced”.
They don’t normally have ill-shaped ears, or make a spectacle of themselves by only putting in their false teeth to eat.
What manner of hero is this, I hear you ask?
Well, his name was Arthur George Owens and he was a very strange hero.
Indeed, it might be asked whether he was a hero at all.
Owens was a shifty character, but that was no drawback in his chosen profession.
He started out as an electrical engineer, representing his firm in Europe during the 1930s.
There, he picked up information which he figured, as Hitler grew more powerful, might be handy to the British government.
After approaching MI6 to work as an agent he quickly concluded two things: they weren’t paying very much and they were so disorganised they were likely to give him away.
Consequently, in 1936, he approached German military intelligence who appealed to both his Welsh nationalism and his wallet.
However, German ineptitude gave him away and the British recruited him to feed dud information to Berlin.
Under the code-name Snow, he became Britain’s first double agent, creating a whole network of imaginary agents to help him fool Berlin. Some were supposedly Welsh saboteurs.
Everything went well with Owens helping unmask a number of German spies in Britain (mostly with the help of his handler, Gwilym Williams, a retired Swansea policeman, but that’s another story).
But drink and Owens’ duplicitous nature proved his downfall. His British spy-masters withdrew him from the field and locked him up for the rest of the war – presumably in case he changed sides again.
There isn’t much written on Owens. He was a rather unsavoury character who inhabited the shadowy world of the black arts, but he had been of real value to his country – helping to persuade Germany that Britain was better prepared to repel invasion than it actually was.
Veteran code-breaker Hervie Haufler is the best source on Snow, having uncovered his story from National Archives files for his book ‘The Spies Who Never Were’.
All the same, much remains unknown about the mysterious Mr Owens.
What was it which led him to be such an effective double-agent and, even more intriguingly, why exactly did his London masters lock him away in Dartmoor Prison?
A little while ago I asked the Home Office about this, but fell foul of two exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act, one of which concerns national security.
“The Home Office can neither confirm nor deny whether we hold any relevant information,” it told me.
In a final flourish it added that saying it didn’t have to give reasons for withholding information, did not “necessarily indicate that any information…exists or does not exist.”
Even 60 or 70 years on, we remain in the dark about Snow’s fall from grace.
:: First published in Big Issue Cymru.
If you know anything about Arthur Owens please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Barbara Wilding, Chief Constable of South Wales Police, has responded to the Wales This Week programme on Michael O’Brien by publishing a statement on the force’s website.
In the statement she refers to the civil action which the force settled out of court with Michael O’Brien and his co-accused Ellis Sherwood in 2006.
O’Brien and Sherwood had started proceedings to sue the force for malicious prosecution back in 2001.
Mrs Wilding states that the force made the settlement – and paid the accompanying damages – “without any admission of liability”.
She then says that they “chose to accept the payments on that basis rather than going to trial” and that both they and their legal advisers “were fully aware that this made an apology inappropriate”.
The force’s unwillingness to apologise to O’Brien, Sherwood and the third member of the Cardiff Newsagent Three, Darren Hall, has been a major motivating factor behind O’Brien’s continuing campaign.
It is something he describes in detail in his new autobiography, The Death Of Justice. It would help him move on after an 11-year jail sentence which he did not deserve.
In Monday’s programme on ITV Wales, O’Brien’s lawyer claimed that he clearly deserved an apology from South Wales Police, and most observers with knowledge of the murder investigation into Phillip Saunders’ death in 1987 and of evidence put before the Court of Appeal in December 1999 would surely have to agree.
Today, Ms Ofer has responded to the South Wales Police statement. In a letter to the press (see Western Mail) she states that O’Brien “did not reach an out-of-court settlement willingly”.
He was forced into a financial situation which meant he had no choice but to settle out of court.
“He was desperate for the case to go to trial, but once the police paid £300,000 into court he was forced to settle against his will as his legal aid would be stopped as a result,” she explains.
“Legal rules mean that if he had gone to trial and won and been awarded £300,000, all of the legal costs of both sides would come out of his damages. He therefore had no choice but to accept a settlement.”
She adds: “South Wales Police were quoted as saying that an apology would be inappropriate. This is completely incorrect. Apologies are made by police forces as part and parcel of settlement on some occasions and one was requested in this case.
“South Wales Police chose to make a payment into court a month before trial because they realised that there was a real risk that they would lose at trial.
“Had they simply wished to save money they could have made a payment five years earlier, instead of spending these years and a huge sum of money on legal costs fighting the case all the way to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords.”