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DON'T MAKE IT TOO WELSH

BBC Cymru Wales is turning its back on our own national story

by Marc Edwards

It can’t be easy running BBC Cymru Wales. The demand from London HQ to cut costs means another 60 posts will disappear this year, saving £4.5 million. And the Senedd in Cardiff Bay is on your case all the time, demanding more output, bigger budgets and better programmes, and taking you to task for poor Network news coverage and inadequate portrayal of Wales across the UK.

The Welsh public, too, expect great things. Lacking a vigorous home-grown press and national institutions with real clout, we want the BBC to do a good job. This is our most important cultural institution – in Wales of all places.

But the outlook for Public Service Broadcasting is far from rosy. We’ll come to a reckoning sooner than we think now that the UK Government is due to review the terms of the BBC Licence Fee in 2022, and is likely to abolish it altogether once the Corporation’s current Royal Charter expires in 2027. If the philistines and charlatans in the Johnson Government take aim at the BBC, it’s a fair bet that many in Wales will want to join the barricades.

But, sad to say, it’s appropriate to ask whether BBC Cymru Wales is worth saving right now. It should be doing much better, particularly in English-language television. Programme commissioners got an extra £8.5 million a year to spend when the BBC’s current Charter started in 2017 – a boost of nearly 50 per cent. It’s a pity that this valuable dividend has been squandered. There’s scarcely a minority in the whole of the UK that’s more ill-served than non-Welsh-speakers in Wales. That’s not down to shortage of cash but lack of courage, creative judgement and vision, in thrall to metropolitan values and a market-led ideology that do Wales or public service broadcasting no favours.

But let’s return to that cash windfall that landed in Cardiff in 2017. The BBC Director-General Tony Hall told an Assembly committee that the new money would be “transformational … a real statement of intent about our ambition to serve all audiences in Wales.” And the boss of BBC Cymru Wales Rhodri Talfan Davies promised it would help to improve the portrayal of Wales across the BBC: “I believe the difference on screen will be clear to audiences the length and breadth of our nation.” It was a “game-changer” according to Head of Commissioning Nick Andrews.

But this vaunted “step change ... the biggest expansion of BBC Wales television output in a generation” has failed to live up to the hype. It proves that real change doesn’t happen just by throwing money at a problem. You have to change the culture of the BBC.

London parochialism and supercilious disdain for all that’s “provincial” blinkers decision-making at the centre. And cultural cringe – deference to metropolitan taste – distorts TV commissioning in Cardiff. The people deciding which stories to tell and who should tell them appear to lack an affinity for Wales - the cultural hinterland that would stop them making poor choices.

They’re not helped by cunning plans like “Nation to Network”, a bit of BBC jargon that’s ostensibly about making Welsh stories more visible across the UK, but has become a way for the cash-strapped Network to get programmes on the cheap. Giving with one hand and taking back with the other. It might have started as a well-intentioned initiative but the Centre is full of clever people who nearly always find a way to divert these schemes to their own advantage. It’s a tug of war that Cardiff rarely seems to win.

So the holy grail now is to make Welsh-flavoured content that can win a UK-wide audience. And the model to emulate is the drama serial Keeping Faith which drew millions of on-demand viewers “across the UK” on iPlayer and prompted rapturous self-congratulation in Cardiff. Trebles all round! ... albeit scant mention of co-commissioner S4C, who aired it first under the title Un Bore Mercher in 2017.

Here’s today’s top tip for anyone wanting to win a commission from BBC Cymru Wales: Don’t make it too Welsh. Programme-makers are encouraged to submit ideas that “work for both Wales and Network”. The “make it work for both” mantra is explicitly stated by BBC bosses in Cardiff. The commissioning team wants programmes that have “a strong sense of place” – the garnish and tang of Welshness – but tap into UK-wide concerns. In April this year BBC Commissioning in London sent a new brief to suppliers in Wales “to better reflect the close working of BBC Wales and Network TV, and to encourage commissions from Wales that work for both”. Here was a co-ordinated approach. If your idea was  “rooted in Wales (with) the ambition to portray Welsh lives or stories on a network stage” then you should take it to BBC Cymru Wales. But when your idea told “a universal story, which is made in Wales, but has access or narrative that reflects life elsewhere, or is in a genre that has less Welsh portrayal”, then you should go straight to London.

This is clear as mud. For a start it seems unaware of the fairly commonplace insight that the particular and the universal aren’t opposites. At a literal and concrete level the TV drama Normal People, for example, couldn’t be more Irish, and provincial Irish at that. But at the same time it’s hard to imagine a more moving and all-embracing story about love and sex, and the wrenching process of growing up and working out who you are, or want to be. But the key point here is that muddled thinking and unclear wish-lists from programme commissioners lead to confusing programmes that please no-one.

This “make it work for both” strategy – driven, it seems, by the BBC’s desire to sweat the asset and get more bang for its buck - comes from the top and has been long in the making. BBC Cymru Wales Director Rhodri Talfan Davies told Assembly members in June 2017: “We want to target the investment at much bigger ideas, ideas that can not only work in Wales, but can work across the UK ... I would expect at least half of our investment over the next three years in new output to find its way onto network screens.” And the reliably Tiggerish Head of Commissioning in Cardiff, Nick Andrews, a self-avowed “sucker for big ideas”, blogged in November 2017: “We’re making real progress in Nation to Network co-commissioned projects and enjoying network repeats on a weekly basis.” Slam dunk! - as Andrews might say.

Executives at BBC Cymru Wales may be convinced they’re serving the greater good: two for the price of one, a boon for Wales and the Network, a win-win situation. But making things “work for both” is trickier than it sounds. Creative people would rather avoid serving two masters at once, especially when the motivations and expectations of commissioners and channel controllers in Cardiff and London diverge. The fun of making programmes dwindles when a whole clutch of executive producers, commissioning editors and channel controllers get involved – all too often, too many cooks really can spoil the broth. And because it’s dwarfed by London in money and power, Cardiff is ever the supplicant. When editorial priorities clash it’s usually the great metropolis that prevails. Perversely (or maybe predictably) you often end up with programmes that work for neither – a commissioning dog’s dinner.

Exhibit A is the 2018 drama series Pitching In, the accursed bastard child of BBC Cymru Wales and BBC Daytime. Set in a caravan park called Daffodil Dunes in the “picturesque beauty of north Wales” (Ynys Môn / Anglesey), it’s weakly imagined, badly written and off-key from the start. Say shwmae to gurning Welsh-speakers addicted to druidic mumbo-jumbo in the Celtic Twilight. Throw in some stage Taffies with Look-You-Boyo accents, and no wonder our hero Frank (Larry Lamb) wishes he’d stayed in London.

To be tone-deaf to Y Fro Gymraeg and English-speaking Wales alike is quite a feat for our most important cultural institution. Who at the BBC in Cardiff thought this was OK? The Head of Commissioning Nick Andrews for one, who said when the series was launched: “We all need more ‘feel-good’ in our lives and this warm family drama promises to ... showcase the beauty of north Wales.” In other words, cheer up you melancholic Celts and celebrate the picture-postcard beauty of your matchless landscape. Take the compliment for once instead of sulking gloomily in the bible-blackness of your benighted valleys. The show’s USP – and trust me, it’s not comedy – is the glorious backdrop of the Welsh countryside as seen through the eyes of good-lifers from elsewhere. The series could just as well be set in Cornwall, the Peak District or the Yorkshire Dales. Wales is reduced to another version of the picturesque, a stereotype from the 18th Century. And the particularities that make us distinctive and interesting like, say, the Welsh language or our bardic tradition to name but two, are put in a box marked “Folkloric” – funny ha-ha and funny peculiar at the same time, not of the modern world.

 

“An insult to Wales” screamed the Western Mail. Or, as the Director of BBC Wales reportedly told the Corporation’s Wales Committee, with a reticence bordering on the gnomic: “There had been a mixed response to the drama series Pitching In with some criticism around casting.” This is the same committee that was born from the abolition of Audience Council Wales, and is supposed to advise the BBC Board how BBC Wales is performing. To quote its Terms of Reference, its remit is “to require that the BBC provides output and services that meet the needs of Wales and that the BBC fulfils its public purpose in relation to the Nations and Regions of the United Kingdom.” Core responsibilities include providing “regular updates on BBC performance in Wales in respect of the BBC’s mission and public purposes” and to “regularly review the regulatory requirements for Wales, as set by Ofcom, and make any recommendations to the Board on delivery against these.” The five-strong Wales Committee numbers three senior BBC employees among its members - 60 per cent of the total. But it’s chaired by the BBC Board Member for Wales, Dame Elan Closs Stevens, and can call on the experience and expertise of Professor Ian Hargreaves CBE. The dame and the professor are no slouches but, given the performance of BBC Cymru Wales since 2017, you do wonder whether they’re watching the output and asking the right questions of BBC managers.

The irony of the current BBC Charter is that the Corporation’s putative Public Purpose in Wales is much stronger than it was during the previous 10 years. It’s supposed to try harder to reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of Wales and the other nations and regions of the United Kingdom, and to support the creative economies outside London. That should mean more and better content made for Wales, about Wales and in Wales, across the whole of the BBC. Three years on, progress has been patchy to say the least. Yes, there have been more Welsh programmes – and more has been spent per hour on this output than before - but it’s debatable whether the shows are any better. And BBC Network still gets Wales wrong on so many fronts, not least in its coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic. Someone needs to tell BBC News that its sneery tone towards the Welsh Government, the Senedd and the rule of law in Wales is just not cool.  

Perhaps we should take heart that Ofcom is on the case. Since 2017 the communications regulator sets the terms of the Operating Licence that requires the Corporation to fulfil its Mission and promote the Public Purposes set out in its Charter – in other words to ensure that audiences in Wales, as in all parts of the UK, are well served. So not only is the the BBC mandated to deliver much more for Wales under its present Charter - it must report in detail on how well it’s performing its duties. And it’s baked into the Charter that Ofcom can regulate to ensure the BBC does better if the goals it sets for itself fall short or if it fails to deliver upon them. In the first three years there have been promising signs that Ofcom is taking the measure of the BBC and holding it to account on behalf of audiences. One of the Key Findings of its BBC Performance Report 2018/19 is the regulator’s “concerns that the BBC is not providing a sufficiently good range of programmes and content that represents people living in Wales.” Now that Ofcom has marked its card, let’s hope the Corporation listens and improves.

Another new forum for scrutiny since 2017 is the Welsh Assembly (now the Senedd). It can call BBC executives to appear before committees and hold them directly to account, which had previously been the right of the UK Parliament alone. Some of the sharper minds in Cardiff Bay have aimed pertinent questions at the DG, Tony Hall, and Wales Director Rhodri Talfan Davies, but have scored few palpable hits. Senedd Members are relative novices, after all, and they’re up against an experienced brigade of strategy and policy wonks at the Corporation – including one or two in BBC Cymru Wales - who eat this stuff for breakfast. It appears to be the main job of some of these apparatchiks to throw critics off the scent and protect the status quo at all costs. Scan committee transcripts from Cardiff Bay and Westminster and you’ll find the same technique at work: jam the radar of scrutiny with chaff, then carpet-bomb enemy MSs or MPs with bland and soothing platitudes. Every cock-up, omission or piece of chicanery is given an ex post facto rationale – all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Solemn pledges are made, cloaked in important-sounding jargon. On the rare occasions the Corporation is interrogated about its failings, it’s adept at making new promises, instigating enhanced procedures, inventing fresh initiatives and slogans. It might give a little ground here and there but for the most part it keeps doing what it has always done. Rather like China under Chairman Mao, the BBC is in a state of continuous revolution whose ostensible aim is to mould it into the best organisation it can possibly be, but whose effect is to keep things exactly as they are. The essence - the culture of the BBC - never seems to change.

All this might sound speculative, abstract, academic. What matters for Welsh audiences is the degree to which executives at BBC Cymru Wales are willing either to kowtow to London or to show the courage that is the hallmark of good leadership. This is important because it sets the tone for the whole organisation. It affects what programmes get commissioned and what stories we tell about ourselves. It’s hard to imagine such an insulting and shameful series as Pitching In even five years ago. So who is getting to tell these stories? The tale of woe that is Pitching In highlights a significant consequence of the financial windfall that Cardiff has enjoyed since 2017 when the BBC’s new Royal Charter kicked in. The series was made by Liverpool-based LA Productions, whose palmarès includes Jimmy McGovern's Moving On and the prime-time drama Broken starring Sean Bean, both for BBC One. Now that BBC Cymru Wales projects have half-decent budgets for a change, big independent production companies have cottoned on to the fact that it’s worth their while to make programmes in the Land of Song. Some choose to set up shop in Cardiff to comply with Ofcom’s “Out of London” quotas, despite having scant understanding of Wales in some cases. But since many of these Indies are London-based and already supply BBC Network, they’re deemed to be more talented and deserving than home-grown producers. This is self-evident, right? - a truth universally acknowledged by all TV executives worth their salt. The truism that familiarity breeds contempt is nowhere more apt than in TV, meaning that experienced producers with a distinctive Welsh voice struggle to be heard when competing against glamorous and garlanded new entrants, particularly in bigger budget genres like drama. This distorting effect on our home-grown creative economy is barely mentioned in our meagre public discussion of the media in Wales. Instead these newcomers are assumed to be doing Wales a favour by helping to build a “critical mass” of Indies in Cardiff who can supply programmes cheaper than BBC staff. That appears to be the cold logic of BBC Cymru Wales at any rate.

At the same time, in aid of this vision of low overheads and more cost-effective content, the programme-makers in genres like Documentaries who do know and care about Wales are being made redundant by the BBC. The department where film-makers like John Ormond, Aled Vaughan and Selwyn Roderick made their name – known back in the day as the BBC Welsh Film Unit – has effectively been  disbanded over the past three years.  First staff were transferred overnight from the Public Service into a new commercial entity called BBC Studios. Many (including me) were encouraged to take voluntary redundancy in 2017 and those that remained were merged with BBC Bristol into an unloved “odds and sods” division called Unscripted. It was less a merger than a Bristol takeover, which had already been happening piecemeal in BBC Wales Factual for a couple of years in any case. Many of the Cardiff-based staff that survived the first cull are being made redundant this year. They’re casualties of an ideology that says programmes lack value unless they can be sold at a profit to other broadcasters and territories, just like big entertainment brands or natural history juggernauts such as Planet Earth. But most BBC Cymru Wales programmes aren’t like that. Only rarely can they be monetised. They exist to show Wales to itself and to see the world through a Welsh lens. There’s a neat way to describe this type of programming – it’s Public Service Broadcasting.

And this is just the type of content that’s an afterthought in the brave new world of BBC Studios. Programmes of and for Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland are a ball and chain on the ankle of this Icarus, that wants to soar above the clouds among the high-fliers of global production and distribution. “Bold. British. Creative: that’s BBC Studios.” The motto and branding of this enterprise are unashamedly outward-focussed and commercial, and relentlessly “British”, whatever that means. Just count how many times Studios uses the epithet in its own blurb:

“Home to the very best of British creativity … Working with the best British writers, directors and programme-makers, we champion British creativity ... delivering content that showcases the best of British talent ... The revenue we generate supports the wider British creative industries in general and builds awareness of great British content ... We strive to be the best British content company in the world.”

These phrases are quoted from just the first couple of hundred words that BBC Studios takes to say hello, when you’re only getting to know it for the first time. So just to recap, and for the avoidance of doubt, this stuff is 100 per cent British. Better still, some of it is “great British”. Studios even owns a channel called BBC Brit, targeted mainly at  Poland and the Nordic countries but with a foothold in Africa, Asia and Australasia too. Rather like our unwritten constitution, “British” is a handy concept insofar as no-one can quite agree what it signifies. It’s one of those weasel-words that means different things to different people. And no organisation is more adept at surfing the ambiguity of shape-shifting and expedient terms like this than the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The BBC’s understanding (or perhaps we should say construction) of Britishness has always been distortingly metropolitan at its core. The cream of British culture rises to the top, and that happens in London, naturally. The capital is the dark star that sucks in so many talented people and so much of the UK’s spending on arts and culture, public and private. That’s where you would want to work if you were any good, right? People at the top of the Corporation have followed this path themselves. Director-General Tony Hall may style himself Baron Hall of Birkenhead but it’s a stretch to call him a Scouser (or even a Plastic Scouser or Woollyback, as Merseysiders with the “wrong” postcode are sometimes known). Given his education, training and career trajectory, how could he not be acculturated into the British Establishment? And so many people in senior jobs at the BBC are of the same stripe, both at Network level and to a lesser degree at its satellites across the UK. In practice this makes it very hard to persuade the BBC to accommodate diverse stories in its overarching narrative – or ideology – of Britishness. It’s a cliché to say that modern Britain embraces diversity, and it’s true up to a point. But some of the most long-standing and obstinately unassimilated bits of diversity in these islands – Welsh-speaking Wales, separatist Scotland, nationalist Ireland – are square pegs in round holes in the BBC’s Great British scheme of things.

Think how many Network programmes have the “Great British” This, That or the Other as their title: The Great British Sewing Bee, Great British Railway Journeys, The Great British Intelligence Test, Great British Garden Revival, The Great British Bake-off (nicked by Channel 4). Not to mention a clutch of other shows that have Britain / Brit in the title, like the hyperbolic The Brits Who Built the Modern World. Apologies to any Great British shows I’ve left out … but you get the picture. And BBC Local Radio listeners in England have recently taken part in Great British Bunting, an audience engagement event for the 75th anniversary of VE Day. BBC Radio Wales, Radio Scotland and Radio Ulster appear to have been spared the flag-waving. Did they demur? Or did the BBC show enough tact to omit them from the outset, realising that although the World War Two generation from all parts of the UK showed equal heroism, tub-thumping British jingoism now lacks the currency it may have held in 1945?

Yet the idea that we should all be grateful and proud to be British pervades the BBC schedules. When you make Network programmes it’s very hard to get Welsh stories accepted as a subset of the British narrative, let alone to have Wales recognised as a story in its own right. I’ve experienced this for myself. Take Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief & Morals in the 18th Century (BBC4, 2014), an episode I produced in a three-part series about Britain and Ireland’s musical culture under the Hanoverians. It proved possible, just about, to smuggle some snippets about the Bardic Order of Druids and the Eisteddfod into the programme. But cerdd dant or the particularly Welsh flowering of the hymn-singing tradition? Forget it – “it doesn’t ‘read’ for a UK audience”. In other words, aspects of culture that are instrinsically Welsh, and above all the Welsh language, are too strange and exotic for viewers in Harrogate or Tunbridge Wells. Exotic? Us lot? Imagine!

And the truly exotic - a classically trained Baroque composer from a foreign country, say - is domesticated and admitted to the British Pantheon, inasmuch as he can be considered to be assimilated into “our” culture. In this reading, Handel (German-born) and Haydn (Austrian) are claimed as honorary Englishmen and composers of “great British piece(s) of music”. It might not surprise you to learn that the series consultant was the historian Professor Jeremy Black, an expert on the British Empire and English nationalism. Maybe “cheerleader” is more apt. The end-of-series peroration drips with “Britain is Best” ideology. We’re told that Britain, and wealthy London in particular (thanks largely to blood money from the slave trade), is a great forcing house of culture. We Brits created the world of the entrepreneur, the impresario and the great commercial concert. “We are living that 18th century dream of freedom, choice and cultural democracy ... It was 18th Century Britain that produced the soundtrack to the modern world,” concludes the presenter Suzy Klein. Granted, hyperbole and boosterism go with the territory in TV-land. But even more so when the great goddess Britannia is invoked, it seems.

My experience with BBC2 is barely more edifying. Take another series, Coast, a programme I produced and directed over several seasons. Efforts to persuade executives of the merits of Welsh narratives such as the adventures of Iolo Morgannwg were in vain, even when the story was about the port of Bristol, the romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the main current of British radicalism. Iolo who?

Coast is effectively a 21st Century version of “this scepter'd isle” as described by Shakespeare: “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England" (Richard II). In other words, “For Britain read England”. The series has little interest in the internal contradictions of these islands and can accommodate diversity only up to a point. There is more that unites us than separates us – that is the  overarching premise of Coast. It’s striking too how many of its stories hark back to the two world wars of the 20th Century, and in particular to World War Two. It serves up the Little Englander view of history in spades – the plucky island race never invaded and conquered by the Jerries.

This warm bath of nostalgia is not harmless fun – it has serious political consequences. It helped to stoke the false narrative of exceptionalism that suffused the rhetoric of the Leave campaign during the 2017 Brexit Referendum campaign. Are people fed on a diet of clichés about their own history equipped to make informed choices about their present and future? And the BBC is still at it. The Coronavirus emergency has prompted a series called Our Finest Hours, which celebrates how the UK has responded to moments of adversity and crisis, from the Blitz to Covid-19. Wartime footage of uniformed soldiers is intercut with NHS “frontline workers” in scrubs.

“Now, as we did in World War Two, we’re uniting in a common endeavour … These are Our Finest Hours,” says presenter Sophie Raworth as the programme title appears over a Union Jack. No-one doubts the merits of “heroes old and new” who have saved lives above and beyond the call of duty. But the programme has nary a word to say about the chasm of difference in political leadership between then and now. You may think the war effort was about co-operating with allies – a mutual sharing of resources and expertise for the common good. Internationalist through and through. The contrast with UK Government’s blinkered Covid response couldn’t be starker – mulishly ploughing its own furrow, ignoring lessons from other countries, with lamentable, not to say fatal, consequences. Pig-headed Little England chauvinism at its worst. 

By invoking the wartime spirit the BBC was probably following the lead of the Queen who, in her Coronavirus Address to the Nation, echoed the late Dame Vera Lynn with her promise that “we will meet again”. But it’s dodgy historiography to give these two national emergencies a spurious equivalence and parade them before us in a lazy confection of nostalgia and cliché. It’s not just unseemly for the BBC to wrap itself in the Union flag like this – it’s increasingly out of step with the UK’s Celtic fringe. No wonder audiences in Scotland and Wales feel increasingly disenfranchised. Only 48 per cent of adults in Wales think the BBC is effective at reflecting people like them and only 39 per cent watch dedicated Welsh news services on television, both figures down year on year. The reach of BBC TV and radio in Welsh homes is down too, according to the latest figures from the Corporation’s Annual Report 2018/19.

This must be vexing for BBC Cymru Wales, given how much more it’s spending on programmes and the investment it has made in neglected genres like entertainment and comedy. And it can’t blame British jingoism, beastly free-market dogma and London snobbery for all its problems. It should also address its own cringey eagerness to please the Network and its craven anxiety to follow an agenda that suits the corporate interests of the organisation but bypasses Welsh needs. It has made bad calls that are entirely its own responsibility. Several big Wales-only commissions have hardly been up to scratch. Take The Hour, a topical discussion programme that Wales sorely needed at an important political moment just after the Brexit referendum, but which failed to ignite and ended with a whimper – cancelled after just a year. Or misconceived experiments in “live factual” like Make Wales Happy (2018), incoherent in form, content and tone and lurching from one faux pas to another despite the best efforts of presenters Alex Jones and Jason Mohammad.

It’s a shame that so much of the extra spend announced with such fanfare and promise in 2017 appears to have been frittered away. That’s only partly because of false incentives thrown up by market engineering. It’s also the result of a lamentable loss of confidence and direction at BBC Cymru Wales. On the whole the programme slate is safe, formulaic and repetitive. Rhod Gilbert’s Work Experience has just aired its ninth series. It’s a warm and entertaining show presented by a funny man. But it’s entering its second decade. Surely BBC Cymru Wales could have thought of something else to do with Rhod before now. And we’ve just had Series 13 of Weatherman Walking with Derek Brockway. Thirteen. That’s a baker’s dozen in old money. The point is not that these programmes are badly made. It’s simply that it’s bad commissioning to let them run to multiple series that deliver diminishing returns with every outing. And here’s the bigger issue: how do thirteen series of Weatherman Walking satisfy the sainted Public Purposes that the BBC trumpets so loudly, if not self-righteously, in its Annual Report and are the cornerstones  of the Corporation’s 10-year Royal Charter? No wonder the BBC’s perceived piousness and moral superiority get up people’s noses.

The Corporation will no doubt point to its increased spending across all programme genres, and particularly in Welsh News and Current Affairs. This is the one part of BBC Cymru Wales output that appears immune to being privatised - spun-off à la BBC Studios or offered up to the independent sector as a contestable morsel. But even though News and Current Affairs remains in the Public Service, it’s not immune to the distorted thinking that afflicts the Commissioning arm of BBC Cymru Wales. The demise of the established current affairs strand Week In Week Out (where I worked as a producer-director for seven years up to 2004) is a good example of what happens when the commercial mentality of BBC Studios seeps into the public service and corrodes it. WIWO was replaced in 2017 by a new brand, Wales Investigates, that would “for the first time, deliver hard-hitting investigations across TV, radio and online”, said the BBC. This cross-platform approach would protect its investment in investigative journalism and give it greater prominence by running TV programmes in peaktime. There’s much to be said for this approach insofar as spending is concentrated on fewer episodes and more impactful stories. And the new strand is staffed by much the same team of good journalists and experienced producers and senior editors, so we shouldn’t expect the quality to drop. But while the programmes remain staunchly “public service” in their intent, the series dances to a subtly different tune than before. Prior to 2017, as well as judging whether something was a good story that exposed wrongdoing or abuse of power, the team would have asked themselves: Is this this something Welsh viewers need to know about? Will it make a socially useful contribution to the public conversation here? Will it inform, edify and enfranchise people in Wales? Now the main questions appear to be: Is it big enough? Can we persuade the Network main bulletins to run it as a news story? Could it be repeated on the BBC News Channel? Could we turn it into a Panorama? Not to mention: Will BBC Cymru Wales rate it highly enough to make room for it as an opt-out from the Network schedule at 8.30pm on BBC1? These latter concerns – essentially: Is it marketable to a big audience? Will it sell? Does it resonate across the UK? – are all questions that BBC Studios would ask, but should not be the main imperatives of a Welsh public service broadcaster.

In effect this way of thinking fosters the damaging perception that stories that are relevant solely or mainly to a Welsh audience are not worthwhile. And turning its back on its own stories is not a smart move for a national broadcaster, in Wales or anywhere else. It’s telling how diminished current affairs at BBC Cymru Wales has become in terms of screen time. Now that Wales Investigates has to fight for its place in the primetime schedule and pique the interest of Network commissioners too, we’re a far cry from the days when the Week In Week Out strand was producing up to 30 programmes a year.

BBC Cymru Wales News and Current Affairs will shortly make its long-delayed move to the broadcaster’s brand spanking new headquarters in Cardiff’s Central Square ... if they can get the technology to work. The building is there thanks to a capital spending splurge that’s likely to be the Corporation’s last act of largesse towards its bothersome Welsh offshoot. It ticks all the right boxes for the BBC. It looks cutting-edge and modern. And it appears to be “of the people” with its built-in “street” that’s open to the public, right in the centre of town, accessible to a diverse city and nation. “Come in, people of Wales,” it seems to say: “No ivory towers here, dear licence fee payer – we know who stumps up for our wages.” But here’s the irony: the new HQ was built just as BBC Cymru Wales was committing the biggest act of self-harm in its history – a hollowing out of its own programme-making capacity in genres outside the “core activity” of news and current affairs.

If the Welsh public were hoping for inspiring encounters with creative people in Central Square, they might be disappointed. Aside from programme-makers and technicians in news, sport and radio, the staff at the new building mostly comprises a secretariat of managers and back-office roles. The remaining creatives who haven’t yet been made redundant work not in the Public Service (Central Square) but for BBC Studios (Roath Lock), marooned in Cardiff Bay. So if not Ivory Tower, maybe Big White Elephant is the most apt description of the new HQ in the centre of Cardiff. Or who knows? - in a few years Mausoleum, perhaps, given how few programme-makers will remain. BBC Studios staff who had already been semi-privatised and removed from the Public Service without their consent were originally led to expect that they would be moving into the new building. But in a comical example of bureaucratic hara-kiri, the BBC prevaricated. Studios staff were told that the rent demanded by BBC Public Service for office space in the new HQ was too high. BBC Studios, being a lean mean commercial machine, was priced out of this new state-of-the-art facility. And BBC Public Service couldn’t be seen to be cross-subsidising Studios by offering office space on the cheap, for fear of upsetting other Indies who compete with Studios to supply BBC programmes. Level playing field and all that. (I hope you’re following all this – do pay attention at the back.) Who decided that This Is How It Must Be? Hard to say, but it almost makes you long for the existence of a Ministry of Silly Walks. Most likely, though, it was wise owls at the BBC in London who were tuned in to the “mood music” coming from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport in Whitehall, and the sabre-rattling of free-marketeers on the Tory back benches. “Let’s semi-privatise ourselves before the politicians do it for us,” seems to have been the strategic consensus at the top of the Corporation. (They must have thought something similar when they agreed in 2015 to take over the burden of providing free licences for over-75s, costing a fifth of the Corporation’s annual budget. Talk about turkeys voting for Christmas.)

If the strategy came from London, it’s a path BBC bosses in Cardiff seem to have followed only too blithely, regardless of the detriment to Public Service broadcasting in Wales. And Welsh programme-making capacity has indeed been damaged by upheavals at BBC Cymru Wales since 2017. The “Welsh Factual Programmes” bit of BBC Studios has already withered to a stump, without an independent sector of sufficient heft and maturity to step into the breach. Where next for Studios – who knows? It will either suffer a slow demise or be fully privatised – spinning off into the Workers’ Paradise that is the Indie sector and disappearing up its own fundament, if the experience of previous BBC self-mutilations is any guide. Shame.

Buildings and organisational flowcharts don’t matter so much if the programmes are good. Serving the audience should be any broadcaster’s top priority. But so much of BBC Cymru Wales’s English-language output is lacklustre – seemingly hamstrung by poor decision-making, faintheartedness and a lukewarm sense of mission. It doesn’t help that Commissioning in Cardiff is now so beholden to London. The attitude of the Corporation centrally won’t improve any time soon. But here’s the rub: there’s scarcely any discussion and constructive criticism of the BBC in Wales, so in the absence of any brickbats the executives in Cardiff might not feel any imperative to change tack. And if they inhabit a fool’s paradise then perhaps it’s no wonder. Few people are prepared to criticise them. Since the bosses at BBC Wales have the money and power to decide which Welsh stories get told and by whom, it’s not surprising that self-censorship trumps plain speaking when so many producers and suppliers are feeding from the same trough. Never bite the hand that feeds is the first rule of TV. But it’s important to speak out if we believe the Corporation can change for the better. And given that so much money has been lavished on its new HQ, and so much more is available to spend on programmes since 2017, we’re entitled to expect BBC Cymru Wales to prove worthy of the investment by living up to its heritage and continuing to make a valuable contribution to Welsh life.

To achieve this BBC Cymru Wales needs to do much more than just provide Welsh news. It must resist the temptation to pander to programme commissioners in London or the presumed taste of viewers “across the UK”. It should give us the whole package of credible and worthwhile Welsh programming, of and for Wales. Otherwise what is the point of BBC Cymru Wales?

Was there ever a greater need to break loose from our trap of cultural alienation and inferiority? Let’s tell our own story rather than pretending we can live in pleasant accommodation with someone else’s narrative.  Clientelism is not the way to go. Assimilation is the primrose path to banality and oblivion. You don’t gain respect and success by cosying up to people whose agenda damages your own interests.

In his book-length essay When Was Wales? the historian Gwyn Alf Williams describes the Welsh as a people who have always “danced among the giant cogwheels” of history:

“Wales has always been now. The Welsh as a people have lived by making and remaking themselves in generation after generation, usually against the odds, usually within a British context. Wales is an artefact which the Welsh produce. If they want to. It requires an act of choice.”

So we must keep telling our Welsh stories, dream our Welsh dreams, refashion our own mythologies. That is how we imagine and iterate ourselves into being. It’s how we create our own reality. This is what the poet R.S. Thomas meant in his meditation on the meaning of Abercuawg, the blossom-covered Eden that is mentioned in Claf Abercuawg, a 9th century englyn-poem that laments a state of exile and the ruin of hearth and home. Abercuawg is said be somewhere near the Dyfi Valley, close to Machynlleth – but it doesn’t exist on any map, Thomas says. We must build and rebuild it again and again in our imagination, as proof of the fact that it is perpetually coming into being, and is not somewhere frozen in time. It is by accepting this process of coming into being that we know we are alive. We live. And it is this potentiality, this self-renewing originality, that is sacrificed when we cower inside someone else’s story.

Writing in Welsh, Thomas says: “We’ll never see Abercuawg. But by trying to see it, by longing for it, by refusing to accept that it’s stuck in the past and is lost forever; by refusing to settle for something second-hand in its place, we manage to save it as an everlasting possibility. How else did miracles happen in the history of the world? How else has a people managed to prevail against almost impossible odds.”

(Annual Lecture, National Eisteddfod of Wales Aberteifi 1976. My translation.)

 

This is the very opposite of wallowing in golden-age nostalgia and seeking to revive past glories. It means telling fresh-minted stories about Wales and the Welsh in all their variety – the good, the bad and the ugly. It impels us to reject the zombie-land of nostalgia, cliché and kitsch. As Gwyn Alf says, “Wales has always been now”. 

For BBC Wales it means continually making new, engaging, original programmes that provoke discussion and feed into the national conversation. It means recognising that such things exist as a Welsh sensibility, Welsh points of view, Welsh thought, Welsh imagination, Welsh culture. In case this sounds uncomfortably messianic – like a florid Welsh preacher overcome with hwyl - the best antidote is to read the dystopian closing sentence of When Was Wales? The danger in renouncing our own story, says Gwyn Alf, is that the people of Wales “who are my people and no mean people, who have for a millennium and a half lived ... as a Welsh people, are now nothing but a naked people under an acid rain.”

 

Original article and translation copyright Marc Edwards ©2020