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23 June 2011

The Future of S4C

Lord Patten, the chair of the BBC Trust, announced on 22 June that he wanted to see a "creatively independent" S4C ('Sianel Pedwar Cymru' - or 'Channel 4 Wales') once the BBC takes over responsibility for funding in 2013.  

His comments came in the midst of what is a challenging time, not only for the Welsh-language television station but for media in general. With viewing trends diversifying, the internet, mobile phones, the decline of regional and national newspapers et al, the future of independent television stations is hardly certain. 

The statement from Lord Patton was in the context of a decision by the UK government in October 2010 not to fund S4C in the way it had been doing - which was through a fixed annual grant, bolstering money received from advertising along with the free-of-charge production of some programmes provided by BBC Wales. Many at the time feared the loss of S4C's independence. 

S4C was created in 1982 as a Welsh-language channel, birthed out of sustained lobbying by Welsh nationalists, including former leader of Plaid Cymru and Christian Gwynfor Evans, who threatened in 1980 to go on hunger strike unless the Conservative government fulfilled its commitment to provide a Welsh-language television service. Then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who famously once said that "this lady's not for turning", on this occasion did just that and agreed to S4C's creation. 

S4C was an important symbol to Welsh nationalists, whose movement had grown throughout the 1960s and 1970s with a strong identification and association with the Welsh language. Increasingly however, and accelerated with devolution and the rise of pro-Welsh elements within each of the four main political parties in Wales, nationalism has become a much more nuanced argument, with debates no longer focused mainly on independence and the preservation of the Welsh language. 

Many Christians were actively involved in the Welsh nationalist movement from the 1960s to the 1980s, with their influence, as was commonly believed, preventing the movement from drifting into extremism. Their rationale, put simply, was that God had given them a culture and that they had a Christian responsibility to be pro-active in protecting and preserving it.  

Apart from last year's announcement by the UK government that funding of S4C would change, the channel has also been beset by reports from leaked documents that a substantial amount of its broadcasts attracted zero or low viewing figures, along with the sudden departure of its then chief executive Iona Jones in July 2010.

Whereas Christian involvement with S4C in its inception centred much on principles of nationalism and self-determination, the current response has shifted towards one of ensuring a healthy and diverse national media in Wales. With ITV's commitment to regionalism having all but disappeared and with the circulation of newspapers such as the Western Mail being decimated, many fear that all that will be left of Welsh media to report on the affairs of the nation will be a strong but London-facing BBC Wales.  

While it would be over-simplistic to reduce the saga of S4C and Christian response to one of needing to ensure a diverse and pluralistic media to undergird our democracy in Wales, this point has nevertheless been overlooked by many Christians. The arguments for and against S4C are in fact many and varied and perhaps this has clouded our ability to see clearly the need for diversity among our media outlets in Wales.