Broadcasting in Wales is entrusted more or less entirely to the British Broadcasting Corporation and its Llandaf sub-branch known as BBC Wales. They supply 80% of all English-language TV, 95% of radio programming through Radio Wales and Radio Cymru and 25%, including news, of the ouput of Welsh-language commissioning broadcaster S4C. The dominance of the BBC is overwhelming, an absolute monopoly found nowhere else in Europe and only matched globally in Third World one-party states and military juntas. In this all-powerful monolithic controlling position the BBC has been letting Wales down ever since their first Welsh broadcast in 1923, when Station 5WA opened from a room at 19 Castle Street, Cardiff, with baritone Mostyn Thomas (1896-1984) singing Dafydd y Garreg Wen over the crackling ether – a suitably sentimental, defeatist and innocuous offering to set the direction for the future.
Despite having no serious challenger through all these years BBC Wales has signally failed to establish itself as a respected or relevant institution in Wales. In TV you will be hard pressed to give one example of an important production that lives in the memory, and vast tranches of Welsh life (art, literature, music, film, drama, entertainment, education, comedy, children’s programmes, experimentation, etc) are virtually completely ignored, closing those doors for generation after generation of Welsh creative potential. 33% of the BBC’s total Welsh TV output is devoted to just one programme, Wales Today, the half-hour evening news. This is the flagship, captained by the ubiquitous Jamie Owen (think Alan Partridge, ah-ha, but with the disconcerting smirk of a coprophiliac in a cess pit). You would not let this man through your front door, nor would you give house room to any of the team of ‘reporters’ who speak to camera as if addressing a retarded child, with peculiar, chopping hand movements and the stress ON all the wrong WORDS. The ‘news’ deemed suitable is a skim across a crime story or two, sport, a superficial scratch on the surface of Welsh politics framed entirely by the agendas of the establishment parties and served up by smarmy, self-satisfied, uncurious hacks, some more sport, a bit of mirthless banter with Derek the gay weatherman, sport, a squirt of showbiz froth, a sport feature, a man-bites-dog item, oh and did I mention sport? The style, tone and content create an uneasy synthesis of worthy, patrician predictability dressed in an arch, mid-market tabloid vocabulary so as not to appear too fusty, and smothering Wales in a bland, banal and phoney consensus. We are so hardened to it here that it’s easy to miss the oddest aspect of Wales Today: Wales is looked at from the vantage point of a stranger, as a “them” to a default “us”, to be underlined and remarked upon at every opportunity and never taken as read. Wales is always other, somewhere else, over the next hill; never you the viewer in the street where you live.
This semi-detached air pervades all BBC TV’s Welsh offerings, a miniscule range of programmes in a grand total of just 15 hours a week (of which 80% is news and sport) and dotted incoherently throughout the schedule. The piddling £25 million annual budget not taken by news & current affairs is mostly lavished on that perennial obsession of BBC Wales types: rugby union. Precious hours of transmission time are allotted to inarticulate ex-players saying nothing original to each other in pre-match, during-match and post-match yawnathons before they all head off to town to get pissed. These are the only occasions when Wales is not approached like a dead cat in a shed being prodded gingerly with a long stick, but embraced fully as an identity. Typically, Auntie gets it all wrong; over-compensating like mad with the Red Dragons and the hwyl and achieving the difficult trick of rendering genuine Welsh passion synthetic, dull and stage-managed. To the BBC then, this is Wales: a ball game.
In fairness, their task is impossible. The BBC is so firmly British, so integral to the manufacture of British identity and so hitched neck and crop to the notion that we are all part of one overarching British happy family that it could never plausibly switch to a Welsh identity for a couple of hours each day. The BBC’s time-worn, ostrich-like denial of the fact that ‘Britain’ and ‘Wales’ are mutually exclusive concepts, by history, by statute and by definition, paralyses and undercuts all their Welsh efforts. The very format says it all: programmes made by BBC London are automatically scheduled in Wales too – but this a strictly one-way arrangement, in-house Welsh programmes being for Welsh consumption only. Thus Welsh programmes, slotted in ad-hoc in off-peak hours, feel like an aberration, Britishness is confirmed as the God-given norm, Welshness is ingrained as subservient and marginal, and BBC founder Lord Reith (1889-1971) can rest easy in his Unionist, Imperialist grave.
Once upon a time ITV gave the BBC a modicum of competition in Wales, but those days are long gone. ITV plc is absolutely hell-bent on ditching any residual public service obligations to concentrate on fattening shareholders’ dividends, and a succession of London governments have sat back and let them do just that. Its skeletal Wales operation amounts to a pitiful 6 hours a week of in-house programming, more than half of which is news, and even that is considered too onerous a task that shaves far too much off profit margins. Moreover, ITV Wales supplies no programmes whatsoever to the ITV network with the result that, to the rest of the UK, channel 3 has been entirely purged of Welsh content – but Wales, of course, must be kept fully abreast of developments in Weatherfield, Emmerdale and Midsomer. As far as ITV is concerned Wales does not exist (too poor to rake in significant advertising revenues), resulting in today’s incredible refusal to do anything at all with the precious privilege of being the sole commercial TV licence-holder for this amazing, fascinating land. ITV has shown itself to be fundamentally out of sympathy with Wales and unfit to hold that licence. After a series of authoritative reports savaged ITV’s dereliction of duty and warned of the critical lack of plurality in Welsh news provision, moves were made to set up a new, commercially-funded all-Wales news operation as an alternative to the BBC, and plenty of serious bidders came forward to compete for the licence – but then the Tories got back into power in London and Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt promptly axed the scheme. Again we see what happens when Wales has no control over its own affairs.
So the ConDem coalition’s unilateral decree, handed down without consulation, negotiation or advance warning, that S4C is to be entirely funded out of the BBC’s budget from 2015 (while also taking a 25% cut) is a disaster for Wales. The only free-standing Welsh TV channel will be placed entirely in the orbit of the already overweening BBC, giving the Corporation effective control of the company and turning the clock back to the bad old days, pre-S4C, when the BBC ran Welsh-language broadcasting with characteristic clod-hopping, condescending negligence. The root of the problem is that broadcasting is not devolved, leaving Wales subject to whatever Westminster dictates. BBC Wales is thus unaccountable to the Wales it purports to serve and S4C is horribly vulnerable to just such an attack – always on the cards as soon as the pathologically anti-Welsh Tories manoeuvred their way back into government and sought easy targets among their pet hates for their cuts agenda.
The only dedicated all-Wales channel, which broadcasts 90 hours of original programming per week across the full spectrum of genres, was inaugurated in 1982 after 20 years of determined campaigning culminating in a hunger strike by Plaid Cymru leader Gwynfor Evans (1912-2005) that forced even the legendarily intransigent Margaret Thatcher to make a rare u-turn. S4C has proved to be an undoubted Welsh triumph; living proof that a home-grown and home-run company can thrive, that Wales has abundance of talent and plenty to say about itself and the world, that autonomy works far better than centralised London control and that the Welsh inferiority complex was always just cultural conditioning designed to hold Wales back. The commissioning model galvanised the entire media sector across the country, particularly in Cardiff where S4C is based, giving Wales a bigger roster of independent production companies than any comparable nation and acting as the catalyst for the emergence of infant Welsh film, music and linguistics industries. Specialisations in animation, documentary, live events and childrens’ programmes have put Wales at the forefront of modern television and, most importantly, as the first and so far only example of media made ‘by’ Wales rather than ‘for’ Wales, S4C kick-started an entire cultural shift towards Wales as active participant rather than passive recipient. Of course S4C broadcasts its fair share of derivative trash, but even this has value and interest as the earliest incarnations of a specifically Welsh low-brow populism and an alternative to the overwhelming diet of rancid Anglo-American fodder.
S4C’s key identifier is its Welsh language remit, and in this it has been vital in staunching and then reversing the near-fatal 20th century decline of the language and in showing that Welsh is as adaptable and contemporary a language as any other. It is that very language question that has so agitated the Cymruphobes ever since S4C was founded. For years this loud lobby, via their house journal the South Wales Echo, complained that S4C’s very existence, as the Welsh peak-time alternative to England’s Channel 4, was depriving them of the 3.45 from Haydock or forcing them to catch Big Brother at inconvenient times and that this was tantamount to an attack on their inalienable human rights – no matter that countless channels broadcast in English, that Welsh has no other channel, that the few Welsh-language programmes that existed pre-S4C were broadcast at even more ungodly hours, that S4C programmes go out of their way to reach the non-Welsh speaker, that programmes are easy to record and that, hey idiots, you are living in W-a-l-e-s. S4C had to cope with this irrational animosity from these provincial parochials from the outset, and the strident chorus was only silenced when the digital switchover meant they could watch Come Dine With Me to their hearts content no matter where they were and need never be bothered by Wales again. But the language issue was only ever a red herring: the real objection was to any manifestation of Wales at all, because its simple presence calls into question the legitimacy of the British state. Now pressure from these invariably pea-brained Tory bigots is being turned into concrete policy by the London Tories. Handing S4C over to the bureaucratic, arrogant and unresponsive BBC that has patently failed Wales is an act of economic and cultural vandalism, driven by a demented anti-Welsh ideology straight out of the 16th century.
The irony is that BBC Wales has piggy-backed on S4C’s success to build itself a little empire in Cardiff. Thanks to S4C Cardiff has the biggest media sector in the UK outside London. The obligation to provide 20% of S4C’s programmes and the resulting accretion of skills and experience has helped put BBC Wales in a position where it is even allowed to make productions for the UK network, the Holy Grail for controller Menna Richards during her 11 years in charge (she is due to retire this year, but the ConDems have yet to name her successor). While the budget for programmes made in Wales for Wales shrinks each year, the budget for programmes made in Wales for the UK correspondingly rises, making a nonsense of the whole purpose of BBC Wales and turning it into just another London out-station. After a decade of striving Richards has achieved her aim, and now a whole 1% of BBC programmes broadcast across the UK emanate from Wales. Wow. And even in those Wales is never the subject but, at best, just a backdrop or a name-check, as in Doctor Who and its spin-offs. Russell T Davies’s revival of the sci-fi serial has raised Cardiff’s profile and spawned a local mini-industry of location tours, but his fervid imaginings of a fantasy Cardiff only draw attention to the surprising continued absence from the BBC’s output of the far weirder stories, dramas and spectacles of workaday, real Cardiff; a city whose tales have not yet been told. The hugely overrated, infantile hokum of Doctor Who proved to be a hit, encouraging BBC governors to chuck a bit of red meat Cardiff’s way: the honour of filming long-running, English-set, scalpel’n’surgery soap Casualty has been bestowed, and Welsh expertise is increasingly being utilised to the point that BBC Wales has started to believe its own publicity, rewrite its remit and move into the property development game around Cardiff. New studios at Roath Lock opened last month, vacant sheds on Penarth Road have been acquired and there are plans to sell off their HQ buildings in Llandaf (their home since 1967) to cash in on the suburb’s higher land values. Meanwhile the extraordinary realities of modern Wales remain almost entirely unexplored and the diverse media Wales’ embryonic democracy requires remains glaringly absent. Until Wales has a WBC instead of the BBC, nothing will change.
As for radio, because the commercial sector in Wales is so weak (Wales is the only country in Europe without an indigenously-owned commercial station) the BBC takes a much bigger share of the audience (65%) than in any other part of the UK. However, most listeners tune in to Radio 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 rather than the BBC’s two all-Wales stations. Radio Cymru, founded in 1977, gets 5% of the audience – respectable given that Welsh speakers make up only 20% of the population – but the 9% attained by Radio Wales is an abject figure attributable to the weakness of Welsh consciousness, the station’s pointless duplication of British (i.e. English) news and sport, plus its reliance on the same old pool of ‘talent’ that pops up all over BBC Wales. Are there really no other broadcasters worth hearing in Wales other than Aled Jones, Nicola Heywood-Thomas, Owen Money and, of course, Jamie Owen? Welsh radio has gone backwards since it gave the world Under Milk Wood, first broadcast on the old Third Programme in 1954 and, along with Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds on CBS in America, the supreme high-water mark in radio history. If a young Dylan Thomas submitted his script to Llandaf today, does anyone seriously believe the BBC would drop a phone-in to make room for it?
Pictures: STV; Tim Ireland/PA; BBC