Mugshots and making headlines

Tuesday's Western Mail front page
Tuesday's Western Mail front page

Well, the Western Mail has certainly put the cat among the pigeons (or 'rhoi'r gath ymysg y colomenod' as Google might translate it) this morning with its editorial which calls a proposal to have a full bilingual record of all Assembly proceedings - including committee hearings - "astounding".

They cite an "Assembly Commission source" who estimates the extra cost of translating English proceedings into Welsh at £400,000.

According to the paper's thundering editorial: "We say that at a time when budgets are squeezed and public services are being cut, this is a luxury we cannot afford."

Just about everyone I bumped into this morning had a view on the paper's front page. "I'm getting my flares out" said one. "Feels like I've woken up in the 70s." I bumped into a Welsh speaker who is dead set against translating every Assembly committee into Welsh - but who hated the fact that the paper had used its front page to tell her what to think. The editor, though, has access to the paper's postbag, and presumably is confident he's in tune with the thinking of many of his readers.

The reaction from AMs, MPs, language campaigners and others from the moment the front page emerged online last night has been pretty vociferous, though, with threats of boycotts and petitions and #westernfail trending on Twitter.

Others have noted well the paper's falling circulation and wondered aloud whether it is being deliberately provocative. Certainly, their WalesOnline twitter account has been active this morning to drive traffic to their site (and I've linked to it above too of course. Clever.) It's for others to speculate about the paper's motives.

Despite the headline, what they have essentially done (if you keep reading) is launch less a full frontal attack on the Welsh language per se but rather to raise some questions about the value for money of a set of recommendations from politicians - albeit in pretty uncompromising terms.

Let's just look at some chronology.

Last Friday, it was the Assembly Commission which got it in the neck from the Western Mail with this story of a 6.8 per cent increase in its budget next year.

Let's imagine that someone within the Commission, stung by that criticism, made a quiet comment to the Western Mail later that day along the lines of "If you're so keen on being the Welsh spending watchdogs, then perhaps you'd like to look at how much the recommendation from those AMs to have all our committee hearings transcribed bilingually might cost. Could be anything up to £400,000 you know." Or words to that effect.

Gee thanks, said the Western Mail, one can imagine, and here we are.

Those recommendations came from the Communities Committee's report on the initial stage of the Assembly's Official Languages Bill.

In plenary last Wednesday, responding to their recommendation that all Assembly proceedings, including committees, be produced bilingually, the Commissioner responsible for the Welsh language, Plaid Cymru's Rhodri Glyn Thomas addressed this to the chair, Ann Jones:

"I have to say, Ann, that I accept what you say that the cost should not preclude us from doing anything, but unfortunately, in the real world, we have to consider the costs and their implications.

"If people are going to talk about translating all proceedings of the Assembly-some have even referred to everything that happens on the Assembly estate-you are talking about huge sums of money.

"Even with committee transcripts, you are talking about hundreds of thousands of pounds. If you were talking about all the other aspects, the cost would be even greater. We, as a Commission, would need to know exactly what Members' priorities are in that sense."

Does that sound to you as if the Commission are dead keen on the proposal? Or does it sound as though it is, in fact, unlikely to happen?

Perhaps today is actually about a convergence of interests - a paper looking to make a splash and a Commission looking at an expensive recommendation that it doesn't really want to (in fact, has no plans to) implement in this way. Perhaps I'm very wide of the mark here, of course. I too, after all, am a Political Editor with my own interests - I've a blog to keep up you know.

Later this afternoon, Assembly members will vote on a routine financial resolution which will enable the Assembly's Language Bill to continue its progress. Will it watched more closely now? Yes, it will.

UPDATE

According to the Liberal Democrat Peter Black, a member of the Assembly Commission, the cost of translating all proceedings - including committees - would be about £350,000 to £360,000 a year. Apparently, using Google Translate as an initial basis for producing a bilingual record of plenary meetings is proving "slightly more expensive" than the Assembly expected.

Bottom line? It's clear the Commission would like to reach the point where a full translation is possible in the future but it can't be done overnight, it'll cost too much. Another solution must be found.

There, in less strident terms, is the nub of it.

I'll add this statement from the Western Mail issued in response to the furore:

"We fully support the right of AMs and others to address meetings in Welsh or English, according to their choice, and the publication in both languages of the official Record of Proceedings of plenary meetings.

"But we believe the recommendation to translate all Assembly proceedings into Welsh, at such enormous cost, is a step too far in this period of austerity.

"At a time when front-line public service and benefits to poorer people are being cut, we cannot in all conscience support a huge increase in the National Assembly's translation budget. That is why we back the Assembly Commission's draft Bill and oppose the amendment proposed by the communities, equality and local government committee."