S4C Debate 1: We need a new Welsh story

Peter Edwards warns S4C against becoming self-regarding and introverted

I want to dig deeper into a question that is crucial to us all as we embark upon the journey which devolution has allowed us to begin. Now that we have taken those first baby steps, we need to question what our place is in the world. We need to answer Anne Robinson’s question, “What are the Welsh for?” Are we willing to accept that our role is provincial, with a slightly different accent both literally and metaphorically from the majority, or do we have something to give to the world? Do we have something to say? Has our experience as Welsh people developed a national and international story which will mean something to other people around the world, or is this as good as it gets?

S4C debate

This is the first in a series of articles we will be publishing in the coming week on the future of S4C. On Monday the former Chief executive of the independent producers association, Gwion Owain, gives his view.

When Gwynfor Evans threatened to starve himself to death after the Conservative government went back on its word to allow the establishment of a Welsh language fourth channel, he believed it was the only means of communication which could save the language and give it a place in the modern world.

If Gwynfor was here now, post devolution, how would he react to an internet/twitter/face book world where the Welsh language is confronting the emergence of Globish speak? Might he ask “Where do we fit in?”, and query, “What is our story?” Can we only be concerned with what is happening in our metaphorical village, without reference to the rest of the world? If we continue to define ourselves as only having our being within the confines of Wales, then we are lost. This wasn’t good enough for me back in the sixties when I was a part of the defining generation. And it certainly isn’t good enough for the generation growing up now.

The question that we need to ask is what is the position of the Welsh language in our society. This will help define ‘our story’, who we are and our role in the world. If we cling to ‘What we have we hold’, an antiquarian approach to purity of expression and exclusion of all those who don’t come up to these standards, the language will not develop and change. It will simply be limited to an ever diminishing number of people picking over that cultural carcase.

Unfortunately, we have let ourselves down. We have failed to be vigilant and self critical. We have failed to demand the highest standards. More than anything we have failed to have the confidence of our own imagination. We have failed to imagine the highest aspirations for our re- emerging nation. That was our responsibility as artists and we settled for an old fashioned model of a little provincial television station. In a small, poor country like Wales where there is so much dependence on the state, it is very difficult to maintain plurality of voice, vision and creativity and very difficult to make sure that there is open debate. In the future this open debate and challenge must be a central governing principle of artstic and journalistic endeavour.

With some £100 million annually to spend (before the forthcoming cuts), S4C has been the most important Welsh language institution. As a Welsh language monopoly, the transparent operation of S4C and constant debate and vigilance concerning its role should have been  the daily bread of our being. In recent years S4C has narrowed the voice of plurality by its editorial policy, by encouraging the consolidation of companies, and by the emphasis those companies place upon business rather than creative excellence, variety and challenge.

Now as the wolves gather we have an opportunity to take a leap forward. As Stephen Carter points out in his Digital Britain report, the model of the old public service broadcaster is terminally damaged. Technology and this century’s cultural and social change have overtaken Gwynfor’s vision. We must take advantage of the crisis and radically  restructure the delivery and the content whilst putting in place a structure that guarantees competition. The public service, publicly funded corporation is inevitably self-serving and protective of its own continued existence above all. But this is not necessarily what best serves the people.

S4C’s Document to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, made public in mid October, is an interesting starting point but is essentially based upon only one primary option. It proposes to prepare for the new Communications Act by establishing a strategic review that will consider “all options”. Hopefully, this will include not just the continuation of funding and power in one place.

I am fully supportive of public funding for elements of content creation of high quality and the widest delivery on all forms of communication. However, by doing it through a monopolistic hierarchical structure we would be setting up the same dangers from which we are now trying to extricate ourselves. We now need to imagine the possibilities of the future in which perhaps S4C is only a part of the picture, perhaps looking after the ‘legacy’ technology of broadcast television whilst allowing more dynamic and youthful companies and agencies to compete for finance, airtime and the audience via on-line, dvd, cinema and all manner of digital communication.

In its ‘Document’ the channel says a comprehensive review is needed to define its service anew, “to reshape the organisation, its supply chain and partnerships”. That’s all well and good but the changes that are needed should not necessarily be channelled through a set up which has failed to deliver plurality of vision, opinion and culture in the past.

What is clear is that the present political process is deeply unsatisfactory. The idea that all of these issues can be sorted out in a month is ludicrous and forcing S4C into a race against time whilst its competition in the BBC have years to prepare. The new UK government has certainly kick-started a debate, but these issues are difficult, complex and subtle and if we don’t get them right then the future of the original language of Britain is once again threatened.

The argument for wise and timely consideration is well made in S4C’s submission and the announcement that the Committee for Welsh Affairs will also hold an investigation of S4C and hopefully all the options for the future, is to be welcomed.

On a regular basis, I have had conversations with writers and artists who felt that S4C offered no opportunities for them to produce challenging, argumentative and disruptive work. We have been producing a dull culture. For the next generation to take ownership of the Welsh language it needs to be experienced as exciting, argumentative, playful, disruptive and relevant.

All is not lost. Many of us have stories to tell and an understanding that by communicating with the rest of the world we add to our understanding of our place in it. Marc Evans’ 2010 film Patagonia is an example of a modern film which gives us purpose and meaning. Art is about metaphor and Marc’s film tells a metaphorical story of endings and renewal. It makes our history relevant to ourselves and communicates our experience to others. Our history is particular but in its particularity it discovers a universality. Financed by S4C and the Film Agency, this film is currently the exception which proves the rule. It is the only film which S4C has co-funded for years and there is not another on its books at the moment.

This situation is symptomatic of how our culture sees itself. We are boxed in, in both languages, to a self-regarding introverted culture. We have two monopolies – one in each language, both publicly funded – which naturally feel they have a responsibility to guide the culture. However, we must be vigilant and ensure that these monoliths do not deny creativity and freedom, particularly as the S4C document suggests bringing the BBC and S4C together on one site.

In the English language BBC Wales has a proud record of innovative programming with Coal House, Snowdonia 1890, and Third Star (co-funded by Film Agency and BBC Wales). But culturally we are limited to stories in and about Wales. This is surely a provincial view of ourselves. Can we not artistically and culturally express an opinion on anything anywhere in the world? I believe that our experience as Welsh people is unique and we must have the opportunity to express our opinions and views about anything wherever they happen to be located.

If we don’t demand this then we accept that we are boxed in to a provincial world-view which limits our humanity. Could we ever imagine that the BBC centrally would say to English producers and artists that they can only tell stories about England? Of course, they will say that we have every right to speak through the BBC centrally, but then that would be the world seen through the curvature of their distorting mirror.

The urgency for reform is now paramount. Without it we will further undermine our cultural confidence and consequently create a dull culture for ourselves. As Ian Hargreaves has pointed out in his review of the creative industries for the Welsh Government earlier this year, The Heart of Digital Wales, we have £300 million available annually in broadcasting and the arts. We have an opportunity to change direction from insularity to an expansive, outward looking and confident culture which takes on the world in both languages. But to do this we will need our broadcasters to engage in partnerships with artists, producers and other agencies. We will then need our politicians and people to debate the purpose of the Welsh and English languages in our society and the role that both S4C and the BBC play.

Ultimately, we must bring broadcasting within the remit of the National Assembly as the present situation infantilises us all. Without this we will stunt the growth of individual voices in both a national and world-wide context. Without reform we are endangering the future of not only the film and broadcasting media, but the Welsh language itself and our growth as a nation.

This article is from the current issue of  The IWA’s journal Agenda, issued three times a year. To receive Agenda and get unlimited access to the IWA’s online archive, click here.

Peter Edwards is a film and television producer and director and Chair of the Film Agency Wales.

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