The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

The Young Audiences Content Fund in Parliament

 

CMF political liaison representative and clerk to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Children's Media and the Arts, Jayne Kirkham, reports on the latest activity in Parliament associated with the campaign to save the Young Audiences Content Fund from closure.


Since it was announced (rather quietly over a weekend in January) that the Young Audiences Content Fund would close at the end of March, there has been much activity in Parliament.  The co-chairs of the APPG for Children’s Media and the Arts, Baroness Floella Benjamin and Julie Elliott MP both looked at how they could best campaign within the parliamentary system. Evidence was collated, letters written, questions formulated, colleagues consulted…

Many individuals and organisations wrote to both the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and to their constituency MPs. But the first official mention of the Fund’s demise was not aimed at DCMS but was in an oral question to the Welsh Office.  Following a letter from a producer in his constituency, Ben Lake, Plaid Cymru MP for Ceredigion asked David Davies, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, about the potential impact closing the Fund will have on Welsh language broadcasting.  It is fair to say that with the only broadcaster offering Welsh language content having had its budget cut and cut again in recent years, the YACF has been a lifeline, not just to the producers - and this is not an exaggeration - but to Welsh culture as a whole.  Mr Davies agreed to meet Ben to discuss the impact of the Fund’s closure and ways future original children’s content in the Welsh language can be secured.

Another MP quick off the mark was the Labour MP for Manchester Gorton, Azfal Khan.  CMF was aware that Labour’s shadow DCMS group were discussing the issue but Azfal submitted a written question, again on behalf of a constituent.  “What plans does DCMS have to support the children’ television industry after the closure of the Young Audiences content Fund?”  The reply he received from Julia Lopez, the Minister tasked with replying on behalf of the DCMS, turned out to be something we have now seen rolled out again and again.  Despite the variety of voices and different arguments, the replies so far are all the same so a stock response. Here it is verbatim:

“The UK Govt is committed to ensuring that young listeners and viewers benefit from a modern system of public service broadcasting (PSB) that remains relevant and can continue to meet the needs of UK audiences in the future. That is why we are conducting a strategic review of PSB – drawing on the work of Ofcom, the Select committees in both Houses of Parliament, and the government’s own expert PSB Advisory Panel – to work out how best to achieve this in light of the challenges the sector is currently facing.

The three-year pilot Young Audiences Content Fund was designed to test a new way of financing public service TV content. A full evaluation of the pilot Fund will take place following its conclusion to determine its impact on the children’s television industry and the provision and plurality of public service content for young audiences across the UK.  The potential of further investment of public funding will be assessed against the Fund evaluation and alongside future public service broadcasting needs.”

If you or your constituency MP has written to either Nadine Dorries or Julia Lopez, no doubt you will have received the same. Baroness Benjamin received it, when she submitted six, SIX, different written questions in the House of Lords.  The questions were very specific:  what plans does Her Majesty’s Government have, if any to renew or replace the YACF? What assessment have they made of the need to improve plurality of funding routes?  What steps have they taken to level up TV production now that the YACF has ceased? You can read all the question - and all the answers. But why bother? It’s the same pragraphs as above.

No, wait - there was a third paragraph!

“The Government is committed to the success of our world-leading TV production sector.  UK-wide tax reliefs continue to play a vital role in driving production across children’s animation and high-end television, supporting approximately £2.2billion production spending in these sectors through tax reliefs in 2019 alone. The government continues to act to support the industry in developing the physical infrastructure and skills pipelines it needs to sustain success – success which has seen 2021 being a record-setting year, with total high-end TV production spend reaching more than £4billion.”

Excuse me, but whoopy do.  How did that answer any of Floella’s questions?

But our supporters in Parliament were not giving up - they've been through this many times before. Knowing the stock reply - either the two or three paragraph version - meant that further questions could be refined.

Julie Elliott MP picked up on the fact the Fund had been closed before its final evaluation and submitted another written question asking why. Meanwhile Floella Benjamin had a date for a meeting with the Secretary of State, having gathered a dossier of evidence from broadcasters, producers and academics highlighting the Fund’s financial benefits to the industry and, more importantly, the social and emotional benefits to the young audience, as well as sobering projections regarding the impact of its closure.  Not to put too fine a point on it: we will be in a worse position than when we started and when we started, we were on our knees.  At the very last minute, Nadine Dorries cancelled the meeting.  No doubt she had her reasons but you don’t put Lady Benjamin off that easily and another meeting will be arranged.

In the meantime, Floella tabled an oral question in the House of Lords: “to ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will replace the Young Audiences Content Fund which supported the production of British-made content for commercial broadcast.”  This allowed her, in a supplementary question, to get on record that the Fund had given a new lease of life to an ailing children’s sector; that it had allowed producers from diverse backgrounds to get commissioned and that the Fund’s closure has removed a successful incentive for UK commercial broadcasters and producers and, as she put it, “is devastating for the children’s creative industry.” She also got on record the need for interim measures and the idea of different funding sources - other than the licence fee.

Members and friends of the APPG for Children’s Media and the Arts had made special effort to be in the House for this question.  When Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay replied by reciting the stock “The Government are committed to… A full evaluation of the three-year pilot…” (It wasn’t quite off by heart but you get the picture), they stood up to support Floella with well informed and pertinent supplementary questions.

Lord Stevenson of Balmacara (Labour) highlighted the worrying pattern or policy at DCMS to announce initiatives and then withdraw them rather than looking more broadly at the wider context of the media.

The Earl of Clancarty (Crossbench) said that, as the Government themselves have admitted, the YACF was successful and that, to simply say there is to be an evaluation while closing the scheme does not seem like a good enough answer.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall, (Labour and an officer of the APPG) pointed out that while Lord Parkinson had earlier in the week talked with pride about the UK’s “world-beating children’s programming,” this decision, and the uncertain future it creates, is “extremely dispiriting for the very young people hoping for a career in this area who are now feeling it is not going to work out.”

Lord Foster of Bath (Liberal Democrat) asked the Government to at least ensure there is continuation of funding until their ‘strategic review’ has been carried out.

Lord Lucas (Conservative) thought it “weird that a three-year project has not been evaluated in the course of running it.” He said that “in commerce, it would be automatic that you would reach the end of a pilot knowing whether or not it had been a success. To take the good bits and then dump them into space for a year and a half, or however long it will take the Government to do this, rather than continuing them because you know they’re succeeding, is not the right way to run a Government.”   Lord Parkinson didn’t really have an answer beyond the stock reply.

Lord McNicol of West Kilbride (Labour) referred to the excellent contribution the Fund has made to Irish, Scottish, Gaelic and Welsh projects and pushed the Minister on the timescale of the review.  Lord Parkinson couldn’t set out a precise timetable but stated the Government wants to do it “swiftly and thoroughly.”  Hold onto that phrase.

It may be that Lord Hannan of Kingsclere (Conservative) had come into the chamber ready for the next question, but had clearly listened to this debate with some interest.  Having heard the Minister citing the successes of the creative industries, he asked, “if our audio-visual sector, including children’s, is as my noble friend the Minister says, ‘world-beating’ why does it need subsidy?"

This question showed very clearly that there is still so very much work to be done in explaining the role and importance of media in young people’s lives. To his credit, Lord Parkinson defended public service broadcasting and the importance to provide for all the audiences that rely on it, children especially so.  He said “it is important that high-quality and distinctly British content is made for children in this country, particularly when there are so many other options for them to watch programmes from around the world… it is right that we support public service broadcasting and make sure that the high-quality programming that we already enjoy can continue for generations to come.”

And that is something I think we can all agree with.

But to make that happen, there is still a long way to go in Parliament. Can we get the decision to close the Fund reversed?  Probably not.  But that doesn’t mean the need for a Fund NOW has gone away so our supportive MPs and Peers will need to keep pressing the point, on behalf of the industry and the audience.  The DCMS may keep trundling out the same old reply but the fact they’re having to reply to so many people from so many different backgrounds: industry bodies, private citizens, MPS, peers, producers, parents, groups like CMF, Animation UK, Pact and others… will make them sit up and realise this is not something that is just going to go away.  We have to keep on keeping on.  As someone described it, “in Parliamentary circles, if it squeaks enough, you have to oil it.”

If you haven’t written to your MP please do. You can find their contact details here:
https://members.parliament.uk/FindYourMP

If you've already written to your MP and received a reply, please follow up. Either putting them straight where you disagree with their response, or encouraging them to take your argument further.  Likewise, with the DCMS. One letter is never enough. Write back.

When you receive a reply, please let me know what they say.  It helps to see the different angles that we have on the subject and to ensure they’re all covered.  Remember, “if it squeaks enough, you have to oil it.”  So, keep squeaking.

Jayne Kirkham
mailto:jaynekirkham@thechildsmediafoundation.org

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