Why control over broadcasting would give Wales its voice
Angharad Mair, Welsh Television presenter and Executive Director for Tinopolis
This is a lightly edited transcript of Angharad Mair’s address at the Yes Cymru Talks event in in Theatr Soar, Merthyr Tudful on 25 January 2020.
Some of you might have seen on twitter or Facebook an item we produced for our New Year’s Eve programme on S4C, on the phenomenon of the independence marches in Cardiff, Caernarfon and here in Merthyr.
And something that Siôn Jobbins said in his interview with us, really struck a chord with me – he believed that on that day of that first Cardiff march, Cardiff had grown up and had become a real capital city. Also, what was so great about that day, was that people on that march were so happy.
Well, there is a direct link between that happiness and broadcasting. It’s called empowerment. It’s called having a voice. A recent worldwide study on the effects of television, showed that in countries with control over their own broadcasting system, people are happier, healthier and more productive, because they have a voice, and they feel listened to.
If the values that are fundamental to the building of a nation are the values of democracy, fairness, equality and social justice, without broadcasting these are impossible.
Control over broadcasting would allow us to define and develop Welsh society – culturally, socially and politically.
Most importantly, having our own broadcasters would allow us to walk tall as Welsh people, as we decide on our own destinies.
You don’t even need to be pro-independence to realise that we are woefully short-changed in terms of our democratic rights within broadcasting. We are let down badly. We are neither properly recognised nor represented. We are not treated fairly.
What’s more, we are living in an era of the totally destructive dangers of London-centric journalistic dominance, which tends to be arrogant and completely out of tune with issues concerning us here in Wales.
It is quite staggering to consider this fact: shamefully, no broadcasting institution in Wales is directly accountable to Wales. One of the cornerstones of any country’s democracy is under the control of another country.
Take S4C as an example. The Welsh language channel is accountable to the Westminster Parliament through the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport. Whilst I congratulate Rhodri Williams on the announcement this week that he will be the new Chair of S4C, and I applaud his appointment, it cannot be right that under the Broadcasting Act, the Secretary of State in Westminster decides who makes the best S4C Chair, and indeed appoints all members of the S4C board. She, previously he, might never even have been to Wales. They decide in London who they think might be appropriate for us.
Changing this system is for me, simply, a matter of self-confidence, self-belief, and most of all self-respect. Why on earth do we allow others to treat us in such a demeaning manner?
Before the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, Gordon Brown warned the Scots that they faced losing Eastenders, and Strictly and Dr Who, and Match of the Day if they dared vote yes. Well, he can’t threaten that one any more. That content is easily accessible. The landscape of television is changing and changing rapidly. The BBC itself will be lucky to survive Boris Johnson.
Of course, in Wales, as with so many other aspects of life, we are dominated by our bigger neighbour, and sometimes the way we think, and our experience is clouded by that closeness, especially because that neighbour shares our language and even some cultural heritage. It can be difficult for us to see beyond England.
However utterly childish it was for Gordon Brown to threaten the Scots with losing Strictly, he was able to strike a chord because since the beginning of television in Britain, the BBC has been part of our psyche. And of course, we too want to watch Eastenders and Strictly and Match of the Day. And that’s fine… but as a nation, we must also have a national broadcaster of note. It’s a bonus that we can watch Strictly, we can love Strictly, but we don’t also need to produce it or even replicate it.
By the way, it was interesting to see this week that Gordon Brown has returned to the fray once more warning that the UK could end, unless the nations get a real voice in decision making.
He’s getting worried again! And we’re on it Gordon!
How, in an increasingly competitive multi-channel media-giants globalised climate do we do it?
The answer is simple, it’s political motivation, intervention and adequate finance.
And being a small nation is not a drawback.
While it used to be thought that to be bigger is generally better and things can only be achieved on a relatively large scale, the irony is, that one result of globalisation is that it also drives people to search for the local, to look for what makes them different and unique, to have that sense of belonging.
In the case of broadcasting – the more we are served exactly the same television shows and formats as the rest of the world, it stands to reason that people will always want television that is relevant specific to them too.
This is a necessity, not a luxury. Defending national cultures is a central justification for public broadcasting in small countries.
This is because TV is a public good and has never only been about content; it has always been at least as much about context. As someone once said: ‘Content might be king; but context is the kingdom.’
What’s more, in an independent Wales, we could do so much more with a public service television than is done right now. Paid for by all of us, in one form or another, it could actually be given back to us, free to use.
You could take the content and re-package it for use locally, in a different language, for a different demographic. My vision is of an independent Wales where broadcasting rights would become the people’s rights.
I am going to just touch quickly on the economic power of broadcasting. There are economic opportunities of course. For example, Bad Wolf is producing amazing globally recognised productions from its studios in Cardiff Bay such as A Discovery of Witches and His Dark Materials with the BBC.
Obviously an independent Wales would want to ensure that top-rated companies such as this would be given every economic advantage to stay in Wales, employing local people as they do.
But an independent Wales government could also ensure that the broadcasting economy works better for all of Wales, and is less Cardiff-centric than it is now. In my company, Tinopolis, we are aware of being an important business, both cultural and economic, in a deprived area like Llanelli.
The new BBC in Central Square is fantastic for those coming off the train from other parts of the UK to the Wales BBC regional outpost, but marvellous as it is, it didn’t have to be in the centre of Cardiff. In an independent Wales you could choose to locate your national broadcaster here in Merthyr or Tredegar or Blaenau Gwent – part of a greater economic growth for all of Wales instead of ignoring the lack of jobs and opportunities and deprivation in so many parts of south-east Wales.
But what do we get? And I’m sorry but I do find it sad. What we get from the BBC is a portrayal of that deprivation in The Tuckers. And they call it comedy! Thank goodness for Connagh on Love Island, at least he is aspirational.
And despite what the scaremongers will try to tell you, we will still have the big-budget programmes produced by the BBC, ITV, Netflix, Amazon and all the smaller budget content produced on YouTube and social media. So, we can have a better broadcasting service, not worse, than we have now.
So, what can we do now?
Well, we need to recognise that alongside health, education, transport and the economy, broadcasting is a crucial part of a healthy nation-state. It is what gives us all a voice.
It has always been a strange phenomenon in Wales that when the issue of devolving broadcasting from Westminster has been raised, there has been this fear that the people of Wales would demand that television money should be spent on hospitals and schools, not television, especially Welsh television.
That is missing the point entirely on the importance any self-respecting independent country gives to broadcasting, as part of a healthy democracy.
All the changes currently happening are part of a process and that process needs to start in Wales too, before independence. I would urge you to read the document produced by the Welsh Language Society on devolving broadcasting to Wales, and as it happens, the Senedd is currently looking into whether broadcasting should be devolved to Wales, and are inviting people to respond.
It’s not independence, but it’s on the path to greater self-confidence.
Devolving broadcasting now to Wales would at least give the Welsh Government some powers to monitor all the important regulatory developments that are happening now, and to have responsibility for broadcasting at a time when it is so important that the needs of Wales are considered as diligently as those in England. We deserve the same fairness and level of democracy that others take for granted.
There are lots of undemocratic issues in Wales, and lack of democracy in television is right up there with them.
Thank you Yes Cymru for organising these important discussions.
The blood is draining out of British identity at the same time as we’re being struck by the tide of globalisation – in order not to be carried away and become anonymous but to become part of the new global world, we have to speak up, we need to strike out on a new path, for a better Wales for all the people of Wales, a Wales that gives us all a voice.