11 September 2016

A sorry state of affairs

Hello and welcome to my blog.

It is now two months since the UK voted to leave the EU in an advisory referendum. Yet, journalists, politicians, business leaders and academics continue to ask the same question. Why did 51.9% of the electorate vote Leave? Well, as far as I can tell, “expert” opinion boils down to three main arguments; to halt immigration; to regain sovereignty (whatever that means?!); and as a protest against the perceived mismanagement of the country by a political and economic elite. However, this blog believes that these three arguments are only part of the answer when it comes to explaining what happened in Wales (which voted to leave by a 5% margin). This post will use the referendum result in Wales as a starting point for making the case that the current state of the Welsh media has left Wales with a democratic deficit. The consumption of English-focused media sources, in part due to a lack of independent, quality Welsh political reporting has led to a distorted and incomplete picture of issues in Wales. Before we start, however, I would like to reassure you that this post does not intend to revisit the referendum result. Rather this post is trying to avoid wasting a good ol’ crisis (depending on your point of view!) and using it to highlight an issue that goes to the very heart of Welsh democracy.

I should make it clear that this blog’s argument is not new. Numerous individuals and organisations, both inside and outside the Welsh Senedd, have been saying for years how the reality of devolved politics in Wales is not properly reflected in the news that the Welsh population consumes. The lack of a diverse and robust Welsh media scene, as advocated by Bethan Jenkins AM, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Wales and Cardiff University’s JOMEC, means the Welsh public is forced to consume English-centric views on devolved, Welsh issues. This is (mainly) not the fault of the national newspapers (The Times, The Guardian, etc.). They are simply catering to their largest audience. However, surely it is about time the Welsh public demanded better? The Welsh electorate are currently not able to properly scrutinise and hold to account its government. We simply don't have the same factual, timely and clear political reporting that England and Scotland get (I am not sure of the situation in Northern Ireland). Heavy-hitting political journalism is not something that Wales's regionalised tabloids, the Western Mail and Daily Post, will ever provide. Their business models (more below) mean they cannot be relied upon to provide the coverage or in-depth analysis that voters in Wales need.

One small example comes from 2014 and early 2015 when the Daily Mail ran an ‘expose’ on the state of the NHS in Wales. Some of you may remember the political storm which followed the report. David Cameron, then Prime Minister, used it as one of his campaigning tools; he went as far as to say that Offa’s Dyke had become “the line between life and death”. There are a few relevant points we can draw from this story. Firstly, that it was the Daily Mail writing the story in the first place. Where was the Welsh newspaper doing the investigative work? This was a story about a devolved Welsh issue and we relied on the Daily Mail to write it?! Perhaps the Welsh tabloids were still too busy giving out player ratings for the Six Nations. Secondly, this should have been a debate led by Welsh voices; instead the narrative was controlled by the Conservative Westminster government. No Labour figure could get a media appearance without being questioned on the record of the Welsh NHS. And it worked! Polls from around this time showed that Welsh people had lower confidence in their health service than people in England and Scotland. Where was the balance in reporting? Where was the analysis? We certainly did not get any from the Welsh tabloids. The Western Mail’s article included an extremely useful gallery of 13 other ways (we imagine) David Cameron sees the differences between Wales and England”. Yes, extremely useful

There was very little balance in the reporting. The Conservative government used the Welsh NHS to try and illustrate the point that Labour, who control the Welsh Assembly, could not be trusted to run the NHS in England and that this was ‘proof’ of Labour’s general incompetence when in government. Despite Welsh patients and staff being at the centre of political debate in the UK, Welsh voices struggled to cut through the noise. A bit of balance would have been nice. Comparing health systems is almost impossible in the first place, the Welsh population is older, sicker and poorer than the English one - meaning that the Welsh NHS has to work harder. Furthermore, the standard metrics by which NHS performance is measured do not really tell us "about the quality or safety of care received or the experiences of patients." The Welsh government has protected social care spending, for example, meaning that Welsh patients benefit from better care after being discharged from hospital.

So, let’s explore the current landscape in a bit more detail. The media in Wales can be divided into four distinct groups; TV; radio; print media; and online content. All four are important to creating a plural and robust 'debating chamber' in Wales. However, in the interests of time, I will focus on newspaper journalism and the absence of an agenda setting Welsh print media outlet.

The true scope of the problem with our print media is severely underappreciated. In 2006, a Welsh Assembly Committee found that 85% of daily morning papers bought in Wales were produced in England. This is in stark contrast to Scotland where roughly 85% of newspapers purchased were also produced there. Scotland has four national newspapers, including broadsheets such as The Herald and The Scotsman, as well as Scottish editions of The Times and The Telegraph. In Wales, however, we rely on regionalised tabloids, neither of which provides the real heavy-hitting reporting that the Welsh public need. Instead, the tabloids focus on crime, lifestyle, entertainment and sports. Of course, as consumers we must shoulder some of the blame. However, it is symptomatic of a newspaper/media model that is driven by profit and advertisement revenue as opposed to reporting on genuine public interest stories. The commercialisation of the media is an issue of global relevance that has received attention from commentators much more knowledgeable than me; however, it represents a particularly unique challenge to Wales where there are so few alternatives.

One quick litmus test would be to think of a Welsh media organisation that could have done an ‘expose’ akin to the Daily Mail’s investigation into the Welsh NHS mentioned earlier. Perhaps BBC Wales? Nothing else springs to mind…

The conscious decision by many ownership groups to prioritise business economics and profits over public interest has left the Welsh electorate in the dark on many issues. The Trinity Mirror Group, who publish the Daily Mirror, should accept some responsibility. They produce both of Wales's tabloids, the North Wales Daily Post and the Western Mail, and own a significant stake in the Welsh print media. 42% of total print circulation in Wales is by Trinity Mirror owned titles, giving them a powerful position in Wales. However, a company whose major commercial interests and headquarters lie outside Wales will not have Welsh public interest as an editorial priority. It must also be remembered that the North Wales Daily Post only became a Wales-focused paper in 2003 when it became its own standalone title from the Liverpool Daily Post. 

The constant drive for profits has alarmed the National Union of Journalists, among others. This summer Trinity Mirror announced job cuts at the Daily Post. This is despite posting healthy profits in the first half 2015 and consolidating its position as one of the largest media groups in the UK. In fact, after Trinity Mirror Plc’s purchase of Local World it now owns 13 of the top 20 regional titles in England and Wales, accounting for 30% of the market. And although circulations for their print newspapers are declining, their print output still generates about 90% of their advertising revenues. The cost of financing and running a newspaper is usually the biggest barrier to entry. However, Trinity Mirror seems to do very well out of Wales.

Yet, despite the profits, Trinity Mirror continues to show contempt for Welsh politics. For example, the Daily Post is getting rid of its dedicated Senedd reporter and moving the position to North Wales where the reporter will also cover transport/traffic news for the paper. Hardly a strong commitment “to covering Welsh politics at a local and national level”. And those aren't the only cuts! The IWA Media Audit estimates that the number of journalists in south Wales dropped from 700 in 1999 to just 108 in 2013. This is not good for Wales as the range of voices reporting on issues shrinks ever further. Trinity Mirror's unchallenged position in Wales (it owns 27 titles in the country) means the homogenisation of views. This poses a massive threat to our democracy. So, how can we reverse the trend? Well, for now, the burden probably falls on us, the people.

There has been an increased interest in community/independent news. People like Tom Sinclair, who set up the Pembrokeshire Herald, are now doing much of the legwork. Access to the internet has also been a game-changer. In 2004 only 40% of Welsh households had access to the internet. This figure is now up to 78% according to The National Survey of Wales. As traditional newspapers make staff cuts across Wales it is essential that "citizen journalists" step in and try to fill the gap. Usually I am quite sceptical of the ability of citizen journalism to replace trained, career journalists; however, I cannot see an alternative for Wales in the foreseeable future.

Citizen journalism can go in two directions. There is the localised news outlets set-up by people such as Tom Sinclair. Then there are the “bloggers, writing pieces that read like a newspaper's Op-Ed. Citizen journalism has come a long way but there are still limitations. Whenever disaster strikes, the most timely and accurate information is often reported by normal people who happen to be nearby. Think the 2004 tsunami, 7/7 bombings and so on. However, I have yet to see the really cutting-edge and opinion shaping reporting from citizen journalists that professional journalists provide through the more established news organisations. For example, would a blogger have been able to produce a story of the same breadth and scope as Scott Anderson did in a recent issue of the New York Times magazine? Probably not. But this does not mean we should not try. Historically, people relied on “bloggers” such as Daniel Defoe who produced countless pamphlets and essays on the pressing political and social issues of the day. It is often forgotten that broadsheets such as The Times and The Guardian were not established until the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There are other possibilities out there.

The point is that if Welsh people want quality political reporting we’ll need to do it ourselves. I can’t see Trinity Mirror Group changing a model that earns them a healthy profit and the BBC can only produce limited analysis due to being hamstrung by strict editorial guidelines. Unfortunately, despite the Senedd's efforts, we have not seen much progress in this area. Surely we have to see new regulations on media concentration soon. Furthermore, I would love to see funding earmarked for local news organisations. It might have been something to include in the latest round of projects for EU funding but alas, that ship has sailed. With cuts at BBC Wales and S4C the situation is becoming more and more desperate.

So, to recap, we have looked at the current landscape of the Welsh print media, the structural and ownership problems which lead to political reporting taking a backseat and a possible solution in “citizen journalism”. The current state of affairs cannot go on, or else Wales will continue to experience a democratic deficit.

Of course, the implied assumption upon which this post is based is that the Welsh public care. It is very possible that I have underestimated the political apathy in Wales and disinterest in devolved politics. I am sure someone will be able to point to polls and surveys which would suggest this. However, the high turnout for the EU referendum vote in Wales (71.7%), as well as the new Independent Media forum for Wales, gives me hope and reasons for optimism going forward. Now the question is how do we make sure this issue is discussed, debated and on the public agenda?