Interview with Jill Evans MEP

First appeared on alt.cardiff on Friday 11 November 2011.

Jill with Cymdeithas supporters

Politicians normally try and hide their law breaking from the public, but Jill Evans Member of the European Parliament (MEP) announced hers publicly when she stopped paying her TV licence in protest against cuts to the only Welsh language television channel, S4C.

“I’m standing side by side with the other people, the other 99 or a hundred, who’ve been refusing to pay their license fees,“ says Jill, outside court where she is appearing for the refusal. “I also feel that I’m doing it on behalf of the people who are not in the position themselves to take that sort of action because of their own circumstances.” She is adamant that this is her duty as a politician.

After a long wait a nervous looking Jill is called into courtroom two of Pontypridd Magistrates Court, joined by around 30 supporters. A large group are from Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society), here as a thank you for her support. The youngest supporter, who stays outside the courtroom, is a shy young girl in traditional Welsh dress.

Jill was still a student at Aberystwyth University when the original campaign to establish a Welsh language television channel took place. This also included the tactic of refusing to pay TV licences. “At that time students didn’t have televisions”, says Jill. “Thousands of people refused to pay, I remember the time very well.”

Although this is her first criminal offence, Jill has been an activist for many years and has campaigned with groups including Shelter and Greenpeace. She is currently chair of CND Cymru and took part in a blockade of Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston with them in 2010.

It was when Jill got to university that she became involved in party politics and joined Plaid Cymru. She says this helped her combine her interests, “for me the whole language movement, the peace movement, the environmental movement, all the things that I’ve been involved in all came together.” She is now President of the party.

A day in court

Outside the court there is a murmur that proceedings will not be in Welsh, something a large group of Welsh language activists is bound to take seriously. But in the end they are translated into English, through headphones, to those who can’t speak Welsh.

Representing herself, dressed in a smart suit, Jill pleads guilty and gives a heartfelt speech explaining why she stopped paying. “This is an opportunity to show your support by not placing a fine,” she tells the magistrate. However, she is told that although her guilty plea was taken into account she will be fined £500 plus legal costs. Cries of “disgrace” come from supporters and one person shouts “stand up for the language and democracy”.

Back outside the court Jill looks relieved but resolute for the future. “I was given quite a heavy fine”, she says, “but of course when I begun this campaign, when I started this action I knew what the consequences would be. It was something I expected.”

But from now on Jill will be paying her television licence, along with other Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg campaigners, after an agreement was made between S4C and the BBC which guarantees funding for S4C until 2017. The focus is now a call for the devolution of broadcasting control to Wales, something Jill is also backing.

Language and identity

Jill sees S4C’s security as crucial to the survival of the Welsh language. “I live in the Rhondda and so many young children now go to Welsh language schools who come from non Welsh speaking homes. It’s so important that when they go home from school they hear the language at home.”

Born in the Rhondda in 1959, Jill also learnt Welsh as a second language and says a S4C is important for older people too. “It became such a symbol that it wasn’t just a TV channel. It’s been a real symbol of the whole campaign for the welsh language and its recognised as that around Europe as well.”

As an MEP since 1999 Jill also works to improve the status of Welsh across Europe. “It doesn’t yet have equality”, she explains, “but it is seen as a model by other minority languages as a very successful campaign.”

Jill’s approach to language is linked to her identity as a Welsh person but she doesn’t see that as exclusive. “I come from a family which has a very strong Welsh identity but I’m the only one who speaks Welsh. It’s not essential for being Welsh but I know that most people see the language as something that belongs to all of us whether we speak it or not and its something that has to be protected.”

Under The Radar: Achub S4C

First appeared in Red Pepper – Oct/Nov 2011

Amy Hall talks to the activists fighting to save the only Welsh language television channel.

The creation of a Welsh language television channel has been on of the major achievements in the campaign for the 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 the 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 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.

Often 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 f 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 sift 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 thee was such a big and succesful 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 licenses 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  curfew imposed on him for breaking into Conservative MP Jonathan Evan’s office. He argues that Welsh judges would 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.

This article was written a while ago but to get the latest on the campaign go to the Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg website in English and Welsh.

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