Eisteddfod Special 2: Thinking ahead in the media game

Geraint Talfan Davies reflects on the media debates that took place at the National Eisteddfod

Broadcasting plays such a central symbolic role in the life of the Welsh language and culture that some debate on it is guaranteed at the National Eisteddfod – the annual general meeting of the Welsh-speaking community. Wrexham was no exception.

At the beginning of the week, Guto Harri – on leave from advising Boris Johnson – conducted a crackling valedictory interview with Gwilym Owen, a major figure in Welsh journalism for half a century. In a long career Owen worked for TWW, HTV and the BBC, and became one of only two people to have held the positions of head of news and current affairs at both HTV Wales and BBC Wales.

Eisteddfod Special

Tomorrow Nathan Lewis Williams explains how a space at next year’s festival in the Vale of Glamorgan will draw on the inspiration of Iolo Morgannwg

Since his retirement from an executive position at BBC Wales in the early 1990s, he has burnished a reputation as a straight-talking interviewer on his own weekly programme on Radio Cymru. In that role, and as a columnist elsewhere, he has been important in being a performer in the Welsh language who took a prickly pride in not subscribing to the orthodoxies of his own linguistic community. His abrasive, some would say curmudgeonly style – not unlike Jeremy Paxman – also entertained, as it did in the conversation with Guto Harri in the packed literary pavilion. The event, including his criticisms of the blandness of journalism in Wales  – across all media – and of S4C, was a reminder of the need for a healthy iconoclasm that is all too rare in Wales.

Debate really took off on Thursday, as Ofcom revealed its annual communications market report, with its reminder of the continuing decline in spend on English language television in Wales – down 33 per cent in the last five years. This was followed by the IWA’s own event to discuss what is, undoubtedly, something of a crisis in media services for Wales, while in the afternoon, Cymdeithas yr Iaith, conducted a protest – no Eisteddfod is complete without one – this time on the subject of S4C’s independence.

Sadly, few of the protesters were able to get to the final lecture that afternoon by another broadcasting veteran, Euryn Ogwen Williams, S4C’s Director of Programmes in the channel’s first decade. They might not have liked what he had to say. While Gwilym Owen’s iconoclasm is that of the journalist, Williams’ is that of a poet, and like many a poet today he has become fascinated by science and technology. His lecture – the first Eisteddfod lecture in memory of Owen Edwards, S4C’s founding Chief Executive – was a characteristic philosophical riff on our inability to grasp the deeper implications of digital media.

In summary, his critique of the status quo was as follows:

  • The battle to defend and promote the Welsh language, post the 1960s, was a battle with London to create institutions which defined the [Welsh language] cause. This, combined with the nature of the declining Welsh industrial base, meant that we were ill-equipped to keep up with the digital revolution and inclined us to avoid facing this new reality.

  • Our institutions – BBC, S4C, Welsh Language Board, Welsh Books Council, the education system and so on – have been too slow to recognise the way in which technology is altering the nature of public discourse in general, and public service broadcasting in particular. This has meant the Welsh language is well behind the curve in the digital age.

  • We need to stop looking at broadcasting in isolation, and examine all the means of supporting and promoting the language in the round. We need a fundamental debate about the role of digital media in the Welsh language, its communities and culture.

  • Twitter and Facebook are subverting institutions because they destroy privacy – which is a good thing. The corollary is that the current debate is wasting its time concentrating on structures, and particularly the independence of S4C. The real issue is how to secure creative freedom in the new world, especially in a Wales where power over communications and broadcasting is likely to be devolved in the coming decade.

Critics might say that he offered fewer answers than questions. However, he covered this line of attack with the Delphic assertion that because of the interactive nature of the new media, “my vision is a string of questions, and there will be many different answers because this is a dialogue in which, in all our diversity, we are equal”. Elsewhere, he was rather more helpful to policy makers.

He thought there was no point in wasting energy on protesting against the reality of the proposed new funding regime for S4C. On the contrary, he sees advantages in funding S4C content through a system that is free from political and commercial pressure – though that is hardly how one might describe the BBC licence fee after Jeremy Hunt’s night raid. We should not allow anything to divert us, he said, from the key task of redefining S4C’s mission and services.

He called for new ways of measuring the value and effectiveness of Welsh language media, although not everyone will share his view that current audience measurement is worthless. In his enthusiasm for the new media, Williams, a long-standing technophile, tends to sound slightly embarrassed by the analogue culture in which he  is rooted –- as are many of us of a similar age.

There are many things in the new digital world that we all value. I, too, own almost every conceivable Apple gadget and probably spend too much time looking at my smartphone. But as yet there is no equivalence in informing a mass audience between the power of broadcast television on the one hand, and Facebook or Twitter on the other. Despite the powerful capacity of new technologies to personalise information, effective democratic societies need a widespread sharing of common information, just as much as diverse sources. The mass audience is not a redundant or worthless concept, and its erosion in television has been a lot slower than many have predicted.

Williams makes an impassioned plea for creative freedom, and warns commissioners about their tendencies either to impose their own tastes or to micro-manage productions. Yet in dealing with the independent sector he cannot escape the charge of vested interest. He is a development producer with Boomerang, one of the big two of the Welsh production sector. The other is the much larger Tinopolis.

He warns broadcasters against interfering with the ecology of the independent production sector, and claims that as it stands it is the result of wholly organic development. Well, in the words of a famous Welsh language television catchphrase, Scersli Bilif. It ignores entirely the very deliberate fostering of larger production entities by S4C in the last decade.

The current concentration of production power in Wales has been under attack from other smaller players in the independent sector. Williams argues that it is not true that large companies are less creative than small companies, and it hardly falls to me, someone from a BBC background, to argue with that as a general point. But he underestimates the different dynamics in the relatively narrower Welsh marketplace, where there can more easily be a crowding out of new entrants that are essential for sustained health.

Where Williams is right on the button is in pointing us towards the coming new Communications Bill. As in the Ofcom and IWA sessions earlier in the day, we were reminded that, in the past, public debate in Wales has tended to react at a point when central government has already made up its mind. We do not put in the early spadework that is needed to shape government thinking.

There is a host of questions on which Wales – and the Welsh Government – needs to have a formed view. How much regulation will there be? Is there room for both Ofcom and the BBC Trust? How should the Bill define a new statutory basis for S4C? What powers over broadcasting and wider communications could or should be devolved? What role should Wales play in defining its own radio services? Would a future Welsh Government be able to afford to fund the necessary content services for Wales? How can we avoid an annual battle and a fierce contest in the media world about the needs of both languages? How would creative freedom for the production community be secured?

The lecture was a much needed wake up call, and however much one might quarrel with some of Euryn Ogwen Williams’ propositions, it is more big picture analysis of this kind that we need, not less.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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