REMEMBER Keith Hann? This one-time PR mogul and author of The Bluffer’s Guide to Public Relations was until recently food retailer Iceland’s director of corporate affairs.

Mr Hann lost his job in February, however, because like some corporate executives, he became the story. And quite curiously, the comms boss for a company based in north Wales made the headlines as an undiscovered blogger that deconstructed Welsh culture, saving fire and fury for the strange linguists he encountered. The Welsh language was “dead”, Mr Hann argued in one post, and sounded “uncannily like someone with bad catarrh clearing his throat.”

So forgive me for having little sympathy for this ‘Welsh PR disaster’, as The Times declared in an editorial. Interestingly, though, I recall that there were some learnings from the episode: most perceptively that Mr Hann’s rise and fall exposed that there are plenty of Cymrophobes who cruise unnoticed in society. Others are shamelessly blatant and take a proactive approach – such as the former Telegraph editor Max Hastings and several other London-based commentators – in mocking the Welsh. Each time, quite rightly, agitated but strikingly confident Celts stand their ground, as they have done for centuries in poignantly melancholic but resilient form.

The Welsh, more than the Scots or the Irish, have perhaps always been more sensitive in refuting attacks on cultural identity – so part of our national story that more often than not the language is elevated as a priority above the constitutional status of our nation, or maybe even its economic development. Increasingly to be welcomed is that for many, including the Welsh Government, the language is seen as a necessity for a more prosperous nation in every sense.

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This is no real surprise in the context of Cymraeg’s popularity today. For fluent Welsh speakers, and to those sympathetic monoglots who marvel at what Hastings graciously described earlier this year as its “tortured spellings”, the language is a national treasure. A sign of proud and historic difference, in fact, that separates Wales from other peoples in Britain and is an immeasurable gift to those who get the chance to speak, read and write in its form.

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Admittedly, the Braveheart nostalgia can only be taken so far. We must face hard truths that it is not just from the ‘outside’ where the language and its speakers are provoked. Even more volatile than Hanngate was last week’s Hartsongate, where Welsh-speaking journalist Rob Harries derided (in English) the former footballer’s quality of Welsh while commentating on S4C. “Literally half the words John Hartson uses on S4C are English”, Mr Harries tweeted. “Can’t they get a Welsh speaker?”

The journalist then appeared to mock Hartson, mimicking his commentary (“Mae Cymru wedi chwarae yn absolutely fantastic like.”) But at least he realised the reaction his comments stirred – posting the next day that he had a “social media kicking” and reiterating that he loved Welsh, spoke the language, and encouraged others to learn. “I simply opined that I expected (perhaps wrongly) a better standard of Welsh on a Welsh language programme on a Welsh language TV channel.” There was no apology for that, but he felt “awful if that view has in any way put anyone off learning and/or speaking Welsh”.

Mr Harries is, of course, entitled to that opinion and is free to make it publicly. After all, there are few worse trends in our society than cancel culture – diwylliant canslo in Welsh, maybe? – and people should express their views however unpopular on any given topic, within reason and the law. And this column is not written to attack Mr Harries personally either, someone I do not know but appears to be a diligent and experienced Welsh-focused reporter.

My problem with Hartsongate is that it seemed representative of a persistent force in Welsh public life, a kind-of language police who demand a certain standard of Welsh proficiency to be met in order for those voices to be broadcast mainstream. This is no way to inspire confidence in those learning Welsh or indeed give credence to the argument that the language is not a divisive force in society, as it so often has been in different parts of Wales.

 

But the reaction to the saga said it all. S4C supported its pundit and reiterated his value as a commentator. Words of support also came from the chief executive of the National Centre for Learning Welsh, who emphasised that there was little benefit to pass judgement on how the language was spoken. Dozens of social media users responded with words of encouragement, and a schoolmate of Hartson even appeared on Radio Cymru to note how encouraging it was that the former Welsh international had embraced the language in his work. Quite right.

These are therefore positive signs that even Welsh speakers are not held back by snobs in their ranks, who with derogatory comments do little to promote Cymraeg at a time when getting to one million speakers by 2050 is a political priority. And what good timing the whole Hartson furore was, erupting just before Wythnos Dathlu Dysgu Cymraeg, where civic society has been trying to get more people to have a go and speak Welsh, even if that is just asking Shwmae or Su’mae.

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Recent events are actually far more heartening than we would have come to expect from the perils of social media. Welsh speakers – of all abilities – rallied around Hartson. Many were quick to point out that his Welsh was similar to thousands across the country; there is little more needed to justify his prominence on S4C – not only because of his sporting expertise but as he is a voice that resonates with a large proportion of the audience.

The most remarkable constant in the enduring story of Wales is the survival of our vibrant culture, when it has so often been under threat. Today, quite remarkably, there is no real danger for its future. Instead, we must embrace the challenge of making Welsh, in all its various dialects, heard far and wide in society. In short, to normalise different voices and to make Wales comfortable hearing them en masse. Beth sy'n bod gyda hwnna?

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