What’s the Point of S4C?


You’re probably familiar with this exchange from Lady Windermere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde:

CECIL GRAHAM: What is a cynic?
LORD DARLINGTON: A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.
CECIL GRAHAMAnd a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything and doesn’t know the market price of any single thing.

Public subsidies are always a contentious issue. To what extent should taxpayers’ money be used to subsidise commercially-unviable types of theatre? Or what about niche art galleries? Or should taxpayers be expected to fund equipment, coaching and travel costs for talented young sportspeople?

I am reminded of a sitting of Parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport select committee in 2014, when Philip Davies MP revealed figures that showed opera was getting £347.4 million during the life of the 2010-15 Parliament, compared to just £1.8 million for brass bands.

Mr Davies argued with some justification that opera was beloved by ‘middle-class luvvies’. Certainly, I’m inclined to agree with him that opera is very often the height of daft pretension, and that the disparity between opera and brass band subsidies has no basis in logic, reason or popularity.

Broadcasting subsidies are often more contentious. The funding models of the BBC (the licence fee) and Channel 4 (a public trust) mean that neither organisation has to chase ‘profit at all cost’. In their different ways, they both have a ‘public service’ remit.

But what is ‘public service broadcasting’? It’s not easy to define, but you know it when you see it. If a programme has a small audience, it does not make it a bad programme. Nor do high ratings for downmarket trash mean a programme has a high cultural or educational value.

There are grey areas in all these matters. But the evidence suggests that Welsh language broadcaster S4C falls firmly into Cecil Graham’s ‘sentimentalist’ category.

Shortly after the Conservatives won the 1979 election, the new Home Secretary William Whitelaw announced there was to be a new, UK-wide fourth channel, but, except for occasional opt-outs, the service in Wales was to be the same as for the rest of the UK.

The following year, the then-President of Plaid Cymru, Gwynfor Evans, threatened to go on hunger strike unless the Government climbed down and created a Welsh-language TV channel.

Evans ultimately got his way, and a Welsh language TV channel was to be created, ‘instead of’, rather than ‘as well as’ Channel 4 in Wales in November 1982. Many people viewed the prospect of S4C as a mixed blessing. On the one hand, all Welsh language programming on BBC Wales and HTV Wales would be transferred to S4C, so viewers across Wales would be able to enjoy popular English language programmes at the same time as the rest of the UK. But on the other hand, S4C was committed to broadcasting a near-entirely Welsh schedule during prime time, and for large portions of the daytime. Popular Channel 4 programmes such as Brookside were relegated to off-peak slots, while the flagship 7pm Channel 4 News programme was not shown on S4C at all.

Areas of Wales that were unable to pick up Channel 4 from English transmitters had to go without until the advent of digital television, when the channel became available throughout Wales, and around the time digital switchover was completed, S4C became a Welsh language-only channel.

Journalist and broadcaster Mike Flynn had a daily show on BBC Radio Wales from its launch in 1978 until 1989. He points out that S4C’s viewing figures were pretty lousy even in the days of four-channel TV. He said: “It was always a jobs-for-the-boyos channel. There was lots of money being given to independent production companies run by veteran Welsh language campaigners from the 1970s who produced programmes that no-one watched. Going back to the year after launch the joke at BBC in Llandaff was that most of the programmes would have been cheaper to mail out on video!”

Until recently, S4C received an annual grant of £100 million from the UK Government. It is currently going through a period of transition, and by 2022/23, it will receive £80 million, not from the Government, but from the licence fee pot. In other words, cuts will have to be made in the BBC’s budget to fund S4C.

In the current financial year, S4C will receive approximately £81.3 million, of which around £6.8 million comes from the UK Government and £74.5 million from the licence fee pot.

Each Monday, BARB, the body that measures TV viewing figures, releases the top 15 most-watched programmes for the last-but-one week. Every once in a while, I take a screenshot of S4C’s most-watched programmes and post them on my Twitter feed. The findings are pretty consistent.

In a typical week, live sport will get more than 30,000 viewers, especially if it is unavailable elsewhere on free-to-air TV. That suggests people are watching S4C because they want to watch the sporting event, and not because they wish to watch it in the Welsh language.

For example, Wales’s recent match against Australia in the Rugby World Cup was available for free in English, on ITV, and in Welsh on S4C. The Wales-only viewing figures showed that 766,000 watched on ITV and 38,381 on S4C. In other words, 19 out of 20 people inside Wales chose to watch the coverage in English.

Beyond sport, in a typical week in 2019, the only S4C programmes that get more than 30,000 viewers are episodes of Canadian children’s animation Paw Patrol dubbed into Welsh, long-running soap opera Pobol y Cwm (which is far older than S4C itself) on a good week, and not much else.

The 15th most popular programme (the lowest rated publicly available on the BARB website) very often has well below 20,000 viewers.

So S4C costs the public purse a fortune, and for what purpose? Can programmes made in a language well below 20% of the people of Wales speak fluently be considered ‘public service’? The viewing figures demonstrate that below 1% of the people of Wales are watching it at any one time.

Besides, the evidence suggests very few Welsh speakers actually watch the channel on a regular basis. I am informed from a source in North Wales that the dialect heard on S4C programmes bears little resemblance to the version of the Welsh language spoken in her community.

We’ve established that S4C is very heavily subsidised and has virtually no audience, so why does it exist? Mike Flynn offers a clue: “Anyone who was connected got on the gravy train when S4C was launched. The ability to speak Welsh was a passport to public money.”

In other words, the main beneficiaries of S4C were staff and independent production companies run by the Welsh-speaking, well-connected, nepotistic Crachach classes, who have huge influence in the upper echelons of the Welsh arts, media, civil service and higher education sectors.

I have stated before that the journey from Glantaf School to the BBC Wales building in Llandaff is a short one, both physically and metaphorically. During my time at BBC Wales, I encountered people who wouldn’t even say hello unless you were a Welsh speaker, and plenty more who thought it was acceptable to switch from English to Welsh during production meetings, despite knowing full-well that non-Welsh speakers were present. Needless to say, BBC Wales does very nicely from production contracts with S4C.

Ex-BBC Wales journalist Phil Parry has repeatedly outlined the cosy relationship that exists between BBC Wales and Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru. The political classes know that S4C is a political ‘hot potato’. Threaten to withdraw its funding completely, or drastically scale it back, and they’ll face accusations of being ‘anti-Welsh’ from those who benefit from the subsidies, namely the people who work for it.

And there lies the problem. The main purposes of S4C seem to be to appease the Crachach, and to keep those who work for it in employment. One thing’s for sure – they don’t like people disrupting their cosy little taxpayer-funded clique.

The late and much-missed journalist Steve Tucker wrote a clever expose of S4C in 2010, in which he said:  “You’re more likely, to be frank, to find out the inner workings of North Korea’s ultra-secretive government than fathom what’s going on in the higher echelons of the Welsh-language channel. Like North Korea, S4C keeps its internal workings to itself.

“Like the shady Asian nation, S4C doesn’t like to be disturbed by outsiders. As long as it continues to receive its £101m a year, others can keep their noses out. It doesn’t like to be disturbed by such minor fripperies as, say, whether anyone’s watching or if the programmes are any good. And, like North Korea, regardless of the economic situation, its elite continues to enjoy the good life, with sky-high salaries and gold-plated expense accounts.”

“…Even the most died-in-the-wool nationalist S4C staff themselves are among the first to admit that the channel, awash with cash for so long, has gone about spending it with all the hard-nosed financial sense of Richard Prior in Brewster’s Millions (ask your dad, kids).”

S4C viewing figures for week ending 13 October 2019

I know from my own experiences of dealing with the cabal that they don’t like being challenged. On Tuesday afternoon, I posted the most recent S4C viewing figures for week ending 13 October on my Twitter wall.

Shortly after I posted this, one of my Twitter followers alerted two individuals of my post and invited them to comment. One was Paul Leyshon, who describes himself in his Twitter handle as a ‘Television producer – director’, though he does so in Welsh first and English underneath, which offers rather a big clue as to his background and mindset.

Paul Leyshon 1

In response to the invitation to comment on the S4C viewing figures, Leyshon wrote: “My thoughts dont [sic] give any publicity to that bulb headed racist. Small little man who has an axe to grind with the Welsh language. I make network telly so not my field.”

Leyshon’s response is all too typical of the type of correspondence I have become used to from the Welsh language media establishment. I present them with facts (consistently appalling viewing figures on S4C) and reasoned argument, and they respond with childish ‘school playground’ insults (‘bulb headed’) and throw around wild, baseless accusations (‘racist’).

It’s difficult to know whether these people either don’t have much in the way of real education, operate in a bubble where different standards of debate and discourse are the norm, or are simply not used to having their cosy consensus challenged and have no idea how to respond when somebody questions them.

I responded calmly, to Leyshon’s tweet by saying: “This is exactly the sort of response I’m used to getting from the likes of him. He has no rational arguments whatsoever so resorts to babyish ‘school playground’ abuse. It’s typical of the behaviour I’ve encountered from the Welsh language media classes.”

Leyshon responded by tweeting: “I’m respected in the media. You are not. And i’m not part of the so called Welsh ‘clique’ that is usually the target of your insecure tantrums. In life you have winners and whiners. You are the latter. A stuck little record that feels he has the World against him.”

In my final tweet to him, I replied: “I am respected by those who work with me and am certainly not answerable to you. I note from your website that you have an extensive track record working for S4C over many [years] so you’re not being honest, which is hardly surprising. Goodbye.”

Indeed, one look at Leyshon’s own personal website reveals that he had an extensive relationship with S4C, beginning in 2000 and ending as recently as May 2018. Over that period, Leyshon’s website says that he worked on 49 different series for the channel.

Nowadays, Leyshon appears to work primarily on BBC daytime productions including Bargain Hunt and Celebrity Antiques Roadtrip, but it’s fair to say that, based on what’s on his own website, he had a lengthy relationship with the Welsh-language broadcaster.

Leyshon’s abusive and childish behaviour brings shame on him, the cause he supports (Welsh language broadcasting) and his profession. He was invited to respond rationally to my tweet. He did not do so. I have yet to meet a defender of S4C who can put a polite and rational argument for such huge subsidies for programmes which often have minuscule viewing figures.

A lot could be done with £80 million per year – libraries, leisure centres and community facilities that have been closed in the name of austerity could be kept open. Even if the money were to remain in the Welsh media, it could be used to create a ‘national channel for Wales’, showing programmes mainly in the primarily language of Wales, which is English – current affairs, drama, comedy, sport made in Wales for a Welsh audience, but that could be enjoyed by people around the UK.

Or perhaps that £80 million could be better served by staying in the BBC licence fee pot, to boost under-funded areas of the corporation, including its current affairs, long-form investigative journalism and radio networks (overnight programming on BBC Radio 2 immediately springs to mind).

Either way, there is a growing urgency to bring the issue of S4C’s future to prominence. I have yet to hear an economic or moral case for its continuation in its current form. It is up to its supporters, not me, to make the case. But first, it appears they could do with learning some manners.

Marcus Stead is a journalist, author and broadcaster, working mainly in political journalism and sport. Other writing by Marcus can be found here.