The Tories are pulling the plug on the license fee – Wales’ cultural and political future now depends on our own media
Ifan Morgan Jones
I had always thought the campaign to devolve broadcasting to Wales was something of a wild goose chase. The BBC as a UK-wide public service broadcaster is so integral to the communal feeling of belonging across Britain that I thought that the UK Government would never willingly give it up.
I was extremely surprised therefore by today’s announcement that the Culture Secretary not only wants to freeze the license fee but abolish it altogether, thereby bringing the BBC’s role as a broadcaster that serves the entire public – not just subscribers of advertisers – to an end.
This all depends on the Conservatives still being in power by 2027, of course, and I think that this announcement actually makes that less likely. Like their opposition to the NHS, hatred of the BBC is a minority pursuit even among Conservatives. They are led by free-market libertarians who aren’t always in tune with the cultural conservatism of their voters.
If Labour can go into the next election promising to save Strictly, Eastenders and The Archers that would make their job much easier but be terrible for the Tories.
However, this move seems to be less about voters and rather about saving Boris Johnson’s premiership in the short term by throwing some red meat to Tory MPs who may have been considering getting rid of him. If he can survive the next month or so, then he can start to worry about what anyone else thinks.
But this desire to get rid of the BBC just adds to my argument that muscular unionism is actually just tearing the UK apart. If they had done their homework, they would understand that the BBC is a key institution in bringing all of UK together while making all its different parts feel valued and included.
It’s not just Welsh culture that needs a public service remit these days. The BBC is essentially the only English language content made in Britain that my family watches, because of its high quality. The rest of the time the content my kids watch is through YouTube and Netflix and is American, Australian or Korean.
This announcement also puts some of Wales’ foremost cultural institutions in great danger, too. From April S4C will be entirely funded through the license fee. So too is Radio Cymru, BBC Radio Wales, and much of the Welsh content – made in and about – Wales that appears on our televisions and is heard over the radios.
The historian John Davies argued that Wales was “an artefact created by broadcasting”. I always thought this was over-egging it a bit – his seminal book was called The History of Wales, not the History of Somewhere that Became Wales once the BBC Came Along.
But it’s not an over-emphasis to say that the BBC and S4C as cultural institutions have preserved through the 20th century a Welsh cultural distinctiveness which was the foundation on which the nation’s early-21st century political distinctiveness was then built.
They also have a clear role to play as a conduit between those nascent political institutions and the people of Wales. Without the BBC, would Mark Drakeford have even been able to differ in his Covid response from England? Not to play down the important job done by other news services and channels (like this one), but no one else has quite the same reach.
Even if a commercialised BBC survived post-pandemic, like all other such news services it’s likely to have even less of an interest in serving poor old Wales when there’s so much more advertising money and viewers’ eyeballs in the south-east of England.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch therefore to suggest that the demise of public service broadcasting in Wales poses something of an existential threat to Wales itself, as a cultural and political unit.
As a result, there needs now to be a real political focus on strengthening the Welsh media. Devolving broadcasting isn’t going to work if there isn’t broadcasting to devolve. We need to think seriously about how we create our own vibrant Welsh media that serves the public interest.
Plaid Cymru and Welsh Labour’s deal in the Senedd included a commitment to fund new and existing media platforms in Wales.
That would be a start – but would require some serious financial firepower now to maintain and deliver the kind of independent services that will be needed post 2027.
But whatever the price, it might be cheap compared with the alternative from the point of view of Welsh politicians, which would be no platform and voice to communicate with the public about devolution at all.
And beyond the self-interest of Cardiff Bay, there will be a wider cultural and political price to be paid by the entire nation if we don’t have a media that recognises our existence.
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