David Williams says we need some serious journalism at peak viewing time on Welsh television
A few years ago as the Editor of BBC Wales Today I was part of a working party chaired by Professor Dai Smith, formerly head of English language programmes at BBC Wales. Another member of that group was Iona Jones, now Chief Executive at S4C. We were charged, amongst other things, with looking at the big picture of television news in Wales. I was reminded of this recently in re-reading an recent essay by our chair, Dai Smith. In the concluding paragraph of that essay, published by the IWA last year in its collection English is a Welsh Language, he says this:
“Let me end with reference to the news outlet which is apparently held as sacrosanct, and somehow hermetically sealed in its own programme making from the wider culture in which it so often, not surprisingly, flounders. In reality, how we weight our news service – its diet of analysis and opinion, its lead stories and its depth of coverage, is a matter of choice more than it is of the availability of newsworthy stories. Thus the BBC on behalf of S4C has perforce shown how an agenda that is Welsh and international, Welsh and British, Welsh and local, can offer a six o’clock news from some centre other than London. Naturally not seen as a problem as long as it is done in Welsh.”
Inhis essay Dai Smith reminds us that at the time – the 1990s – what was calculated to be an even bigger problem, both constitutionally for the UK and institutionally for the BBC, was the prospect of a Scottish Six o’clock news in English.
It was nothing less than heresy in the days before devolution to suggest this, but I had forgotten that our working party had pre-empted the Scottish proposal with a closely argued case for a Six O’clock News from Wales in English.
There was something approaching a small nuclear explosion in Broadcasting House in London when our proposal was received. The then director of nations and regions, who was Scottish, sent out an unambiguous reply: “Over my dead body”.
We persevered in our swim against the tide, but ultimately the tide was too strong and we stopped swimming. I think now is the time to start swimming again. Much water has passed under the bridge – not least devolution – since that first act of collective heresy by our small group.
So why do I choose this moment to resurrect the proposition? It’s very simple. This week we were told that the plan to provide an alternative news service for ITV Wales is to be scrapped by the coalition government at Westminster. The UK Culture Secretary argues that it would be “inappropriate” to spend scarce public money propping up an expensive ‘regional’ news service.
Those words sent a shiver down my spine. It signalled that ITV’s English language output in Wales, the output which I and others contributed to for more than a quarter of a century, had indeed collapsed. This is a scandal. A modern media tragedy is being enacted by a choreographer based in London.
Many of us were warning of this some months ago. Now it has come to pass. Elsewhere in these columns (Click on Wales) others are arguing for a new deal for BBC Wales services. The IWA proposes a major re-balancing of the BBC’s spending to allow a better English language television service for Wales.
I will not rehearse the arguments here. That has been done elsewhere and I fully support most of what has been said, with one caveat. I take issue with one particular recommendation of the IWA:
“The BBC’s Wales Today programme should mark out an even more distinctive position, showing no less a serious journalistic intent than the BBC’s Six O’clock news throughout the duration of the programme”.
With the greatest respect to the IWA, those are weasel words. What they mean to say is this… that, at some point during the course of about 25 minutes, Wales Today abandons journalism and becomes altogether more fluffy. As a viewer of the programme I once edited I squirm at the patronising tone which, at times, treats its viewers as though they had either just emerged from the nursery or were about to enter a home for the confused or both.
The continuous diet of crime is back despite our best endeavours to banish it years ago and the weatherman has become more important than the journalism. This is not a criticism of individuals, but of the policy decisions which drives the programme. Even before the current demise of ITV regional news, Wales Today was, for many, the main source of information in Wales. In the future it could be the only source.
This is unacceptable for many reasons, but it is not good enough to suggest that BBC Wales Today should conduct some kind of re-evaluating exercise and mimic the so-called values of the Six O’clock News. In Wales it is not good enough to simply inject ‘network’ values into ‘regional’ news programmes. In Wales it isn’t regional news that we are talking about. We are dealing with a country which has its own democratically elected institutions, not a region. We’re grown up enough to exercise our right to be governed by a devolutionary process and almost grown up to vote for more law making powers for our Assembly. However, we’re not grown up enough to have our own Six O’clock News.
Of course, we have a Six O’clock news in the Welsh language, Newyddion on S4C which provides a Welsh perspective on global news, and no-one complains. We should have an quivalent service in the English language.
I hope Dai Smith will forgive me for once again raiding his substantial linguistic treasure of words in order to sustain my own argument. Here’s some more of what he said about that attempt of ours to introduce a grown up (my words) news for Wales:
“Populism is reductionist, where popular culture is open to change. It is the force of the latter which requires linking to politics and policy. A mindless concentration on crime stories and tear-jerkers may be cynically understandable but it is another species of insult to a nation intent on governing and expressing itself.”
Eloquently put Mr. Smith. That same nation, in my opinion, should have a news programme that reflects it growing maturity and diversity. “Here is the Six O’clock News from Wales…” has a nice ring to it don’t you think?