Controversial BBC Wales (BBCW) must deal with a further difficult request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) while another has gone to its regulator, amid licence fee-payer questions about the record-breaking low audience figures for its English language radio service, a Welsh Assembly report stressing parity with Scotland, criticism mounting about its radio coverage of North Wales, and a widely-seen website saying “something is not right…”, The Eye can reveal.
The shock details are set against a disturbing backdrop where senior figures in Wales have recommended more ‘opt-outs’ on radio from the north of the country, and that listeners should be offered the same number of hours for News and Current affairs programmes on BBC Radio Scotland (RS) as BBC Radio Wales (RW).
We disclosed last month how RW has already been challenged about the listening statistics. An FOIA request had been submitted to the broadcaster asking: “What are the listening figures for (the radio programme) Good Morning Wales on BBC Radio Wales?”.
Now a different person has demanded to know how much output comes from North Wales. In one FOIA question he asks BBCW: “Can you please reveal how many hours a week of regular Radio Wales programmes broadcast between 6.00 am and 6.00 pm are produced and transmitted from North Wales?”.
An FOIA query about RW’s listening figures has also been sent to the Office for Communications (OFCOM).
It asks: “What audience listening figures does OFCOM hold for BBC Radio Wales in 2018(?)“.
The request also asks what the figures are: “A) For Cardiff. B) North Wales”.
A response to the BBCW question should come from officials by the end of this month, but the history of these queries has not been encouraging. In the past requests for information under the FOIA have been met with a flat refusal to provide answers. One angry listener was told in 2010: “We are not… obliged to supply information…”
Apart from raising concerns about the opt-outs, questions have also been posed about other aspects of RW in a Welsh Assembly report, which was published in December. After being told by BBCW it was not possible to have regional opt-outs, the report stated that it was: “… extremely disappointing. The BBC should actively pursue possible technical solutions and prioritise investment to help overcome the current technical issues”.
The amount of programming on RW devoted to News and Current Affairs was also condemned. The report added that evidence was heard by Assembly Members that: “The BBC must ensure that in each week the time allocated to news and current affairs is not less than 32 hours. This is the same as the current equivalent licence condition. In 2015-16 the output figure was 53 hours”.
This all comes at a difficult time for BBCW.
The weekly audience ‘reach’ for RW is now only 317,000 yet for the station’s 40th birthday commemorations last year, the Editor Colin Paterson, had told media executives it would be approaching 500,000. But at the birthday ‘celebrations’, he did not directly address the falling listening figures and huge undershoot, saying instead: “Radio stations tend to be looking more towards narrow-casting…”.
Earlier last year when other low listening figures were about to be released for RW Mr Paterson commented in an email we have seen: “I couldn’t be more pleased…”, and in response to a decision to axe RW coverage of the football club Wrexham FC, Mr Paterson told a fan to listen online.
On average a mere 2,750 people out of the 3,000,000 population of Wales are listening per hour, giving the station a tiny 4.4 per cent share of the Welsh market, yet it still claims it is the “national radio station for Wales”. The cost works out at about £6500 per listener per annum.
Publicly though, RW still sees itself as a “success story” and the creation of new posts appears to continue unabated. Last year officials said they wanted to appoint an “experienced radio professional” as Deputy Editor at RW during an “exciting time” for the station despite the low audience figures. The successful candidate would “engage and inspire”.
The anger of RW listeners is also evident in posts on the Digital Spy Forum website, where there are huge complaints about a perceived bias towards South Wales, and that the record low audience figures for the station are very different to those of its sister broadcaster BBC Radio Cymru (BBCRC). One comment reads: “It’s interesting that while the audience for Radio Wales is falling off a cliff, the Radio Cymru audience is holding its own”.
The Eye have also disclosed that one of the protesters on the website has written about RW: “The morning news programme has reduced its hours. The content of the morning news is poor, not enough news stories, Radio Four Today it is not”.
There is enormous controversy as well about the lack of coverage in the north of Wales, despite RW calling itself a ‘national’ radio station.
Radios 1, 2 & 4 together notch up a massive 85.6 per cent of listening in North Wales and Radio 2 is getting ten times as many tuning in as RW.
Audiences have also been boosted among Wales’ commercial radio stations.
There were increases for Capital South Wales, Heart South Wales and Swansea Bay Radio compared to the previous quarter.
The huge BBCW building in Llandaff and the one staff are about to move into at Central Square in Cardiff, stand in stark contrast with the corporation’s operation in North Wales.
In Wrexham the output comes from two rented rooms in Glyndwr University.
Workers there sit alongside the tiny Calon FM community station, which now provides live Wrexham FC coverage following the contentious decision to axe live game commentary.
Indeed Mr Paterson admitted to Assembly Members on the media committee he uses the unpaid volunteers at this minute radio station, to help with setting up bands for the Janice Long programme.
He told them: “Some of their (Calon FM) volunteers are actually involved in some of our outputs. Janice Long’s programme on Radio Wales comes from Wrexham in the evening. Some of the volunteers there help us with live bands and sessions, and elements like that”.
Yet BBCW is no stranger to bad headlines. We have exclusively reported that one of RW’s leading former presenters, Mike Flynn, has demanded the resignation of the corporation’s Director, Rhodri Talfan Davies, as well as that of Mr Paterson because the listening figures are the worst on record and so far below what Mr Paterson claimed he would achieve.
Mr Flynn wrote in the email to Mr Paterson: “You have presided over massive changes at Radio Wales, and dumbed down the station, but none of them have boosted listening numbers which now stand at a record low. Entertainment programmes now secure higher audience figures than news programmes… your position (is) completely untenable. I should remind you that it is the public who pay your salary through the licence fee.”
The latest controversies to engulf BBCW are set against a worrying background – the closure of TV Current Affairs programmes.
The popular TV debate series The Hour was closed down after just a year and at a cost to the licence-fee payer of about a million pounds, following the closure of the 53 year-old award-winning Welsh TV Current Affairs programme Week In, Week Out (WIWO), and the alarming news became the subject of our satirical writer Edwin Phillips.
But viewers had described The Hour as “necessary” and even BBC Wales had admitted to The Eye it “capture(d) the mood of the nation”. The move to axe WIWO after a much longer run, came when it had won a clutch of awards. including prizes at the Royal Television Society, BAFTA Cymru, the Celtic Media ceremony and BT Wales. Another award was presented after BBCW had closed WIWO. The programme had also been used as a springboard for Panorama episodes, and one of the journalists’ investigations still features near the top of an internal document recording the highest viewing figures. Another WIWO helped secure new evidence which led to the release from prison of three young South Wales men who had been wrongly convicted of murder, known as the Cardiff Newsagent Three.
Even so it was replaced by the occasional programme ‘BBC Wales Investigates’. The decision though, has not been universally welcomed.
Our Editor Phil Parry, who presented WIWO for more than 10 years until 1999, told WalesOnline: “It is absurd to suggest that putting a label on a story like ‘BBC Wales Investigates’ in any way compensates for getting rid of a regular weekly Current Affairs strand which had been going for many years, like Week In Week Out. It never works – they tried to say the same when they got rid of Public Eye on BBC 2.
“‘Public Eye Investigations’ was never heard of again. When you have a regular series, with a team of people who know each other, an ‘esprit de corps’ develops. You know who are the best ‘quick turnaround merchants’ and who are better to be left alone so they can work on longer investigations.”
The ending of WIWO and The Hour followed the demise of a long list of TV Current Affairs programmes – including World in Action, This Week, TV Eye and First Tuesday on ITV, and Rough Justice as well as Public Eye on network BBC.
But the actions by the publicly-funded corporation to scrap theirs have proved troubling, and the cost involved was questioned. The TaxPayers’ Alliance told The Eye: “The BBC cannot be this profligate and not expect to face serious and legitimate criticism from licence fee payers. The BBC needs to demonstrate better value for money, or calls for scrapping the licence fee will only grow in volume and validity.”
As one highly-critical website puts it: “Where is the investigative journalism? Where are the probing documentaries? Where is the reporting of the terrible scandals and corruption that rack our much-abused nation (Wales)? Responsibility partly rests with (BBC Radio Wales) editor Colin Paterson, but chiefly with BBC Wales director Rhodri Talfan Davies”.
Earlier last month The Eye showed how BBCW staff had endorsed a hard-hitting article in the London Review of Books called “Can’t Afford to Tell the Truth” which exposed the appalling culture of wasted money, duplication of resources, overmanning and internal competition.