Dyfrig Jones reflects on the IWA’s draft media audit and puts Welsh- medium TV into context.
Read through the draft Conclusions and Policy Recommendations of the latest Media Audit, and the word jumps out at you immediately: Depressing. The story of Welsh media between 2008 and 2015 is one of decline, one in which, despite the warnings of the IWA, all of the worst tendencies have been exacerbated. Nowhere is there cause for celebration; print journalism is withering, independent television’s long retreat from its original regionalism to bland British national wallpaper has slowed but not halted, the BBC is in danger of following the same path. And call me parochial, or self-interested – “pawb a’i fys lle bo’i ddolur”, as the saying goes – but the story of Welsh-medium television since 2008 is perhaps the sorriest tale of all.
S4C’s entire existence has been a precarious one; back in the 1970s and early 1980s it had to argue its way into being, not once but twice. Then it had the decades-long campaign to ingratiate itself with a section of the viewing public that saw it as an interloper, rudely shouldering itself into their homes to sit in the place where Brookside should have been. And finally, having won the acceptance of the vast majority of Welsh people, it had to survive the emergence of digital multichannel television, and the subsequent tearing apart of the traditional audience. Having made it all the way from 1982 to 2010, there was a horrible, casual cruelty in the way in which Jeremy Hunt, the then Culture Secretary, decided to sweep away Welsh-medium television’s institutional underpinnings with the stroke of a pen.
What followed 2010’s dodgy deal between Hunt and the BBC was an awkward, protracted negotiation between S4C and the BBC, both sides trying to make the best of a situation that neither of them wanted. At the time, I was a member of the S4C Authority, and what strikes me about the the draft recommendations that the IWA makes in this Media Audit is how closely they reflect the terms of the peace treaty that was eventually signed back at the end of 2011. There is a call for S4C’s funding to be sustained, for the BBC and S4C to collaborate closely, but also a warning that S4C’s “editorial, operational and managerial independence must be safeguarded”. Each of these are reasonable prescriptions, and represent pragmatic priorities for Welsh-medium television at the present moment. But they are unmistakably rooted in S4C’s recent past and immediate future, and say little about the challenges that exist beyond the government’s next Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).
As gloomy as these past few years have been, looking back over the years 2008-2015 also serves to remind us of a period when the discussion of media policy, and particularly of public service broadcasting (PSB), was taking giant intellectual steps forward. The ideas proposed both in Ofcom’s first PSB review, published in 2005 and its second review, published in 2009 clearly saw the development of new media as a golden opportunity to re-invent public media in a way that placed plurality at its heart. Both reviews suffered from being overly deferential to the gods of consultation and stake-holding, but they also contained some of the most exciting and innovative ideas to come out of the New Labour policy nexus.
Back in 2009, there was a clear understanding at Ofcom, and amongst its allies, that for PSB to be remoulded for the 21st century, this had to happen at an institutional level. The two traditional options – consolidating inside the BBC, or re-regulating the Channel Three licenses – were rejected outright. New media demanded new institutions, and Ofcom put forward a range of options, all based on the principle of increasing institutional plurality. The BBC would remain central to the future of British PSB, but it would be a foundation on which other institutions could be built, rather than a high-walled prison. This was an answer to Welsh (and, to a lesser degree, Scottish) problems, as much as they were to British ones, and the Ofcom reviews represented a policy innovation that truly grasped the needs of a post-devolution media landscape.
Within a month we will know the outcome of the British government’s 2015 CSR. We are little more than a year away from the expiry of the BBC’s current Charter. The two key recommendations found in the IWA’s 2015 Media Audit – those regarding S4C’s future funding and its independence – will, by sometime in 2016, have been settled for the foreseeable future. Yet the fundamental questions regarding the place of Welsh-medium television within the broader Welsh media landscape remain unanswered. We simply cannot expect plurality to flourish in Wales when one of our largest media institutions remains accountable to its biggest rival for how it spends our money. The future of Welsh media cannot be allowed to limp along from one CSR to the next, or to be offered only the protection and patronage of the BBC’s Charter. Our fledgling democracy demands that we go back to looking at the institutional structure of broadcasting in Wales. In looking beyond 2016, we should dwell less on the depressing failures of the recent past, and think on how the intellectual flowering of 2005-2009 might yet offer a solution to the problems of Welsh media in both of our languages.