Rhodri Talfan Davies

Thu 7th Mar


Rhodri Talfan Davies.jpg

St David’s Day Lecture / Darlith Dydd Gŵyl Dewi

Rhodri Talfan Davies (BBC Cymru Wales)

Walking with giants: Wales and the global media / Cerdded gyda chewri: Cymru a’r cyfryngau byd-eang

Rhodri Talfan Davies has been the Director of BBC Cymru Wales since 2011.  In this lecture he looks at the prospects for television and radio in Wales, at a time when traditional broadcasting is facing severe social, political and technological challenges.

Bu Rhodri Talfan Davies yn Gyfarwyddwr BBC Cymru Wales er 2011.  Yn y ddarlith hon mae’n ystryried dyfodol teledu a radio yng Nghymru, pryd mae darlledu traddodiadol yn wynebu heriau cymdeithasol, gwleidyddol a thechnolegol difrifol.

Thursday 7 March / Iau 7 Mawrth    7:00pm

Held in the Faraday Lecture Theatre, Singleton Campus, Swansea University

Cynhelir yn Narlithfa Faraday, Campws Singleton, Prifysgol Abertawe

Rhodri Talfan Davies, Director of BBC Cymru Wales, gave the 2019 St David’s Day Lecture on Thursday 7 March in Swansea University.  His theme was the future of broadcast media in Wales in the face of the massive economic and technological changes that have transformed the context in which they work.

Rhodri has spent his career so far in broadcasting, and comes from a broadcasting family: his grandfather Aneirin and this father Geraint both held prominent positions in the BBC in Wales.

He took as his starting point the new domination of media and news by a handful of global companies, including Google, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix, based on the west coast of the USA.  These giant corporations now eclipsed companies like Fox and Sky, previously regarded as giants themselves, and they cast a long shadow over public-interest broadcasting.   An indication of the huge gap between the two is the fact that while the BBC spends about £0.5bn a year on producing programmes, Netflix spends £10bn and Amazon £4bn.  Not only do the giants dominate entertainment programming, they have a profound effect on the news and current affairs that people consume around the world; in effect, they have become gatekeepers of civic knowledge.  Moreover, Facebook and the others are not static; they are constantly trying to extend their power and reach.

By contrast, national and particularly local media are in steep decline.  In the UK 300 print newspapers have closed in the last three years, as the economic model they relied on has been undermined by the flight of advertising and readers online.  Last week the two main commercial radio stations, Heart and Capital, announced the abolition of locally-based programming and news: this will affect seriously Wales, where audiences are relatively high. 

These two developments, the destruction of home-grown media and the triumph of American monopolies, carry serious dangers for a small (or any) country: citizenship, cultures, a sense of place, truth itself – all are under increasing threat.

Regulation, Rhodri considered, was the only effective means of controlling the activities of the global giants, and preventing them from driving out other media.  But since they are global, regulation would need to be multinational too.  The European Union has proved itself willing to act, but of course the UK will be leaving the EU soon.  

The BBC has had to adapt quickly to the new climate.  It is no longer just a broadcaster, but a multi-platform publisher.  So, for example, BBC Cymru Wales’s long-standing Week in, week out was scrapped in favour of continuous online investigations determined by journalists’ needs, not the television schedule.  The iPlayer has allowed programmes to reach many more viewers – millions rather than a few hundred thousand – and audiences over the border (Keeping faith is an example).

News is a particularly difficult area.  Evidence shows that people spend less time than in the past on news.  Their attention is not just shorter, but shallower.  And whereas a traditional news programme like Wales today offers a ‘bundle’ of lighter and more in-depth reporting, online consumption of news separates and atomises stories, and tends to polarise reaction to them: the online airways, and especially social media were, in Rhodri’s phrase, ‘alive with activism and aggression’.

BBC Cymru Wales, he continued, needed to reflect the fact that there are many Waleses: west and east, Welsh- and English-speaking, ‘Welsh’ and ‘British’ in self-identity.  (Controversially, he claimed he could detect little cultural difference between Monmouthshire and adjoining English counties.) 

Discussion after the talk was lively, and at times challenging.  Asked what kind of regulation he personally would favour for the global giants, Rhodri listed tighter taxation and control of personal data.  He could detect no appetite in Wales for what BBC Scotland has recently introduced, a brand-new Scotland-only channel.  He felt that the UK needed to decide what kind of a BBC it wanted; whether to cut a reduced service still further, or invest in a healthy one that could hold its own against the tide of other media and meet the needs of the country (he quoted the definition William Whitelaw once offered of S4C, ‘an investment in social harmony’).  It was increasingly difficult to justify making programmes for very small audiences, even with an iPlayer boost; hence the reluctance to screen much ‘high culture’ nowadays.  The BBC faced a dilemma with supplying to programmes to Netflix, which yielded revenue, but at the expense of weakening its own catch-up services.

Andrew Green

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