Rosemary Butler argues that Wales is facing a democratic deficit created by the failure of the press and media

October 11th, 2012

In 2008, Professor Anthony King, with the help of Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, laid bare the stark reality of the democratic deficit that faces the law-makers and policy-movers in Cardiff Bay because of the failures of much of our press and media. He told us that in 2007, the BBC’s network news bulletins at 6pm and 10pm spent more time covering the fate of Shambo, the bovine TB-infected sacred cow, than the outcome of the Assembly elections of that year, and subsequent coalition negotiations.

Moreover, the BBC’s local election coverage in that year did not deal with Wales in any way. As Professor King’s report said, “…of 37 BBC stories that dealt with devolved matters during the four weeks analysed… only one related to Wales”.

Tonight Anthony King will deliver the Royal Television Society lecture at the National Assembly’s Pierhead building in Cardiff Bay when he will revisit these issues.

In 2010 the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies School carried out some follow up work which revealed there has been a significant increase in the number of news items dedicated to the devolved nations on the BBC’s network news programmes. However, the report went on to say that these improvements were somewhat overshadowed by the continued problem of misleading and confusing coverage of devolved issues, such as health and education, where stories that only apply to England are reported as if they apply to the UK as a whole.

In my view, the most acute example of this, to date, has been the proposed health changes from the coalition government in Westminster. Time and again we saw reports on network news where only a passing mention was made to the fact that these proposals only applied in England.

In this I am not just singling out the BBC. Referring to the commercial broadcaster the School of Journalism report said, “…we found little evidence of enhanced or increased coverage of devolved issues” since Professor King’s original report in 2008.

In fact we have excellent news and political programming from BBC Wales and ITV Wales.  But sadly, when you look at viewing trends, with both channels’ flagship news programmes combined, at best they reach around a sixth of the population every night.

Moreover, the BBC’s ‘Delivering Quality First Agenda’ will see a cut to political programming on BBC Wales.  That is a cut to dedicated coverage of the National Assembly for Wales.

There is also continued uncertainty over ITV’s commitment to news in the regions and nations, with recent redundancies announced. There also seems hesitance, on their part, to support a Wales-only franchise, a move that I believe would put many of our minds at rest.

But the problem doesn’t only lie with broadcasting. Many Welsh people only read London-based newspapers that often don’t recognise the existence of Wales, let alone that it has its own law-making parliament with a very different and unique set of policy objectives.

Three out of our five daily Welsh newspapers rely on a wire service for their Assembly news from the Press Association – which has its own resource issues – because they don’t have a dedicated reporter stationed at the Senedd.

And when you take into account that the local/regional newspaper model is in severe difficulty with dwindling circulation figures, the simple question surely poses itself – how do the people of Wales find out about the fundamental policy differences and priorities that exist within our public services in Wales?

We have had three separate inquiries from Assembly Committees into this very issue. They have produced excellent reports with interesting solutions to the problems I have outlined above. Yet we continue to see network news coverage, on all channels, failing to address the challenges thrown up by devolution. We have an ever-decreasing newspaper sector in Wales that has a declining readership and no longer has the capacity to dedicate resources to the coverage of the Assembly.

This now needs to become the focus of a national conversation; a conversation that I hope will start at tonight’s lecture and which will be continued at a series of three sessions to be held in the Pierhead in the spring:

  • The first will look at the problem I have outlined in terms of the UK media.
  • The second session will ask whether this democratic deficit is a home-grown problem as a result of the crisis in the regional newspaper model.
  • The third will look at whether the new brand of localism – by that I mean the hyper local news sites and proposed new local TV stations – will be able to plug this democratic gap.

It’s clear to me that unless we can find the solution to this problem, it is unlikely that devolution in Wales will become the partnership between the people and the law-makers that we all envisaged on that historic morning in September 1997.

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Rosemary Butler AM is Presiding Officer of the National Assembly. Professor Anthony King will deliver the Royal Television Society lecture at 6pm at the Pierhead this evening.

13 Responses to:“Most of Wales cut off from National Assembly”

  1. David Lloyd Owen says:

    Local newspapers can help here. Ours (The Tivy-Side) covers all elections in some depth and has a monthly column from both our AM and MP. I do not know if this is the norm or the exception.

    Otherwise, the only real hope is in the production of more local editions of ‘London’ papers, especially as these migrate away from print to screen. I was rather amused to compare the reaction to the film ‘Michael Collins’ in the ‘English’ and ‘Irish’ editions of the Daily Mail. You would have not believed they came from the same newspaper.

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  2. John R. Walker says:

    Here we go again – another Welsh political insider who is unable or unwilling to understand that it is devolution that is the real problem so they continue to blame anybody and everybody else for the problem(s) they have created!

    You cannot expect the real world with real budgets (i.e. not bailed out of their incompetence on a permanent basis by billions of English taxpayers’ money) to set up a Welsh ‘parallel universe’ just to satisfy your own delusions of grandeur and self-importance.

    Get real or go!

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  3. Tom Beardshaw says:

    Incredible that we are facing such a crisis, at a time of the biggest democratic explosion in expressive media the world has seen. During the last Welsh election, we ran a project with the Assembly that recorded 10,000 tweets with the #senedd2011 hashtag, ie related to the politics of the election. Yes, if we see media through a 20th century lens, we are in trouble. In reality there are more people in Wales putting their opinions into the public domain than ever. Collecting, interpreting and engaging with public discourse as it appears in social media is clearly a key way forward for Welsh politicians and political parties. We must be careful not to cling onto old definitions of ‘media’ and the thinking that came with it.

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  4. Jacques Protic says:

    Nothing new here as we all know Wales does not have a single national newspaper and the regional newspapers are struggling to maintain solvency and not that long ago Plaid Cymru was advocating that the Welsh Government takes over the Trinity papers – the mind boggles!

    Welsh language papers virtually do not exist and their readership is perhaps worse than the number of viewers watching the S4C which with minor exceptions is regarded as ZERO (Less than 1,000 viewers at any one time) but huge public funding goes into the Welsh language media with no respite.

    What I am really trying to say when it comes to the commercial choices as in spending personal moneys or using ones own time as in recreation including box watching, people exercise their personal choices and buy products or watch, listen or read the media that appeal to them, therefore at least for now untouchable to the Welsh Governments Bilingual Nation policies and related dogma!

    Equally, watching or following Governmental proceedings (Westminster or Cardiff) is a minority pastime but at least in Westminster we have people with presence, capable of speaking their minds and being able to challenge effectively many issues and policies that they disagree with.

    In contrast the Welsh Government’s proceedings are dull and the Senedd is full of equally dull people that sometimes is painful to watch and even more painful to listen to. It’s beyond me to figure out how most of the AMs got elected as they have nothing to offer to Welsh people in intellectual terms or anything of substance that would really matter to Welsh people.

    Of course there are exceptions and the best example is Leanne Wood, she has the courage and the guts to speak her mind and whenever she is on the ‘podium’ she adds some brightness to the incredibly boring and expensive establishment.

    Leanne Wood would do probably a lot better for Wales that the closet nationalists such as Carwyn Jones but Leanne needs to drop the Plaid Cymru baggage first and accept that Wales is an integral part of the UK and that the English language is the first language of Wales.

    Then we have BBC and ITV Wales whose principal task and presence seems to be to manipulate the Welsh public into accepting Bilingual nation as any dissent from this view point is simply not tolerated within the two broadcasting organisations and if I am wrong I’d love to hear from anyone who may have viewed or listened to a program that challenges the Welsh Government on the Bilingual nation route and especially if there was ever any debate as to what this is about and for whose benefit?

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  5. Graham says:

    @TomBeardshaw
    “Collecting, interpreting and engaging with public discourse as it appears in social media is clearly a key way forward for Welsh politicians and political parties.”

    Hear, hear. And, perhaps most importantly, people who actually design and deliver public services!

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  6. comeoffit says:

    @Tombeardshaw

    With the greatest of respect, I’ve just done a #senedd search right now and 99% all of the tweets are from Welsh political think tanks (you’ll never have heard of) and AMs themselves. So I think that the claimed 10,000 tweets (many of which will be retweets) is hardly indicative of public involvement.

    So we’re being run by a government that only 25% of the population wanted in the first place (decided by the narrowest of margins, which in most democracies would have required a recount – 50.3% to 49.7% based on a low 50% turnout). Fast forward over a decade and it seems we’re as disinterested as ever with turnout for the last referendum (sold as a ‘tidying up exercise’) down to around a third of the electorate. Traditional Media coverage is dwindling. It hardly smacks of proper democracy to me!

    Much more must be done to engage the Welsh electorate! I’m happy to accept low turnout but with so many of the electorate not aware of just how much the Welsh Government has control over these days… it could be argued that the much higher turn out for UK General Elections is indication that people are uninformed and turning out on the wrong day.

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  7. Urien says:

    But how many AMs from Rosemary Butler’s Labour party refuse to give interviews on Welsh tv and radio? I’ve lost count.

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  8. Tredwyn says:

    Graham and Tom Beardshaw: for heaven’s sake do us a favour. Have you actually read this ‘public discourse’ and ‘tweets’ you talk about? For a collection of pig-ignorant, fact-free rehearsals of prejudice look no further. People on-line happily express views on subjects where they know nothing and don’t care to be informed. This blog affords plenty of examples and it is far, far better than most in the quality of contributions. In no sense is the intellectual vomit on social media a substitute for competent professional journalism where someone with background knowledge faithfully reports facts as he/she sees them. We are building an inverted pyramid of comment on a vanishingly small apex of information. We don’t have to view that through a “20th century lens” to be in trouble. We are in deep trouble anyway and the more we hear complacent tosh about it the deeper the trouble will be.

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  9. Howell Morgan says:

    For once I would agree with Rosemary Butler that the vast majority of Welsh people (I know) are ‘cut off’ from the Assembly and Welsh Government as they can see that it is a vanity project to appease the Nationalists and the ‘smart’ members of the Welsh political class of all persuasions. All Welsh people know about the Western Mail, and that it is supposed to be our NATIONAL NEWSPAPER, where in reality it is a rugby footbal magazine, and provincial paper of a not distinguished variety. The people choose not to buy it, even though now fully supporting of the nation building exercise, so before too long it will get finacial aid from the Welsh Government. BBC Wales is riddled with the supporters of the current settlement, with a huge over-representation of Welsh speakers, who in themselves are more supportive of the PROJECT, so the North Korean state television service is more ‘balanced’ in its coverage of its government. Being retired I occasionally watch the debates/coverage at the Senedd and quite frankly it’s pathetic, and should be prescribed for people who cannot get to sleep, and would reduce costs on the NHS. The BBC Wales programme AM/PM when covering Parliament is like watching Tondu Robbins as compared to the Liverpool standard of Andrew Neil and Politics Programme. Please do not blame us, or the media as the fault lies in the structure of the regional government as it doesn’t raise money directly/doesn’t have to balance a budget between raised income/expenditure and spews out thousands of rules/regulations that amount to very little effect, but has bodies between it and the electorate for the provision of services. The Ministers of the Crown are therfore protected, and can easily blame everybody else for inaction/poor performance. In conclusion the average standard of AM, though no doubt both worthy and honest does not spark any great excitement, as if they were ‘top class’, they wouldn’t want to be there in the first place. This power, without any real scrutiny/interest is unsustainable and with 20 years we will have to decide whether wish to stay in UK, and get rid of our regional body or seperate and then look forward to land flowing with milk and honey, for the chosen few at least!

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  10. Jon Jones says:

    Do you know what… democracy is over-rated. Democracy for small groups of people (Wales is a small group) is a recipe for innaction and national atrophy.

    Take our local ward; 456 people voted in our council election. The winner polled 255 votes and his single opponent polled 201. Within weeks of the election a housing proposal was put forward to build 30 new dwellings on the outskirts of the village. Peole who lived close by formed a committee to oppose this and a meeting in the village hall drew about 30 people including of course our local councillor and his recent fellow candidate.

    What happened? What was bound to happen? Both the Councillor and his opponent HAD to come out against the housing develpoment. Simple maths demanded that there should be no support for the housing development… 30 votes could lose the seat at the next election.

    I watch this farce year after year, all over the County, and I imagine it’s the same all over Wales. Small parishes, 22 Councils and an Assembly ruling party that is never so secure that it can take neccessary but unpopular decisions. The Democratic Deficit is not the absence of Media but the crippling cowardice of the media we have and the politicians we have.

    I have never read any “Tweets” but I imagine that, as Tredwyn says, they are akin to bird droppings. They may fertilise the ground but grow nothing of substance. Few sites are like this one… allowing some space to express reasoned thought, but what ever comes of those contributions? Nothing of course… why would anyone count the small number of contributors as of any importance?

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  11. tredwyn says:

    Democracy is overrated. The difficulty, as many have observed, is that everything else tried up to now has been worse. I don’t claim that an informative mass medium in itself would solve the problems of Welsh democracy but I do think it is a necessary part of any improvement. I don’t know how we get such a thing.

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  12. Dewi says:

    “Most of Wales cut off from National Assembly”. How true. One solution would be devolution, i.e. the establishment of a North Wales Assembly. The Senedd in Cardiff is geographically remote from the people in the north – and not just geographically remote.

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  13. Garry W. Gibbs says:

    I THINK there may be something significant in the fact that Rosemary Butler is given a picture by-line and ample space to air her concerns about press coverage of the Welsh Assembly in the Western Mail (page 21, 11-10-2012) in the very fact that she is accorded the privilege.
    I have noticed columns by former first minister Rhodri Morgan appearing regularly too and have begun to wonder how many of the writing staff are now based in the rarefied environment at the Senedd rather than at the grubbier Park Street.
    When our political decision makers and not the journalists become key figures in setting the editorial agenda we really are in big trouble and this was brought home to me effectively in the presiding officer’s column. It is also regularly brought home to me, literally, when I receive a copy of Newport Matters, a Newport City Council free “news” sheet, through my door.
    Rosemary Butler’s point about a “national conversation” is patronising and condescending and the “democratic deficit” which she refers to is something which in my opinion is specious and far more likely to energise political policy makers, party apparatchiks and public relations executives than the public at large.
    Robust, independent news investigations and exposes into unfairness and injustice are hugely costly but they will always address any “democratic deficit” best. Nick Davies in his book Flat Earth News has pointed out how public relations is being merged into news and how a depleted and demoralised journalistic workforce in mainstream media such as the provincial press now struggles to cover even basic things like the courts and councils and how huge numbers of public meetings now go unreported.
    The challenge now is to find a new dog with effective teeth to wag the tail, or tale, and the “new brand of localism” which the presiding officer refers to may have a significant part to play in that. Overwhelmingly though, the dog must not allow the tail to wag it.

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