BBC Newsnight and the Welsh Language

Like many of you I suspect, I prepared to watch the piece on last night’s Newsnight on BBC 2 with that weird mix of interest and trepidation. It’s not as if network broadcasters have a great track record of covering things Welsh, extending from politics to sport to arts and culture. On reflection, and from personal experience, I’ve concluded that most coverage can be traced back to one of two imperatives. The first, a “need” to do something on Wales (probably originating in some W1A style nations and regions memo along the lines, “Rupert, apparently there’s some wacky festival going on in that place the size of Wales where they dress up in nightgowns and brandish swords whilst dancing in clogs. Get one of our juniors to ring my pal, Geraint in Cardiff who was at Oxford with me and ask him to say something vaguely interesting and short in say, 30 secs max. Don’t put much energy into it obvs as no one really gives a ff” ).

The second is much more insidious and, at times, downright nasty, spiteful and even bullying. I experienced this directly in that fabulous summer of football last year when Wales reached the semi finals of the UEFA European Championships, in doing so defying pre-tournament predictions and, of course, progressing furthest of all of the home nations and the Republic of Ireland. Admittedly, I have a pretty wide selection to chose from in terms of the most patronising bids that came my way from network broadcasters. One (who shall remain nameless) asked how people in Wales could possibly afford to get to France for the semi final. Another asked how football had managed to thrive in Wales given everyone-yes, everyone- plays rugby. One asked if any of our players was a “nationalist”. Meanwhile, the bile of the press focused on the fact that some of Wales’s Euros stars like captain Ashley Williams, Hal Robson Kanu and Sam Vokes, had been born in England. This one is an interesting one as it captures a dominant theme that was also reflected in last night’s Newsnight piece, namely that Wales, and things Welsh, only matter in relation to England and its own interests and identity.

So, here goes, a few of my own thoughts about why the language and Wales were treated as they were on Newsnight last night:

  1. We have allowed others to set the terms of debate for crucial things (like bilingualism) that we should have framed for ourselves long ago. What’s heartbreaking and infuriating (in equal measure) is that we are better placed to frame an intelligent debate. “Help or hindrance”, really?!
  2. As a nation, we too readily fall into the “them and us” camps employed historically by those seeking to damage and destroy. Only here could we engage in such futile and internecine rows about bilingualism. The Welsh language belongs to all of us, whether we speak it or not; it’s a unique gift that we can pass on to our children regardless. The fact is that it is the most precious national commodity that one can imagine, but regrettably, that will only be properly recognised when it is too late.
  3. Wales has insufficient self-confidence, belief and leadership to speak out and to challenge hideous misrepresentations (like last night’s feature) in an effective and constructive manner. I’m not averse to a petition or some social media mobilisation but, in my opinion, the best strategy would be a united and bold front from all of the political parties, and perhaps especially, from the parties most committed to the union. Why? Well, as I’ve said elsewhere (BBC Wales Patrick Hannan annual lecture, 2015: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/news-opinion/the-great-welsh-confidence-trick-9356995), it has long been my contention that unionists will loosen the ties that connect the UK far ahead of any sabre-rattling by Leanne Wood, Michelle O’Neill and Nicola Sturgeon. Whether you think that is good or bad is not the issue here. If you are destroying something, at least show some recognition of why and what the alternative might be. It seems to me that the arrogance displayed by some of the leadership cadre in England comes from a patronising, sneering nihilism, blissfully ignorant of what it is shattering.
  4. Some things are priceless. The language is one, a properly functioning democracy is another. Of course there should be proper scrutiny of public spend on these things but, approach it like a provincial accountant’s top line balance sheet, and we will soon be living in a scrutiny-lite, culture-less, monoglot English dystopia. And, by the way, portraying it as a straightforward choice between more nurses and better schools, and the Welsh language and a functioning politics is pitifully insulting and serves no one well.
  5. Wales has plenty of successful people placed across the UK media, in a range of different roles in news, politics, sport, arts and other spheres. It seems fair to conclude that their collective influence is indiscernible in terms of generating a respectful and informed approach to covering Wales in the media.
  6. Without an indigenous, diverse, functioning, informed and informing media that is used and valued by all of the population in Wales, none of the above is achievable. And Newsnight and others will continue to treat stories about Wales with the nonchalant, ignorant, sneering disregard that we witnessed last night.