Tuesday 11 April 2023

Pages from the book ‘The Forgotten Decade’ about the creation of S4C

 As S4C enters its 40th year ‘Y Swn’ is a timely contribution to the story.

The film, ‘Y Swn’, giving an account of the events which led up to establishing S4C has attracted a lot of attention in recent days. It is timely as S4C celebrates its 40th year.

There had been a campaign going on since the 1970s with the Welsh Language Society prominent in that campaign, as was Gwynfor Evans and several of us in the Labour Party at the time.

It was the struggles in Westminister that were the crucial ones however and in Alun Gibbard and my book The Forgotten Decade (pages 49-53) we gave a flavour of went on.

Here it is:

Northern Ireland, indirectly, played into the formation of a Welsh language TV channel for the first time in the nation’s history. There had been a campaign for many years for better provision of television programmes in Welsh and a channel dedicated to Welsh programmes. As the discussions to form such a channel seemed to be heading for the rocks Gwynfor Evans threatened to go on hunger strike if the political discussions led to a rejection of a channel for the Welsh language, as was looking likely in September 1980, the time that he made his threat. 

Six months later, a major hunger strike campaign was started in Northern Ireland when IRA activist Bobby Sands led a mass hunger strike protest in the Maze prison. Bobby Sands died after 66 days on hunger strike, and a total of nine other IRA prisoners died as the result of the same action. Gwynfor Evans’ continuing threat to go on hunger strike then was made at a very sensitive political time for such action.

The discussions for a Welsh channel, in Westminster terms, went back to 1979. Both Labour and the Conservatives had promised a Welsh language fourth channel in their General Election manifestos of that year – a year, of course, that also saw the devolution referendum. After that election, however, things changed. The new Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, decided that there would not be a dedicated Welsh channel after all. The existing situation of opt-outs for Welsh programmes on BBC and HTV would continue. 

This situation was seen as highly inadequate by those who campaigned for a Welsh channel. Welsh opt-out programmes were usually at anti-social and inconvenient times, seen as a sign of marginalisation and disrespect. The decision to keep that status quo sparked another period of protest. There were sit-ins in TV studios, refusals to pay the TV licence and the attacking of TV masts.

 By May 1980, Gwynfor had enough of the political obstinacy from the Tories and promised to go on hunger strike if the decision wasn’t reversed. At the National Eisteddfod of that year the Eisteddfod Court asked Cledwyn Hughes, Sir Goronwy Daniel and the Archbishop of Wales to form a deputation and to intervene in the whole sorry saga.

Within the Conservative party, however, there were also those who were lobbying for the party to keep its 1979 manifesto promise: Welsh Secretary Nicholas Edwards and, in particular, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Wales, Wyn Roberts. In his autobiography Right From The Start, outlines the discussions that had been happening within the cabinet to enforce a U-turn on the fourth channel for Wales. These took place long before Gwynfor’s September declaration. 

Roberts, however, conceded that Gwynfor’s hunger strike threat had taken the publicity initiative away from the Tory government. 

They have licked us hollow in the publicity battle because they have the more newsworthy story. We can only react to it now.

In his entry for September 20, he says that on return from a short holiday in Germany, he sees that:

the government – that is Willie and Nick – has completed their oval turn on the 4th channel issue and declared that the television licence fee must be raised by a £1 to finance the project. ‘Silly Willie’, proclaimed the Sun newspaper – but Gwynfor can now feast rather than fast.

In The Whitelaw Memoirs (1989), the then Home Secretary refers to this change of mind:

Eventually, Cledwyn Hughes, whom I regard highly, led an important delegation to see me … They persuaded me that it would really cause much bitterness and anger in Wales if we persisted with our plan. I thus persuaded my colleagues that we should abandon it. A Welsh Television Channel of its own was, therefore, established offering 22 hours of Welsh Language programmes each week.

John Morris goes on to say in his memoirs:

it was the prospect of defeat in the Lords that proved to be the final turn of the screw necessary to get the government to revert to its Welsh manifesto commitment to establish the core of a national service for the Welsh speaking minority. As far as I was concerned, and Nick Edwards too, conscience played some part in it. We did not like breaking promises and fought against it as hard as we dared.

The House of Lords, he explains, was set to oppose the Broadcasting Bill, which included the Government’s opposition to a fourth channel for Wales. He ends this chapter that deals with this issue on a reflective note:

There was more than a tinge of sadness in the whole business for me because the Conservative government gained minimal credit for the establishment of the Welsh service. The hero of the hour and for many years to come was the gladiator-cum-martyr Gwynfor, with his will and determination. The beneficiaries were his nationalist followers, and the lesson of his example was not lost upon them. Our Welsh language policy would have to be rebuilt against the background of suspicion and hostility among those it was intended to serve.

The decade’s first year drew to a close with differing prospects for Plaid, Labour and the Conservatives. At this point, Plaid could be regarded as the most buoyant of the three, having secured, as they saw it, the formation of a Welsh Language television channel. Sianel Pedwar Cymru, S4C, started on November 1, 1982, a day before English Channel 4.