Wales is not Scotland, of course, but the recommendation by a panel of MPs that Scotland should have its own version of the News at Six in place of the ‘UK’ version currently broadcast can and should raise questions for us as well. Since the advent of devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, policy in a number of areas has increasingly diverged. Yet it often feels as though the BBC’s news coverage has not reflected that change. Time after time, news bulletins refer to – or even lead with – stories on issues such as health or education which only apply in England.
Certainly, there is usually (but not always) a caveat of some sort thrown in that the situation is different elsewhere, but similar issues in the devolved nations do not receive the same coverage. Those who want to know what the impact of the same issue is in Wales (and presumably Scotland and Northern Ireland as well) then have to wait for the ‘regional’ news which follows; although unless there is a specifically Welsh angle, the issue may well not be covered at all. It often seems as though the ‘Welsh’ news is more interested in simply repeating much of the ‘UK’ news. If the principals are Welsh, then it’s generally a direct repeat; otherwise they try and find someone whose great-grandfather’s cat allegedly once visited Wales to make it sound more ‘local’.
However, in defence of the BBC, something like 85% of the audience is in England; why wouldn’t a news programme trying to cover the whole of the UK have 85% of its ‘domestic’ news emanating from England? The problem isn’t just an editorial one, although it’s sometimes described as such; it’s more to do with the fact that one nation of the UK is so much larger than the rest, and that a major UK institution has not adapted to a situation where there is no longer a single body of policy in the whole territory of the state - and doesn’t really seem to know how to adapt either. It underlines the UK approach to constitutional change – tinker with one part at a time, and don’t worry about any consequences. What’s needed is a more thorough-going rethink about the function and purpose of a single UK wide state-owned news medium in an environment for which it was never designed or built.
It’s inevitable that attention focuses on the BBC, because it’s a state-owned body; but the issue of the relevance of news provision and consumption is really much wider than that – it also includes private sector broadcasters and the print media. The BBC itself published a story a few short months ago, highlighting the fact that only 5% of the Welsh population read a Welsh newspaper, and that four times as many people in Wales read the Daily Mail as read the Western Mail. An academic from the Cardiff School of Journalism described the situation as being one of a ‘democratic deficit’; people in Wales voting on Welsh issues about which they were poorly informed because their news sources carried mostly stories about the situation in England.
It contributes to the situation on which I posted a few days ago; people in Wales assuming that the supposed ‘immigration crisis’ about which they read daily in the Mail and Express is not only true, but applies equally in Wales. The issue also came to the fore in the debate prior to the EU referendum, where there was an almost complete lack of a specifically Welsh perspective on the issue. Dr Daniel Evans of Cardiff University drew attention to this in a blog post for the LSE (see point 5 here). The logic of having a more specifically Welsh media to report the news is clear, whether we’re talking about print media or broadcast media.
There are, however, a few problems with actually bringing that about:
· To repeat: Wales is not Scotland, and in this context there are at least three important differences. The first is that the smaller the population of a nation within the UK, the harder it will be to fund a specific media. The second is that the border between Wales and England goes along the ‘long’ edge of the country; Scotland’s border goes along the ‘short’ edge. This impacts directly on the extent to which policies (on health for instance) in England do directly affect a large number of people in Wales. And the third is that the degree of policy difference is smaller, reflecting the more limited powers of the Assembly.
· Horses can be led to water … by which I mean that even if there were separate Welsh news outlets available, there’s no way of being certain that people would turn to them. If people buy the Daily Mail rather than the Western Mail, that’s the exercise of choice. Even a vast (and much-needed) improvement in the quality of the latter newspaper would not guarantee a change in people’s preferences.
· Is there enough Welsh news to report? One of the depressing features of the referendum campaign was how little effort was made to put a specifically Welsh perspective on the issue; Wales’ politicians and campaigners seemed content to argue that the only real difference was the extent of our dependency on the begging bowl.
· If sensationalism sells newspapers, what guarantees that a specifically Welsh media would be any more truthful or honest in its reporting than the English tabloids? I sometimes think that some of those calling for a more specifically Welsh media are making an implicit assumption that the editors would be nicer and more honest people because they’d be like ‘us’ rather than like ‘them’. I’m not sure that assumption stands up to examination.
There are other issues as well, of course, but of those listed above, I think that the second is the most important. In the coverage a day or two ago about the matter of the ‘Scottish Six’, one of the issues raised was that there doesn’t really seem to be much demand for it amongst the consumers; the demand is driven by politicians seeking better coverage of what they’re doing rather than by the viewers. And in this case, I suspect that what’s true for Scotland is even truer for Wales.One can argue that it’s the result of long term conditioning or whatever; but the underlying question here is about chickens and eggs. People won’t demand new media in their own nation until they realise the inaccuracy of what they’re getting now; and they won’t realise that until they have and use those new media. Demands for change often seem to be predicated on the assumption that ‘others’ should do ‘something’; but unless we can first create the demand, why would they? Like so many aspects of Wales’ situation, progress ultimately depends mostly on first creating the desire for progress.