openDemocracyUK

S4C's mute allies

After a drubbing in the press, the Welsh-language TV channel S4C needs champions
Steffan Powell
29 July 2010

Many people in Wales will have seen or heard of this story that appeared in the Media Guardian last week. Given the recent hype surrounding cuts in public spending,  there is little surprise that S4C is also facing the swinging axe of doom. The news comes as even less of a shock given that Jeremy Hunt, the new culture secretary, has been keen to lead the way with the coalition government’s plans for austerity measures.

It was another bad news day for S4C, which must be starting to feel like the unlucky kid in school, always singled out for special treatment by the class bullies. First its Clirlun HD channel received a lukewarm welcome. Then the Western Mail splashed about the channel’s viewing figures - or lack of – on its front page. This was followed by mentions in The Sun, The Daily Mail and on Have I Got News for You. And it has also had to deal with former Welsh Office Minister Rod Richards telling anyone and everyone that it is a waste of money. A tough time, all in all.

So is this loss of political capital emboldening the DCMS enough to give the channel a bit of a kicking? Have S4C’s years of service to the Welsh economy and creative industries been forgotten? Perhaps the most pressing question, therefore, is where have S4C’s champions gone? So far there’s been a distinct lack of drum-banging in defence of Wales’ beleaguered fourth channel. Why is that?

Someone told me the other day that if this was Scotland then the claymores would already be out and the Tartan Army would be busy defending its own, reminding everyone of how important this was to Scotland and the people of Scotland.

It is almost as if people have given up on the channel,  that they have succumbed to the barrage of bad press and critics who belittle it as a waste of taxpayers’ money. A channel that gets a £100 million a year and spends it on programmes that no-one watches.

So what about the good things that have come from S4C? And why don’t we hear more about them?

In 2007, a Cardiff Business school report estimated that S4C was responsible for the equivalent of 2,254 full time jobs. That figure doesn’t even include the staff that the BBC employed to make programming for the channel. Another report, on the creative industries in Wales and written by Professor Ian Hargreaves intimated that while S4C has scope for improving and developing , it is a vital part of the industry here and therefore important to the Welsh economy as well.

The creative industries have been singled out as one of the six central sectors of the Welsh economy. Its role is particularly important because of its recent growth and the added value that it offers.  Given that Wales’ economic performance is suffering – recent figures show a 9.1% unemployment rate here– the creative industries have provided a small light at the end of the tunnel.

Some independent production companies in Wales have used S4C as a stepping-stone for further success. Vibrant businesses have grown off the back of S4C funding. Tinopolis, for example, was recently listed in the Sunday Times top 100 private equity backed companies in Britain. Some of the UK’s ‘crown jewel’ programmes – like Question Time and the Grand National – are made by the company. True, more production houses could be spreading their wings, as Professor Hargreaves suggests, but we can at least see that Welsh companies are capable of growing through S4C.

The jobs provided by production companies in Wales boost local economies – the local coffee shop where everyone gets their morning Americano, nearby B&Bs that house the crews on production shoots, the wholesalers who supply food for canteens, the list goes on…

Even though it is a huge benefit, economics was never the main driving force behind S4Cs creation.  It is widely accepted that over the past 30 years S4C has had a vital part to play in the cultural development of Wales. There are others who will better articulate the importance of the channel to the Welsh language, but it’s these outcomes that have made the investment worthwhile for so many people.

I was lucky enough to have benefited from an S4C scholarship in the past and know of others, not all just journalist types,  who have gone on to do really well because of similar support. S4C has nurtured talent that has gone on to entertain, inform and educate people across Britain and the world. Just ask Alex Jones, the new presenter of The One Show, what she makes of the opportunities given to her by S4C.

So why is it that none of S4Cs big name friends have come out of the closet and told the world why they think that the channel is important to Wales?

It’s impossible to argue that S4C should maintain every penny of its £101,647 million grant. In a time where benefits are being curtailed, schools in England are not being rebuilt and the army is reducing in size, of course the channel has to accept some pain. But is this level of cut proportionate? Are other DCMS projects, like the Olympics, having their budgets cut by 24% as well?

But the political reaction to last Thursday’s Media Guardian story has disappointed many who work in the sector. The naivety shown in some of the responses is staggering.

Alun Cairns MP suggested that these possible cuts are an “opportunity” for S4C. Eleanor Burnham hopes that S4C could trim its budgets by 24% through efficiency savings and management restructuring alone. And the Welsh Government has said that it is “concerned”. Hardly inspirational stuff, especially considering that in the parties’ manifestos there were promises to:

“…develop Wales burgeoning media and film sectors, and help to stimulate Welsh film and TV production” (Welsh Liberal Democrats)

And:

“We must also continue to protect Welsh language broadcasting and S4C, which make an invaluable contribution to the Welsh language and the creative industries in Wales.”(Welsh Conservatives)

Whether you agree with this level of cut or not, this isn’t an opportunity. There are most likely plenty of ‘efficiency savings’ to be made. But these cuts, if they go ahead, will do more than reduce the number of faceless middle managers, unnecessary bureaucracy and paper clips.

A 24% cut to S4Cs budget – that’s roughly £25million – will impact on jobs in the creative industries in Wales. It will affect the quality of output and it will impact local economies that rely on production companies and their staff spending money in shops. If companies like Barcud Derwen failed before the cuts then we could be facing more of the same.

S4C's champions – people who have reached the top of their profession because of S4C, people who have fame, influence or both  - need to kick up a stink if they want to help the channel out.

S4C will always have its detractors. It will always have those who can’t think of anything worse than spending public money on a channel that services only a small proportion of the population. And it is by no stretch of imagination a perfect TV station. But it has been too easy recently to jump on the anti-S4C bandwagon and forget some the good things it does.

The next few years are going to be tough for S4C, with or without cuts.  It would be a whole lot easier if some of the channel's friends came and helped out a bit.

 

This article first appeared on Wales Home.

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