Probing the deafening silence around S4C’s crisis

Gwion Owain goes behind the headlines to unpack the resignation of Iona Jones as the Welsh channel’s chief executive






Iona Jones

Late on Wednesday afternoon I received a cryptic text message with three words and exclamation marks. “Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!!!” Naturally astonished at receiving a text which seemed to echo Ted Heath’s now infamous phone call to his private office after hearing of Margaret Thatcher’s defenestration from Downing Street I was puzzled as to it’s meaning. Realising it was from a former colleague in the production sector serving S4C I suddenly understood that it referred to the person that many in the media in Wales had long since resorted to call ‘that woman’.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for ClickonWales where I quoted the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole to describe the mafia-like culture of omerta surrounding a number of S4C’s activities. This phenomenon of a “Celtic informational twilight where things are known but not known” has been more apparent over the last 48 hours than at any other time in the history of the Welsh media. The departure of Iona Jones from her post as Chief Executive of the channel has raised many more questions than it has answered with a deafening silence from the S4C Authority over the reasons for her departure.

Also over recent weeks and months a number of voices in Welsh society have been using caveats such as referring to a need to reconsider S4C’s ‘strategy and administration’ to qualify their support for the broadcaster in the face of the proposed cuts and references to ‘problems’ with the management. Why has it been so difficult to talk openly about such widely recognised issues?

Over the past few months I have been one of Iona Jones’ fiercest critics. My disillusion with the strategy she had followed as Chief Executive at S4C had long since morphed into a belief that the problems of the channel lay rooted in the strong personalities at play as clashes and tensions seemed to proliferate and she became increasingly isolated at the helm.

Further, that I had long held privately a belief that the strategy that Iona Jones had put in place at S4C was seriously flawed. It would create such structural problems in the creative industries sector that it would ultimately seriously damage the channels output and reach amongst it’s viewers.  In my opinion this has been realised with the news that 26 out of 30 of S4C’s most popular programmes have either been sports or events coverage.

These statistics raise serious questions about the effectiveness of the Creative Excellence Strategy that S4C have followed over the past five years. The simple reality is that commissioning decisions at S4C are, and have been, to some extents led by the financial needs of a very small number of their suppliers rather than by creative imperatives. This was the essence of my recent ClickonWales article, S4C’s too big too fail problem.

There is a famous dictum about politics abhorring a vacuum and it applies just as much to public life. The current vacuum surrounding Iona Jones’ departure and the astonishing silence of the S4C Authority is busily being filled with the idle chatter of the Welsh mediaocrity, together with a move to place the control of the channel directly under the Authority.

Speculation is a routinely humbling experience as is prognostication, particularly in such turbulent times.  However, at the risk of seriously embarrassing myself I’ll try a bit of both. Firstly, let me speculate on the specific reasons for the S4C Authority’s decision to terminate Iona Jones’ tenure at the helm of S4C.

  • Probably most accurate of the theories I’ve heard so far is that relations with the Authority had broken down for some time and that matters had come to a head. With Iona Jones storming out of a recent meeting of the Authority it may be that her manner in dealing with it had become unacceptable to some members.

  • As Maggie Brown’s article in today’s Guardian states the Authority had asked Iona Jones and her team to formulate a plan to deal with the proposed cuts of 25 per cent.  Was there something in their proposals that the Authority found unpalatable which exacerbated these tensions?

  • Possibly the most obvious recent source of tension would have been the proposed cuts.  Whilst a number of voices in Welsh civil society opposed them, as I note above it was often done with a caveat that the ‘strategy and administration’ of S4C had to be reconsidered. Was this interpreted by the Authority as an euphemism or a veiled criticism of Iona Jones’ leadership?

  • In the week leading to her departure I have counted four instances in the Welsh print and broadcast media where individuals called for her removal.  Did the S4C Authority interpret this as a sign that there was something in the air that would cloud any opposition to the proposed cuts?

  • A series of Freedom of Information questions have been asked regarding the relationship of Iona Jones with the S4C Authority and members of S4C staff through a website called whatdotheyknow.com. According to legislation the questions would have to be answered by today, 30 July.

  • It has also been rumoured that the satirical magazine Lol is to include a six-page spread on Iona Jones’ tenure at S4C. Lol will be on sale from Monday at the National Eisteddfod. Is this to include further revelations?

The simple reality is that, ultimately, whatever the specific reasons for her departure, her management style grated with many. Critics of her strategy and management were more often rebuffed rather than indulged with rumours of bullying tactics used against individuals, companies, and the Authority.  To quote Fintan O’Toole again, when writing of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, she had failed to understand that “power in an open society is dissipated by crude attempts to enforce it”. The problems created had festered too long and no serious public debate about S4C has taken place for some years.

Some will no doubt be surprised to hear me talk about the power of S4C’s Chief Executive in such terms. Is it not a relatively small even if vitally important institution.  Yes of course – but herein lies the problem.

The power that resides in S4C’s Chief Executive, in the current form of the post, is such that the incumbent can have almost direct control over the fortunes of companies with multi-million pound turnovers and no other sources of income not to mention a workforce of over 2,000. Given the paucity of public debate and, until very recently, a laissez-faire Authority, you have a situation where the stronger characters dominate at pain of redundancies and withdrawal of funding and work.  As I found to my cost, the recent management of S4C did not appreciate that appropriate democratic structures need to exist within such industries.

So the question has to be asked where next?  The Authority’s decision to suspend the so-called ‘separation of powers’ and take a direct hand in the running of the channel suggest that this can only be a temporary measure whilst a new Chief Executive or interim Chief Executive is found. It also speaks volumes about the degree of confidence they hold in the management team that Iona Jones had built around her that they feel the need to take direct control of the organisation.

Who could fill such a role and what problems would they face ?

Amongst the names being mooted at the moment are BBC Wales political editor Betsan Powys, who could be a very popular choice with the politicians; Angharad Mair, one of the director’s of Llanelli based Tinopolis; and Ian Jones, the Welsh speaking former Head of National Geographic Television. Possible interim Chief Executives could include Ellis Owen, a former Managing Director of ITV Wales.

The task facing whoever takes over is a seriously daunting one. It may be that the Authority will wait until the Comprehensive Spending Review before deciding on the kind of skills and experiences needed to take the broadcaster forward. The scale of the challenges facing S4C call for an exceptional array of both political and management skills.

The short term imperatives are clear:

  • Political support to oppose any cuts in S4C’s funding has to be secured immediately and unanimously in Welsh society.

  • A clear strategy for ensuring that the channel can weather the next few months needs to be put in place.  This should include building on the support that Cheryl Gillan has articulated for the future of the organisation. At the same time dialogue with the National Assembly needs to happen immediately. Possibly the second most shocking aspect of the story so far is Alun Davies AM’s revelation that he has had little or no communication from S4C in recent years.

  • The question of Iona Jones’ successor, or Interim successor needs to be addressed as soon as possible as the current ‘direct rule’ of the Authority is not a credible answer beyond the next few months at the longest.

The longer term challenges are more difficult. In my view they include:

  • The obvious challenge of formulating a programming strategy in the face of any cuts. Serious questions need to be asked about which services are essential and which are superfluous. This should include a strategy for online content as well as partnerships with other parts of Welsh society, including educational establishments for the delivery of educational content.

  • There needs to be a process of creative renewal in the programme supply sector. Extremely difficult structural issues that have been created in the independent sector cannot be shirked. This is almost certain to include the loss of at least one if not more of the companies favoured by S4C over the past few years.

  • There needs new long term leadership. Following the appointment of a new or interim Chief Executive the current Chairman John Walter Jones ought to step down. The current situation follows some years of the S4C Authority failing to influence the management.

  • The channel needs to build relations with the democratic process in Wales. This should include clear accountability to the Assembly for all, not just economic, activities.  There needs be proper democratic accountability for it’s actions.

  • The headquarters, and the bulk of production activity, should be relocated to where the economic multiplier from it’s activities should be most pronounced – that is to say, somewhere in west or north-west Wales.  It needs to re-root itself as close as possible to it’s audience economically and creatively.

  • The danger in the current debate about devolving the responsibility for Broadcasting is that the £100m ( £75m if rumours of the proposed cuts are accurate) that S4C now receives is not added to the Barnett block grant.  Debate needs to take place, which includes the Welsh Government, about future funding and accountability.

In her article on the Guardian’s website today Maggie Brown quotes Iona Jones in saying that “S4C is not designed for a downturn” in the context of their strategies in the production sector. Both Iona Jones and the S4C Authority were warned about this some years ago by several parties. Most of the warnings were ignored and some were even met with legal threats. Maggie Brown goes on to note that:

“The issue that will arise now is whether hefty cuts to S4C will lead to the kind of furious reaction from Welsh-language campaigners that once so worried London-based politicians and civil servants.”

I hope those considering the future of S4C will bear this in mind., despite devolution and the development of Welsh democratic structures, there are still latent forces in Welsh nationalism that would see any threat to this most important of Welsh institutions as a provocation to action. A clear head and a steady hand is needed.

Gwion Owain is the former chief executive of TAC, the Welsh independent producers association.