Thursday 4 August 2016

Progress depends on wanting it

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.


Anonymous said...

Unusually defeatist offering from you, there was no demand for Wings Over Scotland or Bella Caledonia in Scotland either, yet both Editors took a chance and this year both crowdfunded tens of thousands of pounds from readers to run their news/current affairs websites.

Its possible, but it takes people to try because if there’s no demand for welsh news, how come the sadly defunct due to cyber-attack Daily Wales website, run solely by volunteers with a Welsh focus was getting up to 30,000 daily page reads a few months after going live?

Wales currently has magazines that cover news/current affairs like Planet and Cambria, but how many people now about them and how many shops stock them.

However, the biggest challenge in creating new Welsh media platform is getting people to stop thinking in 19th or 20th terms of news, eg. newspapers and television news. They wouldn’t be starting from scratch either, there are hyper local websites like, AberdareOnline, Caerphilly Observer to name a few and the Cardiff TV channel produces news from the City that isn’t reported elsewhere.

There are also blogs like Oggy Bloggy Ogwr which produce excellent reports on Assembly debates, reports and elections, his Assembly 2016 output was superior to lot of the mainstream and the more controversial JacotheNorth whose latest offering on Stephen Kinnock’s selection as Labour’s Abervon MP was picked up by the UK and Danish media, not bad for a Welsh politics blogger.

I do disagree about the more sensationalism stories though; why shouldn’t the welsh press produce both if its pays for the less glamorous content? Wales has plenty of famous faces, our national football and rugby teams generate plenty interest on an off the field so the new platforms should use it to their advantage I reckon.

Also why not look to welsh papers/magazine already set up for ideas of help, there is a welsh newspaper in North America (Ninnau) and the London Welsh Centre has a quarterly magazine, how are they funded, what model do they use etc.

Wales situation is desperate, but those of us who still care need to keep fighting and find solutions or it really will be too late.

John Dixon said...

I didn't see it as being particularly defeatist; more about trying to identify the right starting point.

I take all your points about online media, and wouldn't want to dismiss their importance as alternatives - BUT:

a. A lot of the more political on-line sources are largely talking to the converted who actively seek them out, and
b. The majority of the populace still get most of their 'news' in a more 'passive' way from print and broadcast media.

Alternative news sources are available for those who seek them out, and adding to those sources is always possible. The problem is that people are not, by and large, seeking them out, and my point was that we need to create that desire for an alternative. Wales can be different, but only if people want it to be different; the same applies to our media. Adding to the sources is the easy part; persuading people to use them is much, much harder.

Anonymous said...

No problems you dismissing what i've said, it would be boring if we all agreed.

WOS and Bella Caledonia have real world editions and you'd probably say their preaching to the converted and they are, but you have to start somewhere and online costs are lower that was my point.

From a welsh context getting Planet stocked regularly in a supermarket would change the dynamic, but that's not a campaign many seem interested in. Establish the news brand and then investment follows that's how the media models work now.

Instead were left with a majority involved in the Welsh media debate living in a fantasy world of either waiting to win the lottery and setting up a news channel or that suddenly BBC Wales, ITV Wales, Trinity Mirror etc will see the error of their ways and lead all daily news bulletins, papers on welsh politics and current affairs stories, if only they keep making the point about how biased they currently are on social media enough times.

Anyway thanks for the reply and have a good weekend.

John Dixon said...

I agree entirely with this part: "Instead we're left with a majority involved in the Welsh media debate living in a fantasy world of either waiting to win the lottery and setting up a news channel or that suddenly BBC Wales, ITV Wales, Trinity Mirror etc will see the error of their ways and lead all daily news bulletins, papers on welsh politics and current affairs stories, if only they keep making the point about how biased they currently are on social media enough times.". I think that any disagreement between us is mostly about whether the primary problem which we need to tackle is on the supply side or the demand side.

Pete said...

I find myself in agreement with the anonymous one. This is a thought I have had for quite some time. The supply side is fairly easy and relatively simple to set up. As for demand, that is the main question. We need to attract the uncommitted and those ready to switch allegiance as well as engaging the interest of, ell, everyone.
I'm reminded of the days when the Daily Mirror was the best selling newspaper in the UK. Then along came the Sun. Rapidly overtook the Mirror and became the number one paper with a real influence. There was that famous election that Labour should have won and Kinnock should have been PM. The Sun had a headline on the front page on election day. "Would the last person leaving Britain turn out the light" Their scathing criticism of Labour was seen as the main reason Labour narrowly lost.
The point of that trip down memory lane is to point out the way that the Sun became the best selling paper. Not because of the quality of its reporting, or even any excellence in the writing. It had two very appealing features. The nudity on page three and Templegate was a damn good tipster. It did not escape anyone that the Editor's opinion column was on page two.
I'm not suggesting a copy of the content, nudity does not have any shock appeal these days, but I am saying that there must be something appealing and engaging. There must be a reason to look, apart from the actual reporting. It's important to present what people want to see instead of what we want them to swallow. The potential is there, it just needs for it to happen.