Eos and the broader struggle over valuing Welsh language products

The Eos ruling by the Copyright Tribunal is a vicious blow to musicians who choose to sing in Welsh, erectile but it is also a blow in the wider debate about the way we measure the value of Welsh cultural products – from daily news to television entertainment.

At the heart of the Eos vs BBC struggle lies the contrary viewpoints of the BBC, stuff who argue that music should be valued according to its usual measures (including RAJAR and several other statistics which combine audience research and broadcast time); and Eos, website like this who argue that it is not possible to measure the value of payments for Welsh language music on statistics alone (and dodgy statistics at that) and that their unique and intrinsic cultural value is a factor that must be considered.

Since the Earthquake, when S4C’s value was thrown into the lions den in front of emperor Hunt, S4C have also been in the process of putting the argument for measuring value. Many people supportive of the channel have noted that audience statistics aren’t the be all and end all of value measurement but that economic, social and cultural value all have to be considered in measuring the success of a minority language television channel. This was Ian Jones’s response to the drop in viewing figures reported in the S4C annual report in July 2013:

“It’s no longer appropriate in today’s multiplatform television environment to use one simple performance measure to assess success,”
“Success today is a combination of factors including audience reach, economic impact, audience appreciation, trust, a successful provision of content for learners, for children’s programmes, and contributing to a positive impact on the Welsh language and culture.”

In terms of the offline printed press, circulation remains an important measurement tool if not the most important; online the ‘daily unique users’ stats, or whichever Google Analytics metric gives the highest figure, dominates. There isn’t the same kind of discussion of engagement measurement, democratic or political impact, or broader cultural value.

However, there is one small difference: the Welsh language print press on the whole is funded and administered from within Wales, so it’s possible to say that cultural value is given more consideration than merely how many have read or purchased. The only part of the print sector that isn’t is BBC Cymru – which has been given a reach target of 50k “users” by 2015 which is very black and white compared to the way evaluation is going at S4C. Democratic value is at the top of the agenda for the Welsh Assembly, and it’s clear that reach is not the only metric used by them in looking at the possible future of subsidy for the English language press in Wales.

Also in July 2013, The Welsh Books Council published a report on English language magazines in Wales (link to PDF). Therein, on page 5, lies the following sentence which touches upon their core principles when assessing the “value” of these magazines:

Value-for-money judgements concerning any subsidised activity must balance the quality, reach and public benefit of that activity against its cost. There is no absolute formula for establishing whether that balance is struck in any given case: this calculation is best made on the basis of comparisons with like activity elsewhere, and the responses of intended beneficiaries.

Common sense, you would think, but no, the system of payments for music doesn’t operate under a subsidy, but within a framework which is commercial, industrial and British, even though the licensing fee is a kind of public subsidy.

The BBC doesn’t see protecting the Welsh language as its role, neither do they see their role as that of a body responsible for measuring cultural value. This is a perspective which claims some kind of cultural neutrality – our purpose is to provide a service to the audience and nothing else – but it’s an artifical neutrality. How is it that S4C and the Welsh Books Council (and the Arts Council of Wales if it comes to that) can talk about cultural obligations and serving the audience in the same breath, and clearly state that measuring the value of their output involves much more than just the size of the audience, and the BBC is unable to do the same?

Despite the best efforts of some to introduce nuance to these public debates, their efforts are drowned out by crude soundbites: news reports – both positive and negative – are based on statistics about levels of viewing/listening/reading collected by agencies outside of Wales in the case of radio, television and the print media, and internally but with no consistency of methodology in the case of online media. In the age of Twitter, these soundbites are what circulate and get swallowed without question.

The argument here is about how to measure value, and the Eos verdict clearly demonstrates that there are centralised institutions in the UK which are still not interested in considering anything outside of that which serves their own needs. And why would they? To do so would undermine a model which has existed for decades. It would be an attack on the centralised system and would weaken their grip on an element of the state apparatus.

There’s “no evidence to suggest that devolution of broadcasting policy or a different approach to funding the BBC would benefit licence fee payers” according to the UK Government’s response to the Silk Commission. Which license fee payers are these then? Those who listen to Radio Cymru? Those who believe in a Wales where the Welsh language receives reasonable conditions in which to exist and flourish? I doubt it. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives understands that there’s a real need to devolve broadcasting – he understands that there’s no way of forming policies on culture and the media which won’t lead to more clashes of this type.

Consider these sentences from page 11 of the tribunal’s report:

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In winning this argument, according to the tribunal, the BBC in London have issued a dictat: it’s not possible for you to make decisions on your own, we will always have the final say, it’s us who decides how to measure the value of your culture, we don’t consider cultural value when measuring the success of our output, nor the value of those individuals responsible for creating that success (Welsh language musicians, in this case) .

In short: you don’t control your own culture and media, we do.

I’m grateful to Eos and all the Welsh musicians for making this stand, and for putting the case for fairness in measuring the value of their contribution. The verdict is a blow, but it’s also an illustration of the rifts that are appearing within the UK and that a persistant tug on this loose thread might be all it takes to unravel the fragile net holding this failing system together.

[Diolch yn fawr iawn i Nic Dafis yn arbennig, ac unrhyw gyfieithwyr anhysbys eraill a helpodd i gyfieithu’r gofnod. Vive la Google Docs!
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Many thanks to Nic Dafis and any other anonymous translators that have contributed to translating this post. Yay, for online collaboration!]