Monday, August 2, 2010
Over the last few weeks, we have seen S4C stumble from one crisis to another that has ended up, not surprisingly, with the resignation of its chief executive, Iona Jones.
Whilst politicians, even within the slumber of the summer recess, are scrambling over each other to provide solutions for S4C’s current predicament, Ms Jones’ resignation raises far more questions than answers over the future of the television channel not only within a digital age, but at a time of austerity when it is nearly totally dependent on UK Government funding for its existence.
At least one clear decision has been made which should bring some short-term stability to S4C, namely the appointment of Arwel Ellis Owen as interim chief executive.
As an experienced and politically savvy media insider who has run his own successful business for a number of years, many are confident that Arwel will be able to steady the ship and more importantly, bolster the morale of staff at this critical time in the history of S4C.
However, it is clear that S4C will need more than interim solutions to enable it to re-emerge as an organisation that is able to provide programme content in the Welsh language that is of high quality and of relevance to the population of Wales.
The crux of the immediate problem will be that of funding.
As S4C is funded directly by Westminster and not the Welsh Assembly Government, the channel will have to wait until October’s Comprehensive Spending Review to find out whether its budget has been substantially cut, although there are rumours that it could face cuts of up to six per cent per annum over the next few years.
If that turns out to be the case, then how should government at both a UK and Welsh level deal with such a reduction in budget?
One Assembly politician has gone so far as to suggest that the best solution for S4C in the long term would be for it to be directly funded by the BBC licence fee, rather than government grant.
Whether that means the population of Wales alone would pay a “premium” of around £10 per month per household for S4C through their licence fee or whether the BBC could and should give part of its funding directly to Welsh language broadcasting is a politically explosive issue, especially within the period leading up to the next Assembly elections.
Others have argued that savings could be made by moving S4C from Cardiff and relocating it to an area such as North West Wales where it could have a major economic impact. Certainly, there seems to be no compelling reason why it should be based in our capital city, especially as other broadcasting organisations such as the BBC are busy outsourcing their activities to regions other than London.
However, if there is an “elephant in the room” over the future direction of S4C, it is whether the Welsh Assembly Government should gain direct control over funding for the channel from Westminster.
As I argued in this column last year, if the Assembly is to have powers over the Welsh language, then it must also have responsibility for the one organisation that has possibly done more than any other to preserve the language over the last twenty five years.
As political parties develop their policies for the next Assembly elections in May 2011, will any have the courage to bring responsibility for the future of S4C under the auspices of our democratically elected National Assembly for Wales?
The answer to that question may well determine the future of Welsh language broadcasting, and the Welsh language itself, for a generation.