Thursday, May 15, 2014

S4C and Welsh Identity debate

S4C and Welsh Identity

Few weeks ago, I led a debate which I called S4C and Welsh Identity. I did quite a bit of preparation for my speech to open the debate. However I did not write anything down and just spoke as if in a conversation. Never again. I was shocked by how scattergun was the transcript. I thought it went rather well in the debating chamber, leading to a good debate, but I had to tidy it up a bit before putting up on my website. Anyway, here it is.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con):
S4C and its link with cultural identity are hugely important in Wales and a matter on which there is a large measure of agreement across all parties and among all Welsh MPs.  I would have liked to have had more Members from other parties present for the debate. Unfortunately, however, we clash with the Welsh Grand Committee, which meets at the same time.  So I fear that we may be short of the sort of numbers that I might have expected. This is certainly not a reflection of the strong interest of Welsh MPs in the future of S4C.

My personal interest developed in the 1960s and 1970s, when I became much more aware of my own identity - as we do tend to as we grow older.  I realised I was Welsh to the core.  First and foremost, I would always describe myself as Welsh. I have looked through records of my ancestors, and I do not have a single one who was not born in Montgomeryshire, Sir Drefaldwyn and every single one was a first-language Welsh speaker.

In the 1960s, my generation—my five sisters and I—were the first not to speak Welsh; we spoke only English. When I became a Member of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999, my sense of identity grew stronger and was such that I felt that I had to learn to speak Welsh. Since then I have become bilingual, and if anyone were to ask me what were the proudest achievements in my life, one of them would be becoming bilingual in the language of my own nation.

I have been asked why I sought today’s debate. It stemmed from a meeting with the chief executive of S4C, in which we talked about the channel’s forward budget and future programme development. It was about a chance conversation, three years on from the trauma experienced when the inflationary link on which S4C funding was based was broken. The avenue through which the funding is processed also changed so that it came via the BBC Trust, from the licence fee. That change was also significant, as well as being a sensitive issue, causing much concern in Wales.

Another factor in the timing of the debate is that we have a new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. There will inevitably be something of an induction course for the new Secretary of State.  He will soon realise that the S4C issue is not a quiet one. It might well be on his desk more than he expects. The issue is important, and he needs to be aware of just how important S4C, the Welsh language and the cultural link between them is to the Welsh people.

S4C is inextricably linked to the language and Welsh identity. More than anything else, it is the Welsh language that makes Wales special. As I said, my first interest in Welsh identity, including in the language, developed in the 1960s. At that time—this might come as a shock to my colleagues—I won a bardic chair for a 20,000-word essay on the future of the Welsh language. It might cause some amusement to hear that my pseudonym was Taurus ap Tomos; make of that what you will.

The conclusion of my essay was pessimistic, not an unusual conclusion to draw in the 1960s.  It was that the Welsh language would disappear as a spoken language. We have made a huge advance since then, because that is not something that people would say today. It is easy to forget just how negative prospects were in the 1960’s.

Before 1982, there had been a build-up to the establishment of S4C. Some Welsh language programmes appeared in the 1960s and 1970s on other platforms, the BBC and HTV Cymru. Before the 1979 general election, there was much debate about whether a new Welsh language channel would be created. But it was created, even though there was a bit of a hoo-hah after the election. The Government of the day was facing economic and budgetary pressures and had to consider carefully before committing to new spending. There was a lot of support for a new channel; the Welsh community came together and applied pressure, as they did three years ago, too. The outcome was that the then Government, led by Mrs Thatcher, created S4C in November 1982.

Despite the hoo-hah leading up to it, the creation of S4C under a Conservative Government is something that I look back on as a major step forward for the language. If we look at the record of the Conservative party, creating S4C was not the only thing it did: the Welsh Language Act 1993 was also a major step forward.  The creation of the Welsh Language Board was another Conservative initiative.

I am therefore proud, not only of the creation of S4C in 1982 — there can be debate about how that came about, particularly the influence of Gwynfor Evans’s threat to fast to death, and Opposition criticism of the prevarication in introducing the necessary Bill—but the budget it was granted. There has always been a good and adequate budget.  Since the beginning S4C has been good value. In 1991, a guaranteed link with inflation was introduced, and that funded the channel on a confident basis right up until 2010, when the incoming Government faced a similar position to that of the Government which came to power in 1979, facing threats to the economy and a need to cut back on public expenditure.

There is room for debate about the impact of the inflationary link. On the one hand there was the positive element: S4C had a guaranteed income in a business in which forward commitments need to be made, and independence from Government interference. However, the statutory link to inflation may have led to an element of complacency. That guaranteed income meant that S4C had to keep thinking not about its market, but about satisfying the people in control of paying it.

It was quite an experience for me being involved in legislating to break the inflation link. I served on the Committee that examined the Public Bodies Bill. I had 1,200 e-mails on the issue, which is four times more than on any other subject since I became an MP. After I had spoken in committee I became something of a target. We even had someone carted out of the Public Gallery, because she began to shout at me. There was a huge rumpus in Wales as well. I was being doorstepped all over this building by various people lobbying. What all this showed me was that the people of Wales really cared about their channel. They were worried that changes would damage it, although over the past three years, in my opinion, things have worked out okay.

There was a second big change: rather than being funded directly from Westminster, the channel is now funded from the licence fee through the BBC Trust.  There is an issue consequent on this change that has raised its head this morning. Many were worried about that change at the time. Their worry is that we need an independent S4C that is not influenced by a paymaster—that is, not influenced by the BBC. 

The comments we have seen reported in the media today are a bit overblown. The director of BBC Cymru Wales has spoken about S4C viewing figures at peak hours, which might be perceived as wanting to influence the management of S4C.  I am not sure that that is right. What is crucial is that S4C is free and independent—editorially, operationally and managerially. The slightest suggestion that there might be some interference is what has caused a hoo-hah today. I welcome that, as it emphasises just how important that independence is.

I must say that the relationship between S4C and the BBC in Wales is probably better than anybody could have expected.

There is one aspect of the Public Bodies Act 2011 on which I would like a reassurance from the Minister—I am sure he will be happy to give it. Section 31 states that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport must ensure “sufficient funding” to deliver a Welsh language channel in Wales. That is rather imprecise. However, it is important that it is stated in the Act and that the Secretary of State has this responsibility.

My focus today is on the link between S4C and the language.  It is what I think is most important.  However, to a lot of people, the importance of S4C is about not just the language but the contribution that it makes to the economy. I was involved in economic development for the whole of Wales around the time that S4C was created. There followed a blossoming of the creative industries. A large number of small production businesses set up in parts of Wales where there had been depopulation, and to which it was difficult to attract other forms of business. S4C does not produce its own programmes but commissions it from others.  A large proportion of those commissions go not to the BBC but to independent companies. Today we have four major companies that produce programmes for S4C. These include: Boom Pictures, a successful international company; Tinopolis, a major company that produces “Question Time”; Rondo; and Cwmni Da, a company that has sold programmes to China.

We should not forget, however, that the last thing we want is for S4C to drop into a comfort zone of just working with established companies. We need to make certain that it is not just the four established companies with good relationships with S4C that continue to get all the work, and that there is still a blossoming of new, small companies in the more remote parts of Wales where it is still more difficult to develop the economy.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): My hon. Friend will have heard that S4C is moving its headquarters to Carmarthen. The economic contribution that that will make across west Wales is profound. His point is a good one, and one that S4C is beginning to realise itself.

Glyn Davies: I agree with my hon. Friend. There will obviously be views on whether S4C should move its Headquarters from the capital, where political activity is mainly based and the creative industries are concentrated.  In my opinion the move is the right one to where the language is under most threat, in what I term the heartlands, where Welsh is still the language of the street and the playground.  Carmarthen is one of those places. Those are the areas where we have seen the biggest loss in Welsh speakers in recent years and where S4C can play a role in helping to stabilise decline in use of the language.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. To return to education and the importance of the language, does he agree that an essential role of S4C has been to buttress education policy in schools? It is not a tool of Government policy but has meant that children from an anglicised background have had the Welsh language made familiar in their homes in a natural way. Does he also agree that evidence for the fact that S4C is in no way complacent is the international success of many of its commissions, not least “Hinterland”, which was filmed in Ceredigion?

Glyn Davies: Indeed. The only difficulty I had with ‘Hinterland’ was that it rained pretty much throughout the first episode and was probably not particularly helpful to attracting tourists to Ceredigion. However, I have watched the later episodes, and greatly enjoyed them.

My request for today’s debate was instigated by a meeting with S4C where we discussed future funding. Decisions on future programming have to be made two or three years ahead, and those making the decisions need to have an idea of what their budget will be. Although most of S4C’s budget comes from the licence fee, which is fairly predictable, a certain amount still comes from the Westminster Government—from DCMS—and is guaranteed for only a limited period. Programmes such as “Hinterland” take more than two years to deliver, from initial discussions to delivery.  To commit to a programme such as ‘Hinterland’ a fair degree of certainty is needed. That is one of the main reasons I requested today’s debate, before discussions on S4C’s future funding are taken. The licence fee we know about, and the Minister may have already started discussions on its future. Officially, they will probably start after the next election.  If we are going to see good and internationally successful programmes such as “Hinterland”, we need to have a period in which the board and chief executive of S4C can commit to delivering programmes in two years’ time.  That requires some certainty about the budget.

Very soon now — perhaps it has already begun — the Secretary of State will be starting the long process of reviewing the BBC’s charter, and part of that will be its relationship with S4C and the continuation of the funding stream. There will also be discussions, which I hope honourable members will be part of, about S4C deciding what sort of organisation it wants to be. There will be changes — nothing stands still, particularly in the fast-moving world of the creative industries. There needs to be a serious look at how much money comes in from advertising which is a significant part of S4C’s funding.  This income inevitably is effected by viewing figures.  When I see headlines about audience figures, I never really trust them.  We have to look at the whole picture and what is behind the figures. S4C produces a lot of children’s programmes, which do not count in the way audience figures are measured.  S4C has been incredibly successful in that field, exporting children’s programmes all over the world. Also, there is a viewing trend affecting all television channels by the growth of online viewing, which inevitably leads to a reduction in audience figures. We have to look at the issue in the round before we make a judgment about viewing figures. There will be a significant debate about the sort of S4C we want. As I said, I think S4C is producing a document later this month which will be a chance for us to start engaging with it.

The United Kingdom has been a hugely successful entity for centuries. A key part of that is that each nation within the union, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, has to feel a sense that it is belonging to a team and that its differences and uniqueness are properly recognised right across the UK; that the whole team recognises its special features. In Wales, we have a much loved language, which about 20% of people speak; it is very successful. We have probably stopped its decline, but there remains a constant battle to protect and boost it. That has to be respected throughout the United Kingdom, not just in Wales, where we are very aware of it.  That is why it is important that we have a debate about S4C, the language and the identity of Wales here in the UK Parliament. That is why I have secured today’s debate and why I have enjoyed sharing my views on the issue with hon. Members.