David Anderson wonders how long Wales will be content at the periphery of arts and culture coverage
The story is told of an elderly woman in North Wales who, when asked if she had been to London, said, “Oh, no. It is so far from everywhere”.
Last year, BBC Director General Tony Hall came to Cardiff, and spoke at the Pier Head Building. He was refreshingly frank in admitting some of the deficiencies of BBC coverage in Wales. ‘We must acknowledge that English language programming from and for Wales has been in decline for almost a decade,’ he said, adding that, ‘comedy, entertainment and culture are not sufficiently captured through our English language output.’ He then invited us to ‘Just imagine for a moment Wales without the BBC. Where would a nation find its voice in both languages? Where would it be able to explore its identity, its geography, its people? How would a nation come together to share its common heritage? Or debate its shared challenges? Or celebrate its national successes?’
In effect, Tony Hall neatly put the onus on us, his audience. Rather than offering us a clear and frank analysis of the reasons why Network BBC has failed Wales in so many important ways, and outlining a plan for change, he made monopolistic claims for the BBC’s current contribution to national life. In effect, he was saying we should be grateful for what London chooses to give us, and not complain.
It would be unfair to suggest that this went without challenge. The Welsh Assembly’s Presiding Officer, Rosemary Butler, demanded that the media, including the BBC, address the democratic deficit in its coverage of public policy in Wales. But, by and large, we in the audience (and I include myself in this) let Tony Hall off without the critique his considered speech deserved.
We might have pointed out to him that Wales existed, with its languages and identities, long before the BBC. We might have asked him, in turn, to imagine a BBC without the Celtic nations. We might have challenged him to conceive of a BBC that is not dominated by a London-centric perception of the world, and that better reflects Wales’ arts and cultures, and its values and debates. And we might have reminded him that there is more to the arts in Wales than the Hay Festival, where buses are mostly timed to meet the London trains.
In 2013, Derry/Londonderry was host to the UK City of Culture. The programme brought a deserved and much needed profile to the city, but was criticised for including so few Northern Irish artists, and for the variable quality of the works that had been selected. One evening, I joined a tour of the installations across the city, led by a representative of the City of Culture, over from London. During the tour, when asked about the local community’s response, she said, ‘Of course, these people have never seen anything like this before.’
Do ‘these people’ in Northern Ireland really not see, or create, contemporary art of quality and significance? Or did the prejudices and assumptions of the London organisers blind them to the talent that lay beyond their own cultural and artistic horizons?
It is worth comparing the BBC’s coverage of Artes Mundi and the Turner Prize. For some years Artes Mundi – an international competition that engages with social concerns – has been recognised by international contemporary art critics as a far more significant event than the Turner Prize. In 2014, the Artes Mundi winner was Theaster Gates, a Chicago-based artist with a global reputation. Yet the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz (who previously worked at the Tate) again gave blanket coverage over several months to the Turner Prize, and made only one short report on Artes Mundi.
These are not isolated examples. I could have given many more from my own personal experience since I arrived in Wales from London in 2010. I suspect that almost anyone working in the arts in Wales could do the same.
Where do these attitudes come from? Who are those who decide what is culture and what it is not? The Sutton Trust has mapped the backgrounds of people in the top jobs in the media, the UK parliament, the law and other professions, and has identified the extreme and still growing advantage that parental influence and education at the wealthiest public schools and universities ensures. The nine circles of privilege ripple out from the Docklands, Westminster, Islington, and White City.
Of course, some who achieve senior positions do not have privileged backgrounds but, if they want to succeed, they are forced to become part of the dominant networks or be marginalised. As Ian Pindar writes in his poem, The Spiders:
They tell us how lucky we are
to be ruled over by spiders
and how our enemies
are envious. . . .
We don’t like spiders
But we are resigned to becoming spiders.
It is now nearly two decades since Wales voted for devolution, including the transfer of responsibility for culture to the Welsh Government. The BBC could have played a constructive role in this change. Instead, its attitude to Wales demonstrates how limited and ill-considered that transfer of power and decision-making has been.
The cultural infrastructure of any nation is an ecosystem, made up of a number of mutually dependent parts. As well as arts and cultural institutions, these include the print and broadcasting media, the Lotteries and other public and private funders, the education sector, the tourism industry and – last but not least – the creative industries and creative professionals.
Wales has very great resources of creative talent. Despite deep cuts in funding as a result of austerity, the last few years have seen an extraordinary renaissance of many of Wales’ national performing arts companies and cultural institutions.
Yet Wales does not get its fair share of resources. Funding of the arts, employment in the arts, public access and participation in the arts, and control of the arts in the United Kingdom are scandalously unequal. Research by Arts and Business has shown that 71% of arts and cultural funding from UK trusts and foundations, corporate donors and private individuals goes to institutions in the English capital, mostly located in just a few central London boroughs.
We are in the second decade of the 21st century, but we still operate with a highly centralised, nineteenth century, semi-colonial model for the arts – one which assumes that London is synonymous with excellence, and that to fund London is to serve Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the regions of England. It is as if the music stopped in 1910.
As the Artes Mundi example demonstrates, the arts in Wales do not get the coverage from the UK media that their quality deserves. This lack of recognition and publicity from the London-based newspapers and broadcasters – with the credibility that comes with it – makes it still harder for us to attract the private funding we so badly need.
We in Wales should give full credit to the BBC for its significant investment in Roath Lock and its drama productions, which have given a great boost to our creative economy. But BBC Wales – unlike its equivalents in England and Scotland – does not have a Centre of Excellence in the arts.
This is another reason why coverage of the richness of our arts – even within Wales – is so very limited, and on BBC Network is almost non-existent. This reality undermines the principle, embedded in law, that culture is a devolved responsibility. We lack the voice that Tony Hall claims we have.
Perhaps this is not an accident. At the time of the 2015 General Election, when the scale of the SNP landslide in Scotland became apparent, two of my acquaintances – one a Scottish nationalist, the other a leading Tory publicist – texted the words “Win, win” to each other.
It is into this political pool that the BBC has recently lobbed its thinking on its future, in a document entitled, ‘BBC: British, Bold, Creative’. This commits to providing the public with “the best of British ideas and culture” but proposes nothing specific to address the deficiencies in Network BBC’s representation of Wales. Without additional funding, it says, the BBC cannot increase net expenditure in the Nations. So nothing will change.
Is this a deliberate choice, based on a cold analysis that the BBC’s interests during the negotiations on the renewal of its Charter lie with Westminster, not Cardiff, Edinburgh or Belfast? If so, it may be miscalculation. In a hostile neoliberal world, the BBC needs friends wherever it can find them. Instead it has alienated many in the Nations who would otherwise have been amongst its strongest supporters.
The United Kingdom is now a state in a condition of profound dis-ease. On 20 September 2014, immediately after the Scottish Referendum, Irvine Welsh excoriated “Britain’s tired and out-of-touch elites” who are responsible for “ripping apart . . . the big, inclusive postwar building blocks of the welfare state and the NHS”. He spoke for many in Scotland. He might have added the BBC to the list.
The unreformed BBC, like the Britain it purports to represent, is dysfunctional and apparently incapable of adapting to the changing civic landscape around it. Who is the more provincial – the old lady from North Wales who had never been to London, or Tony Hall?
Why then are we so polite? Why do the arts organisations in Wales not unite to demand better? And for how much longer will Wales be content to play the role of Periphery, in the age old Centre-Periphery game?