Where do you get your news about Wales? Can you easily find enough good quality information about our country, particularly our politics and place in the world? And how ‘progressive’ is your news of Wales? Concisely put, we can take progressive to mean being supportive of changing society for the better rather than maintaining an unequal status quo or, indeed, turning the clock back. Evidently, discerning reader of the Ceredigion Herald, you are already accessing at least one source of news about Wales that is locally generated, committed to quality and progressive! But where do you turn for other sources and other platforms – TV, radio and online? Maybe, you ‘top up’ on your Wales news via social media? A dangerous game. In an era that is defining itself as ‘post-truth’, where ‘fake news’ – stories that have been made up or exaggerated – is everywhere, how do you know you can trust what you read? Or do you just ‘like’ and randomly share information anyway?
Questioning Wales’ media
In the wake of the Brexit referendum in particular, two former students of the University of South Wales have proposed a five-point plan for Welsh progressives to take back political control. Paul Atkins is a Lecturer in Media at Tresham College of Further and Higher Education in the East Midlands and Sam Coates is a Green Party councillor in Oxfordshire. Initially their plan caught my Herald reporter’s eye – the middle, all-seeing one - because it was published on the openDemocracy website, where articles on Wales are something of a rarity. Established in 2001, openDemocracy is an independent global media platform run by a non-profit federation. It features ‘powerful ongoing analysis and debate around key issues of rights, equality and justice’. To my surprise, immediately I finished reading the five-point plan, I spotted Daniel Evans’ openDemocracy article on ‘The BBC and Wales’ information deficit’. Two Wales’ media and politics articles at once that dared to venture beyond even our digital borders: Unheard of!
Atkins and Coates article makes specific reference to Ceredigion as an area that has ‘a progressive outlet for anti-establishment feeling’, namely Plaid Cymru. With due respect to Plaid Cymru, Ceredigion’s progressive outlet is surely wider and more complex than being down to one political party. It includes alliances such as Ceredigion People’s Assembly, which Plaid Cymru members participate in alongside people from other progressive parties and non-aligned activists, united in their opposition to the austerity imposed by the Conservative government in Westminster. And there are other progressive outlets too, not least network coming together around the issues of refugees, tolerance and diversity.
Atkins and Coates’ ‘five ways Welsh progressives need to take back control’ include setting up some ‘truly independent civic institutions’. They decry the unhealthy dominance of the Welsh Labour Party and call for setting up more radical think-tanks. They point to the Jimmy Reid Foundation and Common Weal as examples of civic institutions developed in Scotland that provided the ‘infrastructure’ for a mass independence movement.
While acknowledging its importance in Welsh culture, Atkins and Coates seek to disentangle the Welsh language from the cause of creating a new progressive politics. In this vein, they claim Plaid Cymru cannot be the wellspring of such a politics, particularly not while the party is wedded to an electorally unpopular commitment to independence. Atkins and Coates also look to ‘grassroots organising to save Welsh communitarianism: ‘It’s time to flex those solidarity synapses again.’ The ‘progressive outlet for anti-establishment feeling’ that the authors call for ‘doesn’t need to be a political party, it doesn’t need to push people towards independence right now, but we do need a way for people to express their anger and hurt at the tragic injustices suffered at the hands of a cruel and rigid economic dogma’. People’s Assembly groups may be the just the sort of forums the authors have in mind.
Disastrous decline in Welsh local media?
What really drew this Herald reporter in to Atkins and Coates’ article was the very first proposal of their five-point plan: ‘Reversing the disastrous decline in Welsh local media’. Hold on a moment, as well as missing the rise of People’s Assembly and similar groups, haven’t Atkins and Coates read the Herald? They claim that ‘the time for new newspapers is over’! Instead, ‘it’s time to build a serious online alternative media’. Wales is over reliant on a London-centric English media, Atkins and Coates write. The Assembly is given a ‘shocking lack of coverage’ by the media, exacerbated by ‘declining newspaper sales’. Welsh current affairs magazine Golwg is, the authors claim, ‘the only organisation to have a full-time correspondent in the Senedd’. With the local newspaper scene in Wales dominated by Trinity Mirror, Atkins and Coates suggest that their flagship Western Mail, along with its online presence WalesOnline, falls short of the in-depth coverage provided by the Scotsman, Daily Record and The Herald (no relation) in Scotland.
Noting that S4C is ‘a huge national asset’ and that CF99 provides the best analysis of Welsh current affairs, the authors point out it is wholly inaccessible for English speakers who therefore get their news of Wales mainly from BBC Wales: ‘an incredibly important resource but one that is constantly under-threat from extinction’. Since 2002, ITV Wales has provided scant coverage of distinctly Welsh issues beyond local news bulletins. Somewhat oddly perhaps, given their criticism of Welsh Labour elsewhere in their plan, Atkins and Coates suggest that ‘giving the Welsh government more power over media could open up many interesting opportunities, particularly in the broadcast sector’. As examples of the kind of progressive online alternative media that Wales needs, they cite Scotland's Bella Caledonia and The National. Finally, noting the international impact of programmes such as Doctor Who, Torchwood, Gavin and Stacey, and Ceredigion’s own Hinterland, Atkins and Coates note that ‘we should never under-estimate the role of creatives in shaping the national debate.’ That said, we also surely need to be wary about reinforcing stereotypes of Wales and Welshness.
Wales' information deficit
When we consider fake news we should also note that Daniel Evans believes Wales suffers ‘the unique problem of a lack of information, as opposed to misinformation’. He suggests that we ‘need to explore alternative media forms to create a Welsh public sphere’. A researcher at Cardiff University, Evans writes that less than 5% of Welsh people read Welsh newspapers, instead reading English papers that seldom cover Wales or Welsh politics. This situation extends to television where we mainly have Welsh news as a tiny supplement. Wales big three newspapers - The Western Mail, South Wales Echo and Daily Post - are all owned by Trinity Mirror, which Evan accuses of reducing journalism to ‘listicles and clickbait’. Increasingly, he writes, their content has become ‘trivial and unconcerned with Welsh politics or culture’.
A lack of decent media coverage, Evans claims, echoing Atkins and Coates, means we are tragically uniformed about our politics and layers of government, including devolved powers – ‘who does what, who is in charge of what, and so on’. This in turn leads to political disengagement and very low election turnouts, notably in Assembly and European elections. A lack of media scrutiny then gives the Welsh government ‘an easy ride’ in terms of performance.
Turning his attention to BBC Wales, Evans suggests that ‘whilst the BBC has always been central to promoting a sense of Britishness, it has also simultaneously functioned in many ways as a de facto Welsh national broadcaster and has always had an influential role to play in shaping Wales’ imagined community’. Not that Evans is uncritical of the Beeb. Indeed, he reiterates an argument that, whilst the BBC might have recognised and helped to promote the Welsh language, it also tended to marginalise Welsh political nationalism.
Devolution, Evans claims, has worsened ‘the structural problems of the Welsh media’, leaving it more dependent that ever on the BBC for national news: ‘BBC Wales remains the most watched Welsh news outlet’ and the ‘BBC Wales news website is where the majority of people get their online news about Wales’. The BBC’s Welsh outputs have declined steeply in quality and quantity in recent years despite its continued media dominance: ‘Welsh language output has fallen by 15% since 2006/7; English language Welsh programmes have been impacted by a 32% cut in spending.’ Evans concludes that the BBC fails to accurately represent Wales.
How to solve a problem like media?
Again like Atkins and Coates, Evans thinks that devolving media policy to the Welsh government could begin to counter the information deficit we face. He does express doubts about the Welsh government’s enthusiasm and confidence in this regard, however. Moreover, Evans raises the prospect that the government might be quite happy not to be exposed to more critical media scrutiny. He notes too that the BBC itself is threatened by funding cuts and the Tory government’s obsession with privatisation, fearing the political co-option of the Corporation. The latest Enquiry into the BBC Charter Review concludes that the BBC’s output has failed to adequately reflect the diversity of Welsh life. The Welsh government has called for an extra £30m spending by the BBC on English language programmes that better reflect Welsh culture. A draft of the latest BBC Charter specifies that Wales will have a non-executive representative on the BBC’s new unitary board and that the Corporation will accountable to the Assembly for its Welsh output. Though these changes may be portrayed as radical, in practice they could be undermined by a lack of funding. The development of a democratic public sphere strong enough to act as a check against abuses of power by the state depends upon having a public that is politically educated and participating in decision-making. Facilitating this demands an accessible and open flow of information. With respect to our media and the quantity and quality of that flow, Evans suggests that the people of Wales should be asking: ‘Is this is good enough?’
No news isn’t good news
The Herald followed up on the authors of these thought-provoking articles. We were interested in whether that had had much feedback. We also wondered why they had chosen or been obliged to publish on openDemocracy rather than a platform that is more identified with Welsh issues. Surely that would attract more readers? Perhaps not? We wondered too, why there weren’t more platforms for political commentary in Wales. Where was the serious online alternative media that Atkins and Coates were calling for?
When we contacted him, Paul Atkins told the Herald. ‘Welsh Media is particularly of interest to me, I think it's really one of the most important aspects. We had some interesting feedback from links on Facebook but unfortunately openDemocracy is much like Agenda, in that sense - important but really not in any way a popular publication! (So) always good to get the word out to more mainstream outlets!’
Agenda is the magazine of the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA), which also has an online arm Click On Wales. We asked Daniel Evans about this: ‘I have published on Click On Wales in the past and enjoyed it’ he told us, ‘but I feel the platform has been significantly compromised over the last year. It runs pieces by vested interests masquerading as serious arguments. The comment section has been colonised by a ridiculous cohort of anti-Welsh language morons who turn literally everything into a debate about the language. In short, I feel it went from being the closest thing we had to an online Welsh public sphere - something I would read every day – to something I would rarely read’. Other people whom we spoke with were also disappointed that the IWA seemed to be less critical in its analysis than it could be, commenting that it had become ‘too corporate’ and ‘too complacent’.
We asked Daniel Evans about Atkins and Coates’ article. He agreed with their analysis of the decline of local press and the need for online platforms: ‘However, hyperlocal newspaper press has emerged in Grangetown, for instance, which is an example of how local news can be easily run and can hit communities who may not be online, so it is important to realise that papers may still have a future’. On the issue of the Welsh language divide in political life and the media, the glaring issue in Daniel Evans’ eyes was that Plaid Cymru ‘have been systematically smeared by the Welsh media as being associated with Welsh language ‘nutters’ over the last fifty or so years.’ On the growth of a unified national consciousness in Wales, Daniel Evans asked: ‘How is it achievable when non-Welsh speakers are scared of Welsh speakers? When they think ‘they’ hate ‘us’? There’s a huge fracture in the country which has been deliberately fostered.’
On publishing his article on openDemocracy, Daniel Evans concluded: ‘Frankly, you get more readers and from a selfish career perspective it looks better on your CV as it is more widely recognised, so I'd be lying if I said that wasn't a factor in my thinking. Within academia there is a belief that Welsh journals are low prestige, that you should aim for ‘national’, i.e. English/British ones, even when Wales is your focus. And that applies to blog writing too. So, we subconsciously aim for sites like openDemocracy, The Conversation and Jacobin because of their status and prestige, which may or may not come from being - well -not Welsh!’
Elin Jones, Plaid Cymru AM for Ceredigion and Presiding Officer of the Assembly, told the Herald: ‘Health, education and public services are all now devolved to Wales, and people can be easily misled by the reporting of such matters by London-based media sources that refer only to the English public services, with little or no reference to the Welsh situation. Assembly Members, such as myself, who are elected to shape the way that public services are run in Wales need to be scrutinised by the media in exactly the same way as MPs are scrutinised in Westminster. That is especially true of Welsh Government and its decisions. A strong national media in Wales is vital, alongside a vibrant local and regional press.’
So, what do Herald readers think about the criticisms and suggestions from Evans, Atkins and Coates? Write in and tell us where you get your other news about Wales? Do you find enough good quality information about our country, particularly our politics and place in the world? How ‘progressive’ is your news of Wales? Do we need to increase the visibility of the work of the Welsh Government in the mainstream British media? Should there be more stories about Wales on the nightly TV news, not just in the ‘and finally’ sections or ‘the news where you are’? And how should we regard information on Facebook, Twitter and similar platforms that may or may not be post-truth?
‘Forward Wales: five ways Welsh progressives need to take back control’ by Sam Coates and Paul Atkins (6 October 2016)
‘The BBC and Wales' information deficit’ by Daniel Evans (22 December 2016)