The BBC and the election in Wales

Alan Trench says the BBC’s coverage has demonstrated the gulf between how politics is understood in London and the rest of the UK

It’s not easy to judge what sort of an election campaign the BBC has had as far as devolution matters are concerned. On one hand, they’ve found themselves in a very messy position regarding the ‘leaders’ debates, and omitting the SNP and Plaid Cymru from those. On that front, they tried to mirror the campaigns the parties themselves were running, and acted as if ‘the election’ was principally an English election and not of prime importance in Scotland and Wales too.

On the other hand, in the first few weeks they took pains to report Scottish and Welsh issues on the network pretty fully and fairly, with spots on some programmes like Radio 4′s ‘Today’ programme that often have ignored devolution or treated it in a patronising way.

That was so until Monday. Then we had, on ‘Newsnight’, the moment when Eurfyl ap Gwilym (Plaid Cymru’s economics adviser) took on Jeremy Paxman and showed that a tough and able but ill-briefed journalist is no match for someone who knows what he’s talking about on a complicated technical subject. Unsurprisingly, Plaid supporters have gone bananas about this, but more sober voices like Daran Hill of Wales Home have enjoyed it too. (Even the Daily Mail has noticed it, though mainly as it serves to run down Paxo.) I gather this has ‘gone viral’ in Wales, but those elsewhere may also enjoy it and not yet know about it. The YouTube video is here.

There is a serious point in this, beyond preparation (or not). Paxman clearly seems to think that the ‘normal’ or ‘fair’ way of allocating public spending should be that everyone gets the same – equal per capita funding. He doesn’t appear even to understand the concept of allocation of funds according to relative need, let alone accept that principle. One might add that this is a principle accepted without demur by politicians of all parties, and strongly endorsed not just by the non-party expert Holtham Commission but also the Lords Select Committee on the Barnett Formula, which had members from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties as well as eminent cross-benchers. Equity, in that sense, isn’t equality. The question of fiscal autonomy, with different parts of the UK having tax powers that mean significant variations in levels in public spending is an issue far beyond that.

If even a smart and generally informed person like Paxman doesn’t understand things that are so fundamental, it shows what a huge gulf in understanding there is between how politics is understood in London and what’s needed to make the UK as a whole work.

As well as Paxman on BBC2, there was a report about Wales by another senior BBC journalist, Allan Little, on BBC1′s Ten O’Clock News. As a foreign correspondent, I’ve always rated his work highly. But in Wales, he came out with an inaccurate and clichéd report betraying both ignorance of Wales and a lack of research for his own report, which ignored the sterling work done by BBC Wales’s correspondents and indeed polling evidence (notably the St David’s Day poll) commissioned by the Corporation itself. Tomorrow’s Wales have made a formal complaint to the BBC about it. Details of the complaint are available here, and the item itself is on the BBC iPlayer here, about 30 minutes in.

In the course of two short items, the BBC has managed to blow a large amount of the credibility it had regained after its very questionable decision about the leaders’ debates. It has a lot of work to do now. And goodness knows how it will handle the referendum, which differs from a UK election in key respects. For a UK election, at least there’s a playbook (even if the Beeb keep throwing it away).

This post originally appeared on Alan Trench’s blog Devolution Matters

Alan Trench is an academic associated with Edinburgh University and the Constitution Unit at University College London. He is constitutional adviser to Cymru Yfory/Tomorrow’s Wales.

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