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The creation of a Welsh language television channel has been one of the major achievements in the campaign for protection of the Welsh language over the past 40 years. S4C or Sianel Pedwar Cymru (Channel 4 Wales) was eventually established after a long campaign with Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) – often the younger and more radical side of Welsh language activism – at the forefront. Before S4C was established, Welsh language television was catered for by BBC Wales, but programmes were sporadic and generally on the fringes of the schedule.
The solution for many came during discussions over a new fourth channel in the UK in the late 1970s. Both the Conservatives and Labour promised a fourth channel broadcast in Wales and dedicated to the Welsh language. But when the Conservatives were elected in 1979 they changed their minds, outraging campaigners, many of whom refused to pay TV licences.
Others engaged in direct action, scaling and sometimes deliberately damaging television masts; a number of campaigners went to prison. Former MP Gwynfor Evans threatened to go on hunger strike in 1980 if the decision wasn’t reversed. In 1982 it was and Welsh language campaigners won their own television channel: S4C.
One of the aims of S4C was to reflect the variety of Welsh culture and experiences in a channel relevant to the people of Wales. In reality coverage hasn’t always lived up to the aspirations of campaigners, focusing on a fairly narrow range of Welsh life. As well as providing Welsh language news and sports coverage, entertainment and children’s programmes, it features offerings like Fferm Ffactor: an ‘X Factor’ for farming with one unlucky person eliminated each episode in the battle for Farmer of the Year.
Bilingualism in Wales has grown rapidly in recent years with approximately 22 per cent of the population now speaking Welsh. Yet just as the Welsh language audience is growing the channel for Welsh speakers is being threatened. Current government proposals will shift funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to the BBC, which campaigners fear will threaten S4C as the BBC suffers cuts of its own and has to look at its priorities.
Heledd Melangell Williams is a student from Nant Peris who has been heavily involved in recent campaigning around S4C: ‘The most frustrating thing for me is that there was such a big and successful campaign to get S4C and so many people went to prison, then they can just take it all away – I’m shocked people can do that.’
She is clear that the BBC will not prioritise Welsh language television: ‘If the BBC had to make a choice between funding an episode of Doctor Who and funding a Welsh language music programme then it would be Doctor Who. A minority language can’t compete with those viewing figures.’
The threat to S4C has led Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg to start a new campaign in its defence. Its first protest, in Cardiff, attracted over 2,000 people. Other actions have included two protesters climbing a television relay building near Caernarfon, a camp outside the BBC in Bangor and occupations of BBC offices in Cardiff and Carmarthen. Some people are also refusing to pay their TV licences in an echo of the past campaign.
The first court cases have now taken place as people return to direct action. Cymdeithas activist Jamie Bevan is refusing to pay his court fine or stick to the limits of a curfew imposed on him for breaking into Conservative MP Jonathan Evans’ office. He argues that Welsh judges send a clear message to London by not imposing penalties on Welsh language activists. He now faces a custodial sentence. There have also been arrests after Cymdeithas activists painted ‘Achub S4C’ (Save S4C) on BBC buildings in London.
Heledd Williams explains why young people like her care so much about the channel: ‘My generation has grown up with Welsh being around as a normal language, in school and on the television, and we want to show that there is a place for it in the modern world.’
The channel has been criticised for recent low viewing figures and a lack of willingness to work with new talent, but Williams says what it needs is a new direction, not a slashing of funding: ‘Since this campaign has been going it has raised awareness about S4C and the viewing figures have gone up slightly. They are also producing more imaginative programming.’
Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg says it will keep battling until S4C is truly secure and independent. With more than 60 towns and cities currently bidding to host the UK’s first local television services, Cymdeithas also wants provision for Welsh language broadcasting to be written into the licences in Welsh speaking areas from the beginning.
Campaigners argue that the threat to S4C shows that Westminster is not interested in protecting the language. They are calling for the devolution of Welsh broadcasting to Wales to allow Welsh speakers to control their own television channel and develop S4C into a broadcaster that represents the diversity of Wales’ rapidly growing number of Welsh speakers.