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UK Media (Welsh Rugby)

Volume 584: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2014

I am looking forward to a debate on an intensely personal topic that I hope will inspire a great response from the Minister. On reflection, I could have asked for a short debate on the status of Wales in the world or defending the Union of the United Kingdom or “Wales, a proud nation, like England” or some similar title. Instead, I chose the UK media and Welsh rugby. I chose to take one specific example of how Wales is sometimes sidelined because she lies alongside the much larger and dominating presence of England. That is not a negative comment about England, which, like Wales, is also a great nation. In fact, my speech is more observation than criticism, even if it was born of deep frustration.

My favourite newspaper has for many years been the Telegraph, especially at the weekend. I derive great pleasure from reading Charles Moore, Boris Johnson, Geoffrey Lean and Fraser Nelson’s occasional columns.

My hon. Friend describes the Telegraph as his favourite newspaper, but surely he means that it is favourite after his local newspaper, which he may want to take the opportunity to name.

I am always so grateful to the Minister. My local Montgomeryshire County Times & Express, the Cambrian News and various other local newspapers would probably qualify as my favourite papers, but the Telegraph is my favourite national newspaper.

Over the past month, I must also say that I have enjoyed the new columns from Isabel Hardman and others. On Sundays, I particularly enjoy the outstanding writing of Matthew d’Ancona, Janet Daley, Christopher Booker and others. Two weeks ago, however, my Sunday reading was completely ruined when I turned to the sports section to read about the two big rugby games that had been played on the previous Saturday. New Zealand had totally smashed England while Wales had come within a whisker of beating South Africa—many people’s favourite for next year’s rugby world cup—and winning in South Africa for the first time ever. In a truly magnificent performance, Wales dominated most of the match. I was able to read extensively in my newspaper about the England game with two full pages plus a good chunk of the front page. The Wales game got a few lines on page 14. I felt so let down, so disappointed, so frustrated. I know many other Welsh rugby supporters who felt just the same.

Over the last two weeks I have cooled off, and my reaction has been downgraded from seething anger to realistic observation. I accept that newspapers should be free to publish what they want—within the law of course.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. What assessment has he made of how the national Welsh media dealt with our near achievements in the rugby? Mindful that the Minister is here, what about S4C, the Cambrian News, which serves my constituency as well, Wales on Sunday and the Western Mail?

I entirely accept that the Welsh national newspapers gave full coverage to the Welsh rugby, but I want to make a point about the promotion of Wales across the world, and I do not think that the reach of Welsh papers is anything like those that are London based.

No MP is more committed to freedom of the press than I am, and I know well that newspapers have to respond to their market. They are in the business of selling newspapers after all. At the same time, however, I also believe in the freedom of MPs to express their unhappiness about things, which is what I have just done, and I must say that I feel much better for it.

I want to approach the subject of Wales’s status in the world from three distinct angles. The biggest issue facing us is the retention of the unity of the United Kingdom. While I believe and fervently hope the Scottish people will vote to remain part of the United Kingdom when they vote in the independence referendum in September, it is worth asking what has driven so many Scottish people not to value the Union. My sense is that at the root of Scottish disenchantment with the Union is resentment towards a larger, richer, altogether more powerful neighbour in England. That is the basis of my antipathy to a federal Britain as a response to the West Lothian question. No federation can work when one member is as dominant as England would be in a federal UK. I repeat that this is not in any way a criticism of England. It is not her fault that she is big. It is not England’s fault that the majority of UK media coverage relates to England.

Over recent months, it has been great to watch our Prime Minister, other Ministers and Opposition politicians going to great lengths to tell the Scottish people that we love them and that we do not want them to leave. If the Scottish people vote not to leave, we should continue to tell them afterwards that we love them. The same resentment exists in Wales, nothing like to the same extent, but it exists. It matters that England—great nation that it is—loves Wales and makes that clear. I would hope that every part of English society, including our London-based media, would want to play a part in that.

Another crucial angle to the issue of Wales’s status in the world is how we promote Wales overseas as a place to visit and to do business. I remember when 20% of foreign inward investment into the UK came into Wales; when Wales had a close, symbiotic relationship with the great motor regions of Europe, and when the Welsh Development Agency was the best business promotion vehicle in the world. It was a time when the Welsh can-do spirit made anything seem possible. At present, the Welsh Affairs Committee is taking evidence from various bodies in order to produce a report on promoting Wales abroad, and it is already clear to me that there is a problem. The Wales division of the Institute of Directors says that UK Trade & Investment has “failed dismally” to promote Wales abroad. It is also clear that the relationship between VisitBritain and Visit Wales is poor. I was astonished to learn that VisitBritain has never met the Welsh Minister responsible for tourism. Those organisations are funded by the UK and Welsh Governments to persuade overseas visitors to come to Wales and perhaps establish businesses in Wales.

The third angle concerns the Welsh language and what I consider to be inadequate recognition of its importance here at Westminster.

Order. It may help if the hon. Gentleman refers back to the topic of UK media and Welsh rugby from time to time in his now quite wide-ranging speech.

Thank you, Mr Streeter, for bringing me back to Welsh rugby. There is an important link between Welsh rugby and the Welsh language. The great things about Wales that make it distinctive are, probably above all else, the language and the national game. More people play football, but rugby is linked to the Welsh language and to our culture. I hope that that satisfies your requirements, Mr Streeter.

About 20% of the population of Wales speak Welsh, but the language underpins Welsh identity and cultural distinctiveness. It seems wrong that the Welsh Affairs Committee does not encourage witnesses to speak in Welsh, and I can see no reason why the Welsh Grand Committee should not allow speeches in Welsh. Most people in the world are bilingual or even trilingual, and most Parliaments can accommodate bilingualism. Huge efforts have been made to maintain and restore yr iaith Cymraeg in Wales. Nowhere do we hear the language spoken more than at the great rugby matches that take place in Wales. Major investment in preserving and promoting Welsh continues to be made in Wales, and many Welsh people have a great love for the language and for singing the national anthem at the Millennium stadium. We should, however, create opportunities for Welsh to be used at Westminster, strengthening the link between Wales and the United Kingdom, of which Wales is a key member.

I continue to enjoy reading The Sunday Telegraph; its great writers still make it an absolute must for me to read at the weekend, despite its failure to cover Welsh rugby as I would like it to.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I share his concern about the lack of coverage of some of the rugby matches this summer, but is that a symptom of the London media in general ignoring Wales? Is that not reflected, for example, in the fact that 52% of the people of Wales still believe that the health service is run from Westminster?

I moved away from the central point of the debate for a small part of my speech, but the issue is a wide-ranging one. My hon. Friend makes that point, and I chose to refer to one specific aspect of the whole issue today—how Welsh rugby was covered two weeks ago—because it makes that point as well. We can reach out across the world only if the national media—the media read outside Britain—cover Wales. That is how the name of Wales will go out into the world, and there is no better vehicle than Welsh rugby.

I look forward to reading reports of the great games that will take place at the Millennium stadium in the rugby world cup in 2015. It will be a great occasion, but I look forward in particular to the great victory of Wales over South Africa in the final.

It is a great honour to appear under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. This important debate has focused almost exclusively on the UK media’s coverage of Welsh rugby and an important subset of that—The Sunday Telegraph’s coverage of a particular match between Wales and South Africa that took place in South Africa a couple of weeks ago. I now have some 20 minutes to speak on the subject, at length.

It is important to focus on the issue. Had my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), who gave an excellent speech, used a title such as “Wales’s place in the world”, a different Minister would be responding on Welsh issues, whether they included the record of the Labour Welsh Government—other Members present in the Chamber may wish to comment—or Westminster’s record of support for Wales in exports and inward investment. Quite rightly, however, my hon. Friend has chosen me to respond to the debate, because he knows that I have a passionate interest in specific Welsh issues, none more so than the The Sunday Telegraph match report.

May I make a brief observation before returning to the main subject of the debate? It is good to see my hon. Friends the Members for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) and for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) in the Chamber. It will not have escaped their notice that not a single Labour MP is present. We have Prime Minister’s questions tomorrow and Tuesday is a busy day in the House; their absence cannot be explained. They may say that I am talking about them behind their backs, but I would be talking to them had a single one of them bothered to turn up to show their interest in Welsh issues. Far be it from me to say that some Labour MPs might take their support in Wales for granted, but in my experience over the past four years, in particular dealing with S4C, colleagues in the Conservative party have been active campaigners on aspects of Welsh media.

The Minister rightly alludes to the battles fought over the S4C budget. That is directly related to the fact that, for 30 years, S4C has been very innovative in its coverage of Welsh rugby, including in how it has extended the hand of friendship over the border into England by allowing people to choose their preferred language via the red button.

That is true. One of the aspects that emerged during our many debates about S4C was indeed its coverage of Welsh rugby. S4C is very much part of the UK media, as I will go on to explain. It may be, should time allow, that other Members might want to comment further on S4C’s excellent coverage of Welsh rugby.

Some might ask what the problem is. Do we need better coverage of Welsh rugby? Welsh rugby stands as a legend for all people who follow international rugby. Here am I, an Englishman from the south-east, but the names of Edwards, John, Bennett, Quinnell and a man who can be recognised by just three letters, JPR, are part of my childhood and growing up, and they still define our understanding of the modern game.

In more recent years, the Millennium stadium—on the site of another legend, the Arms Park—has been one of the most iconic rugby stadiums in the world, it is so well known. It is absolutely right and proper that it will host eight world cup fixtures next year, including two of Wales’s home games. That is a great illustration of the sport and its Welsh tradition throughout the globe.

The influence of Wales in rugby extends to the women’s rugby world cup in France. My hon. Friend is no doubt aware that the Prime Minister himself last week sent a message of good luck—interestingly, my own Secretary of State said last week that politicians wishing good luck could have the opposite effect, but he has also wished the Welsh women’s rugby world cup team good luck. Jokes aside, that shows the esteem in which the powerful Welsh women’s team is held. They have a chance to grab the headlines and do their great rugby- loving nation proud. I hope that the Telegraph gives their games the coverage that they deserve.

Frankly, it is not only in rugby that Wales has great achievements to its credit, and I hope that those other sporting achievements will also be recorded by the UK media. Who can forget that a Welsh football player commanded the highest transfer price on record? Gareth Bale is worth more than a Neymar or a Robben.

The importance of sport in our national identity and in keeping our nations together should not be underestimated. I happen to think that it is a great thing that Cardiff and Swansea have played in the premier league—Swansea is still in—because, were I to be indiscreet, it occurs to me that perhaps the majority of the population is more interested in and passionate about sport than politics. One of the things that will keep our country united is a shared passion for sport and the opportunity for all our nations to participate together in great sporting occasions.

I have mentioned rugby and football, but the great Commonwealth games are starting imminently in Glasgow. Again, I hesitate to place a jinx on them, but I wish good luck to Dai Greene in the 400-metre hurdles, Jazz Carlin in the swimming, Geraint Thomas in the cycling and the rugby sevens team. We look to the Telegraph to give suitable coverage to what will no doubt be great achievements in the games.

I rather thought you might be.

The Minister has been mentioning a lot of the major sports, but will he spare a thought for those taking part in the Ironman competition in Tenby in the coming months—1,800 of them, I think? It is a global event, which is staged in only two places in the UK, one of which is Bolton and the other Tenby. It is a fantastic sporting event, which gets minimal TV coverage, but if anyone wants an indication of athleticism at its best, Ironman Tenby in September is the place to be.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Ironman Tenby is a legendary sporting event. History does not relate whether my hon. Friend is intending to take part—in terms of engagement with his voters, it would be a sensible thing for him to do. Perhaps in this Chamber today we could start the campaign for him to take part in that event, because he has three months left for training. I take his point and call on the Telegraph to give Ironman Tenby suitable coverage. It is an important event for the nation as well as for Wales.

We are discussing the UK media’s coverage of Welsh rugby; it is important to talk about the UK media as a whole, not just about the Telegraph. Our television and radio broadcasting are underpinned by frameworks designed to ensure that both regional and national content reach a wide audience, be that in coverage of sporting events, news coverage or in the production of drama and entertainment programmes.

We should note that the BBC should also provide suitable coverage for Welsh international matches. I have not done any research on that, and my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire did not mention it in his speech, so I am not aware of whether it is a particular problem, but I hope that those listening to the debate take note that there should be suitable coverage.

The licensing regime for the public sector broadcasters supports investment in the UK regions and nations, something from which everybody benefits. The levers that both we and Ofcom have are kept under constant review. For example, in terms of UK media coverage of Welsh rugby, Channel 4 has a quota for production of content outside England. That is going to increase from 2020 from 3% to 9%, which should be good news for Welsh content. The BBC has made an ongoing commitment since 2008 to grow its regional production, with 17% of network spend coming from the nations by 2016, which again should be good news for Wales and Welsh rugby.

The separation of the new ITV Wales from the current ITV Wales and West regional franchise will also give artistic freedom for that Welsh broadcaster to invest in high quality Welsh public service programming—I hope that includes suitable coverage of Welsh rugby matters. I know that Members from both sides of the House have strongly welcomed that important development.

Welsh broadcasting has had a lot to celebrate in recent years. Only last year we saw the 30th anniversary of S4C, an organisation that the current Government continue to fund, with the BBC, to the total tune of more than £80 million a year. We have already referred to S4C’s excellent coverage of Welsh rugby.

I would not like to be accused of correcting the Minister, but it is important to state that the cash funding for S4C is to the tune of £80 million, although the BBC also provides £19.6 million in funding in kind. The total funding for S4C is in the region of £100 million.

I would like to say that I stand corrected, but I rather feel that I stand elaborated. Clearly, I was referring to the £82.6 million cash funding. My hon. Friend has elaborated on the funding in kind through provision in content from the BBC.

Although our subject is Welsh rugby, I hope you will indulge me, Mr Streeter, if I mention S4C’s fantastic coverage of the Eisteddfod and Royal Welsh Show, as well as its famous soap opera, “Pobol y Cwm”. I have taken part in many debates on S4C and have been challenged by hon. Members about my interaction with content from the channel, so I am genuinely delighted that the superb drama “Hinterland” has made a real impact on English audiences as well as Welsh ones. It has shown that the Welsh can play the Scandi game and produce great drama that can be sold around the world, regardless of its language of broadcast.

I am sure my hon. Friend would like to acknowledge that “Hinterland” was filmed in my constituency of Ceredigion, and so serves a double purpose as it promotes Ceredigion as a tourist centre for our friends across the world.

Anyone who has seen “Hinterland” will have been incredibly impressed by the quality not just of the drama but of the filming of those incredible landscapes, which must now serve as a wonderful calling card for Welsh tourism and tourism in Ceredigion in particular.

As is the case for many cultural institutions, S4C’s successes have been delivered alongside significant challenges. I was therefore delighted that we protected S4C’s funding in the last autumn statement. Our commitments on regional and national programming are also enhanced by the new local TV services, which so far have been licensed in Cardiff and Swansea, with services for Mold and Cardiff due to come on air shortly.

In talking about the UK media’s coverage of Welsh rugby, it is also important to point out that the Government’s broadband programme will provide another potential avenue of access to content. We have provided about £100 million, I think—that figure is off the top of my head—to the Welsh Government to carry out a broadband programme. Something like half a million homes will be connected under that rural broadband programme, getting figures for Wales up to 90% and beyond. It is going extremely well and we have covered more than 160,000 premises so far. People can get television content on broadband and now that new competitors are in play—not just Sky, but BT Sport—one may well see enhanced coverage not just of Welsh international rugby but Welsh domestic rugby. Much of that will be down to the fact that infrastructure coverage is going so well in Wales.

We are going through a golden age of investment in sports coverage. In 2012, more than £2 billion was invested by all broadcasters in sports programming and sport became the most watched genre on TV. That is why my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire was so right to bring up the UK media’s coverage of Welsh rugby as a way of bringing to the attention of the House the broadcasting opportunities that now exist for Welsh sport and Welsh rugby in particular. [Interruption.] Given the leaning position that my hon. Friend has taken, I cannot tell whether he is fascinated by my remarks or about to make an intervention, but I will keep a weather eye on him in case he wishes to intervene at any point.

I had not intended to intervene, but I feel tempted to do so. Does the Minister agree that sport is probably the most effective way to take the name of Wales to the wider world, through the stars whom he has mentioned? One issue we have is promoting Wales across the world as an identifiable country that is not a part of England. Does he agree that sport is the best and most effective way to do that?

I absolutely do. Let me elaborate. I was lucky enough to watch the end of the Tour de France yesterday—it was only up the road—and somebody turned to me and said, “That is soft power at work. That is the French making a bigger impact on the UK psyche. What is our equivalent?” I said that to a certain extent it was probably the premier league. We should think about the reach of the premier league and the opportunities that Swansea and Cardiff have to promote Wales when they are in the premier league.

The Welsh rugby team, of course, has an impact in South Africa, Australia and all around the world. We should also think of the stars of Welsh rugby and football, as I mentioned earlier. Gareth Bale will do a huge amount to promote Wales, as a passionate Welshman himself. Ryan Giggs was part of a squad that was probably one of the most successful football teams in the world. Their utter loyalty to Wales is impressive—they could perhaps have played around with their genealogy to get to play for other teams but they were loyal to Wales, a great international football team.

Sport is incredibly significant, which is why it is so important that my hon. Friend has brought to the Chamber’s attention the coverage that our own domestic media give to Welsh rugby and other great Welsh sporting achievements. Another point to raise—although it might perhaps be a bit late in the day to mention it—is that almost more important than the players themselves are the fans. The passion of the Welsh rugby fan is known all across the world, and it is Welsh rugby fans who are devouring more and more sports media content through the internet, including sites such as “The Bleacher Report”. I have mentioned BT Sport and Sky. Wales’s recent rugby tour to South Africa was covered on Sky Sports and the BBC’s online rugby service “Scrum V” enables viewers living outside Wales to watch live games on satellite and cable and via the internet.

I have more to say on this subject, but I see that time is running out so I must bring my remarks to a conclusion. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to our attention. I note that Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs have turned up in force to debate an issue that is important to Wales, to emphasise the importance of Wales’s place in our United Kingdom and to remind us all that, whether in rugby, at the Commonwealth games, in football or in cycling, Welsh sporting achievements deserve the full attention of the whole of this United Kingdom.