Derek Jones discovers that we only hit the headlines of the London press with a disaster or scandal
In a recent clickonwales (23rd September) George Reid complained that Wales had only two ‘bit’ newspapers, by which I presume he meant the Western Mail and the Daily Post. He compared the paucity of the Welsh press unfavourably with Scotland, which boasts eight daily papers which focus ‘constantly’ on the work of the Scottish parliament.
In a newspaper world where the four nations of the UK were accorded equal treatment Wales might expect that some of the gaps in news and analysis, for which many of us are hungry, might be filled by serious newspapers, such as The Guardian, The Times, and The Independent, which have a UK-wide circulation.
Unfortunately this is far from being the case, to judge by a survey of stories and features in The Guardian, which I carried out during September. It was as if, for example, the Welsh Government did not exist – it had not a single mention during the whole month. Scotland fared rather better, Alex Salmond is adept at ‘making news. However, by no means did Scotland receive the coverage which its politics and the size of its population would merit. As might have been expected, England had by far the most extensive coverage, with, I need hardly add, London far outstripping the English regions.
It was a bad start to the month for Wales. Its only mention on the 1st September was a throwaway diary piece by Stephen Bates who, commenting on rumours that Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, might soon be retiring, suggested that he might decide to become an anchorite ‘clinging to a small rock off the coast of Wales’. Mildly amusing, no doubt – Rowan Williams is Welsh, and has a monastic appearance – but the joke would have been be better appreciated if it had been accompanied by hard news and serious comment on Welsh affairs.
That England had some serious coverage that day was entirely justified. The Guardian reported that white, working class pupils were under-represented in the newly established English Free Schools, and made the first of several references to Basildon Council’s determination to evict Travellers from Dale Farm. Meanwhile, for Scotland the paper reported on a last minute deal to save the Edinburgh trams project, which was massively overspent, a subject which had caused considerable controversy not only in the Scottish capital, but in the Scottish Parliament itself.
On the following day (2 September) it was reported that Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the UK Coalition Government, had warned that, in his opinion, an independent Scotland “would have one of the highest deficits in Europe”. Whatever the merits of his argument, here at least was The Guardian taking seriously a live political argument in a UK nation. On the other hand, on the same day, England was accorded six mentions, including a claim that house ownership would drop to 63 per cent of all households.
Little thanks to the Guardian, but it did include, during the following week, a letter from John Owen of Caerphilly. He was responding to a piece by Simon Jenkins, who had, characteristically, suggested that “if we fail to preserve our heritage, we’ll soon have nothing left but ghosts”, making a few references to Welsh sites. John Owen wrote to say that Wales needed “jobs not nostalgia”. It was, I suppose, better than nothing.
On 6th September, The Guardian, or one of its stringers, had spotted Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, on a bus in Newtown. Momentous news! To be fair, England references on that day were mostly confined to crime, but among them, the paper reported that a member of the English (sic) Defence League had been arrested for breaching his bail.
Out of town shopping is clearly a matter of UK-wide concern, and a map published on 8th September showed that Wales had 14.9 per cent shop vacancy rates, with Newport above the Welsh average, at 16.3 per cent. The map ran out at the Scottish border, although the previous day an important, and essentially related report in Society Guardian had shown that public spending cuts were being introduced more slowly in Scotland than in the rest of the UK. Predictably, Welsh Government policy on this matter went unmentioned.
Perhaps inevitably, the Guardian leapt on the Salmond’s government’s aggressive approach to discussion of Scotland’s future (within or outside the UK) in a report on 9th September that 15 bills had been unveiled “in a drive for independence”. Gutsy Wales’ policy to introduce higher rates of property and local business tax than England or Scotland did not suggest to Simon Jenkins (again), or The Guardian, that Wales might have parallel aspirations to a change in status.
Elsewhere in the same issue, an enquiry by the Westminster government into the ‘West Lothian question’ was announced. Whatever the merits, for and against, the argument on whether Welsh and Scottish MPs should be ‘allowed’ to vote on legislation affecting only England, one was bound to smile that, for once, England was feeling hard done by. The following day, Jeremy Paxman’s review of Jenkins, new book, A Short History of England, contained the following lines which have a ring of truth:
“If and when the point comes when Scotland and Wales decide that they have had enough of the whole thing, and vote for independence, the English will shrug their shoulders and go back to their DIY, their gardens and their car boot sales. They will react as if watching the divorce of a couple of well liked friends: a bit sorry, but recognising there is nothing to be done about it”.
Was it perhaps a Freudian slip, or just carelessness that the subs did not spot a howler in the report on the 2011 Manser Medal awarded by the Royal Institute of British Architects? Ty Hedfan, Brecon, apparently means ‘hovering house’ in Welsh!
After a flurry of news and comment on status and nationalism, Wales fell out of the Guardian’s news for a couple of days before the mining disaster at Gleision Colliery (15th September). To be fair to The Guardian, the disaster was given full page coverage on one day and continuing short reports, including the funerals of the dead miners. So of course, would any self-respecting newspaper. It is, however, reasonable to argue that this very exception proved the rule. Wales gets decent column inches mostly when a disaster or a scandal occurs. It has, of course, had more than its fair share of the former, but, apparently, not too much of the latter…
In a letter on 20th September, The Guardian published a letter from Martin Barclay deploring a ‘sensationally mawkish’ piece about the tragedy by Jan Morris:
“The familiar litany of stock images is paraded and we are left a proud, but ultimately comical people in our bereavement… We will not stand for the demeaning stereotypes peddled by those outside Wales, who use us as the butt of some of their familiar prejudices… The Guardian should… reflect the reality of Wales as it is and not as some wish it to be”.
Barclay’s outrage was entirely justified. Morris’ piece should have been promptly spiked. That it was commissioned in the first place suggests that the paper is short of contributors with the ability to transmit images of a modern Wales, self-aware, thoughtful, having a sense of history which does not descend to out-of-date sentimentality.
That impression was confirmed by the fact that, once reports of Gleision had dried up, there was no mention of Wales at all for the rest of the month, apart from a sentence devoted to Welsh bishops who had given up their pay rise. During the same period space was devoted, amongst other English items, to:
- A vast gas field which would, if exploited, “turn Blackpool into Dallas-on-Sea, and to Cumbria’s nuclear waste” (was there no news of Welsh environmental challenges?; to
- Looming strikes by hospital staff and care providers in England – will Wales escape industrial action against cuts?
- The transformation of the notorious Park Hill flats in Sheffield – are there no examples of successful urban regeneration in Wales or Scotland worth highlighting?
Here my survey ended, but I cannot resist a mention of the Labour Party conference in early October, when, one day, The Guardian flagged the fact that Carwyn Jones would be speaking at a session on Welsh questions, but provided no report the following day of what he said, let alone of what Welsh questions were discussed.
On the other hand, fairness dictates that this month, on 10th-12th October, The Guardian partially redeemed itself with four pages of news and comment to Britain as a ‘Disunited Kingdom’, beginning with “an increasingly confident and independent-minded Scotland”, and the following day, “how the calls for Scottish independence are adding to pressure for more autonomy in Wales”.
Things are perhaps looking up, but, these analyses of the national question do not excuse the paper’s failure to report on day-to-day happenings in Wales. I have the strong impression that The Guardian has no stringers in Wales, and that nobody is deputed to follow the Welsh press or television. For Wales perhaps, read England.
For Welsh natives and English expatriates (like me, who has read The Guardian for 50 years), it is indeed the case that ‘no news’ – of Wales – is ‘bad news’.