John Roberts Williams: resonant voice of Welsh journalism

Roberts Williams: dominant force

In Wales, John Roberts Williams was a combination of Hugh Cudlipp, Alistair Cooke and much more: the dominant Welsh-language journalist of his age.

Until shortly before his death at 90, he had broadcast an unbroken weekly comment slot for BBC Radio Cymru for almost 29 years.

While many will remember him for these wry broad-ranging talks, when his memorable but slightly funereal voice masked an incisive mind and sly wit, his earlier contribution was even greater.

As editor from 1945 to 1962, he transformed the national weekly, Y Cymro (The Welshman), into amass-selling broadsheet.

With a profound understanding of Welsh language communities, he also innovated with the sports coverage, photo-journalism and competitions of a modern popular newspaper.

With several local editions, and despite facing the almost intractable problems of working in a language which is dominated by a powerful neighbour, Y Cymro reached an unprecedented circulation level of 27,000.

As editor, he showed the wide vision and range of interests which made him a rounded personality as well as a complete journalist.

“He had a broad humanity,” said one of his newspaper protegés, Dyfed Evans.

Even in 1947, he had shown his awareness of new media, by producing one of the first Welsh language feature films, Yr Etifeddiaeth (Heritage).

So his 1962 move to become news editor of the ambitious but ill-fated commercial station Teledu Cymru (Wales Television) was almost inevitable.

After its collapse, he became editor of the BBC’s flagship Welsh-language topical daily programme, Heddiw (Today) .

This was a difficult time for him personally, as he lost his wife to the same cancer that would later take his daughter, both in early middle age.

Later, as head of the BBC in Bangor, not far from his beloved home region of Eifionydd, John Roberts Williams maintained a strong strand of popular programmes rooted in a deep culture.

His immense knowledge, both of Wales and the world, was one of his great strengths.

“I always left him astounded at the breadth of his mind,” said journalist Alun Rhys who often, in the last few weeks, had helped him record his radio column from his hospital bed. “He was an incredible man.”

John Roberts Williams himself said that he had entered journalism in the 1930s in the “twilight of the gods”, working with men who had pioneered Welsh-medium journalism at a time when the language had almost one million speakers.

He joins the pantheon.

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