The current global media landscape poses a “profound” threat to democracy, the BBC’s top boss has warned.
MSs on the Senedd’s culture committee took evidence from the BBC and ITV about public service broadcasting in Wales.
Blaenau Gwent MS Alun Davies highlighted a lack of media coverage of devolved politics, suggesting it is damaging Wales’ democracy.
The Labour backbencher raised concerns that the BBC is becoming increasingly London-centric, both structurally and culturally.
Responding, Tim Davie – the BBC’s director-general – described the threat to democracy as profound as he recognised the need for transformation.
“I’m pretty obsessed by it, this threat to democracy,” said the media executive.
Mr Davies told MSs the BBC is becoming less focused on London, not more, arguing that the evidence for this is overwhelming but stressing that the broadcaster is not complacent.
He said: “I couldn’t be more personally proud of what we are doing in this area.”
Rhuanedd Richards, director of BBC Cymru Wales, said she is saddened by the decline in media coverage of the Senedd.
She said having more BBC network journalists in Wales is starting to make a real difference.
Llyr Gruffydd, for Plaid Cymru, raised the risk of the BBC “undermining” commercial news providers such as Reach-owned WalesOnline.
Ms Richards said pluralism is important: “We don’t want to be the only player in the market.”
While stressing the BBC does not want to step on toes, she told MSs that the broadcaster wants to step in for the benefit of audiences where there is market failure.
Mr Davie praised WalesOnline’s journalism amid “ferociously difficult” market conditions, saying: “I’m not interested in the BBC not being part of a thriving, plural creative industry.”
Mr Davie raised concerns about research showing many people are disengaged.
He said: “I think we have really got to work hard on relevance as much as some of the stuff we’ve done for years. I think that is a real challenge.”
The director-general told MSs that the BBC can use artificial intelligence and data for good, citing the example of serving up content based on location.
“That could transform, I think, the relevance of the BBC in a wonderful way,” he said.
Mr Gruffydd asked why radio listening in Wales has declined more than the UK average.
Ms Richards explained that Wales started from a higher level: “The good news is that this year we are seeing the beginnings of that recovery.”
Acknowledging competition from streaming and digital music providers, she said investment into network radio in Wales has doubled.
Elan Closs Stephens, who was appointed acting chair of the BBC in June, pointed to a trend of people being less likely to listen to talk radio.
Pointing to competition from Spotify, Dame Elan said: “That’s the choice of the individual – there’s not much anyone can do to bring them back.”
Peter Fox, for the Conservatives, asked why the BBC spent less in Wales in 2022-23 compared with what was raised from Welsh licence fee payers.
Ms Richards said it was an unusual year and the gap of about £2 million was due to Covid.
She pointed out that the licence fee also pays for S4C and told MSs that 95% of commissioning money in Wales is spent with Welsh companies.
Ms Richards raised concerns about the tough financial climate with a flat licence fee amid hyperinflation in drama and other parts of the production industry.
She told committee members she does not want to see a separate BBC Wales channel similar to BBC Scotland, preferring to invest in Welsh content instead.
Asked by committee chair Delyth Jewell whether the Draft Media bill will sufficiently modernise media regulation, Mr Davie described the plans as a welcome step.
He warned MSs that public service broadcasting is on the back foot globally.
Magnus Brooke, ITV’s director of strategy, policy and regulation, also welcomed the draft bill.
He said: “You’re going to end up with a small number of online TV platforms who determine what people can see, what people can watch and also the commercial terms.”
In the meeting on Thursday November 16, Phil Henfrey, head of news at ITV Wales, said the bill will mean audiences can more easily find Welsh-specific content on global platforms.