Skewering of S4C carries wider lessons (part 1)

Geraint Talfan Davies analyses the aftermath of another huge setback for Welsh broadcasting

This week has seen a flurry of activity in defence of S4C. There has been an unprecedented letter from the leaders of all four political parties in Cardiff Bay. Yesterday afternoon a ministerial forum was held on the future of the channel (here), and on Saturday a rally will be held in Cardiff. Necessary though this this activity may be, much of it is two years too late. Moreover, the single focus on S4C is symptomatic of our failure to see broadcasting to a bilingual Wales in the round.

S4C faces a cut of slightly less than 25 per cent in its budget over the next four years, while the spend on English language broadcasting for Wales has been cut by at least 44 per cent over recent years. That is even before a chastened BBC comes looking for another 16 per cent between now and the end of the licence fee period. Isn’t it time Ministers and regulators drew a connection between these twin disasters?

There will doubtless be pleas for us to look forward rather than back, and to rally around some undefined consensus. This ignores two things: (i) there are lessons to be learned by looking back; and, (ii) it is consensus that got us into this mess in the first place. I will look forward in a separate column but first, What are those lessons?

Lesson 1: Organisations benefit from rigorous scrutiny, and they suffer when it is lacking. It results in ill-founded hubris. The conspiracy of silence around S4C went on too long. Its performance was not publicly challenged until too late in the day, either by politicians or by the people who are paid to do it, the S4C Authority. The raid on S4C has been a disaster waiting to happen. The Authority claims it was kept in the dark by its former chief executive. That is a familiar danger in both private and public corporations, as we have seen in the wider financial crisis. It is the job of Chairs and non-executives to ensure it does not happen.

Some may argue that nothing on earth would have stopped Jeremy Hunt imposing the cut that has come to pass. Yet any last vestiges of S4C influence were squandered by the way in which the summer sacking of its Chief Executive was handled, the obvious lack of a thought-through plan for dealing with the consequences, and the subsequent failure of its Chairman or any members of the authority to resign. Ministers in Cardiff and London have lost all confidence in the Authority, and you can hardly blame them. Never has an organisation dispersed such a wide and long-lived coalition of support so quickly. A divided Authority has been united only by humiliation. It is not a good position in which to be trying to recruit a new chief executive who surely should expect to count the settled authority of his own Chair.

Lesson 2: S4C has rested its case too heavily on the strict interpretation of its founding statutes and is now seeking judicial review. Resort to a legal defence is always tempting, especially faced with astute Ministers operating in cavalier fashion. In the end, however, it can overcome a political force majeure only when the organisation is starting from a position of strength. S4C was never in that position. This will be settled by politics not the law. A government prepared to give short shrift to the independence of the BBC was hardly likely to worry about the independence of S4C. By the same token the BBC has learnt that its own Royal Charter is a flimsy breastplate, and the licence fee just as vulnerable to a dawn raid as direct taxation.

Lesson 3: The case for perfectly proper special dispensations for the Welsh language is damaged when the gap between rhetoric and reality becomes too large. S4C has been tempted too often to believe its own hype, and in recent years has seemed to live off the successes of earlier decades. The case for S4C cannot be entirely divorced from the relative willingness of people to watch it. It now has the tough task of marshalling a defensible audience level and re-building significant public value through a more imaginative and active engagement with partners, at the same time as negotiating a new partnership with the BBC from a position of weakness. It needs to be more constructively self-critical and to listen to its stakeholders rather than simply promote itself to them.

Lesson 4: Policymakers and the television production industry have been too ready to see the debate about broadcasting in Wales parcelled into two unconnected issues – Welsh language provision and English language provision – and to ignore the latter. The inability or unwillingness of the production industry to see that the two were connected has been fatal. The Welsh dominos fell one by one, first ITV Wales, then the budget for BBC Wales services – mostly in silence – and now S4C. This is why we need to address the issue of Welsh broadcasting as a whole, and not just S4C.

Perhaps there would be a better chance of reducing this myopia in parts of the production sector, if the BBC in Wales were to make greater use of independent producers for its English language services. Most of the production sector – by the way, fragile rather than ‘vibrant’ – is far too dependent on Welsh language production, which also explains its common failure to make inroads into UK networks.

Lesson 5: Wales is very good at generating heat after the event, poorer at generating light before disaster strikes, and poorer still at constructive action. There is predictable talk of withholding licence fees and of ‘non-violent direct action’. While this may be useful in frightening the DCMS colt, it would be salutary to remember: (i) that the best non-violent direct action that campaigners could undertake would be to watch more S4C; (ii) that a budget cut is not a principle; and (iii) that the right answer for the future needs serious, imaginative thought not just placards.

Lesson 6: The lamentable truth is that the current situation stems, not wholly, but certainly significantly from the creative and governance failures of S4C, and, more generally, from the depressing matter of Wales’s general lack of clout in London. The latter is also an issue all of its own.

Geraint Talfan Davies is the Chairman of the Institute of Welsh Affairs and a former Controller of BBC Wales.

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