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.