Demise of the Lobby

Jocelyn Davies says the Welsh Government’s withdrawal from scrutiny by the media is undermining democracy

The changes that have occurred in Welsh Government over the past months have given rise to many questions. How would Labour deal with life governing alone? What would be the major priorities of a government with no majority? What would Labour do – and when? What affects would the budget cuts have on the future of Wales’ public services? I could go on.

Most of these major questions still hang unanswered over six months after the Labour government was formed. The inaction of most ministers has led to more frustration around whether this will be a government of any action rather than debate around the political merit of the action it takes.

However, the government’s response to such serious lingering questions has been to cut off one of the main means the media used to have of holding ministers to account, the weekly Lobby briefing.

The lobby briefing was not always the most comfortable platform for a Minister in the Welsh Government. Ministers would in turn have to front-up on a Tuesday morning in front of an audience of the nation’s political correspondents – collectively labelled ‘the Lobby’. The first task for the Minister was to set out the Welsh Government’s agenda for the week. However, the main challenge was to field questions from the journalists about any issue of the day or any aspect of the government’s work.

At times Ministers have been caught without enough information to be able to fully answer a question, which is understandable. But the real benefit for the Lobby was to be able to really scrutinise what the government was doing, and explore different ministers’ takes on some of the most significant and sensitive issues of the day.

Was it a difficult task? Yes. I sat there myself fielding some difficult questions – and it was by no means a walk in the park. But I did so in the knowledge that it was about allowing public scrutiny of the government’s work.

Here in Wales, general awareness of what our national government does from day to day is not as high as many of us would like. Certainly, it is not as high as it is in Westminster and elsewhere in the world, and certainly not as high as it should be in any democracy. Like other Ministers at the time, I recognised the importance of the briefing in giving real transparency and accountability to the work of the government.

The decision to cancel these important scrutiny sessions may not shake the foundations of Welsh democracy. I suppose that the Lobby briefing may have been more interesting to anoraks than to the average taxpayer and I certainly don’t claim that the issue competes with jobs, health, and education as the main concerns for the public. But it is important because it allows scrutiny of how the Welsh government deals with those very concerns.

So with the demise of the Lobby briefing the Welsh public has lost a serious tool of our democracy. It enabled a level of press scrutiny that allowed journalists to say to the public, “Yes, we put that question to a Welsh Government Minister on your behalf.”

Press scrutiny isn’t something which governments should treat like a door that can be open or closed as it sees fit. If that were the case governments could simply choose whether or not to allow the public to have the opportunity to pose questions on how their money is spent, and how their nation is run.

It may or may not be convenient at the moment for the current Welsh Government to shy away from public scrutiny and close down opportunities to question. But we must take a wider view.

Questions about whether this Labour government should shut down an important tool of scrutiny are fundamental to the nature of our democracy in Wales. Those in power should carefully consider the implications of their decision to go down this road.

In my view the only outcome will be to weaken the all-important link between people and government, as well as to further erode the general awareness of what the Welsh Government does. In a year that began with a resounding renewal of the mandate for devolution, it saddens me that its end will see the raising of the drawbridge of accountability which, in part at least, contributed to that earlier renewal of trust.

Jocelyn Davies is Plaid Cymru AM for South East Wales. She was Minister for Housing in the One Wales Labour / Plaid coalition government between 2007 and 2011.

10 thoughts on “Demise of the Lobby

  1. I had no idea that this had happened and am shocked that this has not had any serious coverage until now. The first thing you have to ask now is what do Labour have to hide? There maybe nothing, but such actions hardly discourage cynicism.
    I would hope that after the budget is ratified next month, that Carwyn re-visits this decision. After all, how can Labour bemoan the state of the Welsh media, when one of the first actions they take in Government is to cut off opportunities for scrutiny of their actions, or lack of them as it would appear to be?

  2. An ending of the lobby system allied with a proposed shift to first past the post elections appears to suggest a profound distaste for being challenged by the public and the press. I hope both of these are a temporary abberation.

  3. What is Labour playing at? Their apparent disdain for the people they are meant to serve reminds me more of a Tory attitude than anything else.
    It’s ironic really when all Labour wants to do is sling mud at the Tories rather than getting things done here in Wales.
    Yesterday’s unemployment figures were really serious – and they are something that Labour as well as the Tories should be ashamed of.
    Let’s have some action instead of the same old tribal catfight that Labour and Tories appear to relish so much.

  4. Of course, the irony is, that nobody will know about this because of the lack of media. How very convenient for the Labour party.

  5. Of course the problem for Labour is that the media in Wales is small; too small to be diverse. The result of this is that the two largest news papers; The Daily Post in the North and the Western Mail in the South are both sycophantically Nationalist in outlook. Coupled to this, S4C, “The only Welsh Language Chanel in the World” is also dominated by “Culture and Language Nationalism” and BBC Wales is similarly dominated by Nationalists.

    I think that it is hypocritical for Jocelyn Davies to complain that Labour is less accountable because of the loss of the lobby….what she really means is that the Plaid dominated “Stick” to beat Labour with has been given less opportunity to do Plaid’s bidding.

    The press can be a valuable asset to Democracy or, like the Murdoch empire in the US or the Berlusconi empire in Italy, it can assist in the creation of a Democratic Totalitarianism.

  6. So where did you get the idea that Trinity Mirror papers were in any way anti-Labour? Don’t you remember the Welsh Mirror, Paul Starling and Labour’s efforts to control the media agenda? Are you living on another planet? What you are actually saying between the lines is that what there is left as Welsh media, is prepared to expose Labour when they spend 6 months in Government doing almost nothing, only for Labour to get rid of the media lobby in order to minimise the flak for it.

    Come on Sion, even the arch New Labour media bully Alistair Campbell could not keep a straight face and claim what you have done above.

  7. I guess that Sion makes Jocelyn Davies’ point even more strongly.
    Labour supporters time and again fail to realise that the tribalism that drives their politics is not shared by society as a whole. So when anybody says anything that is critical of Labour – they automatically become puppets of the Nationalists in Labour eyes.
    What underlies this is a lack of ability on Labour’s behalf to justify and defend their own actions. After all, how can you justify doing nothing for 6 months since the election? You can’t, so you simply try and shut up and hope nobody pays too much attention.
    This is cynical and damaging politics from Labour – but thank goodness that at least we have some news organisations left, and websites such as this one where these things can be exposed.

  8. And I suppose, Ian and Albert, that you are……… “Tribal” Nationalists? And hence the stance you take. Trinity Mirror may own the local press but the tone and politics of the paper is independent of that ownership.
    You, with the Plaid party line of “Carwyn has done nothing for six months”, want to see that viewpoint on the front page every day. Personally I would much rather see some settling down of policy and thorough hard work improving standards and outcomes.

  9. Sion,

    I want a broad and spirited Welsh media that scrutinises every party, including my own. Effective democracy does not function without it. Carwyn has in my opinion been extremely disappointing in the first 6 months, as very little policy has been decided. If they had a manifesto to act on, then why have they taken 6 months to repeat it. Why not hit the ground running?

    However, I hope that once a deal is done next month on the budget, Carwyn will have a plan B and act on it. With Labour having 30 seats out of 60, I for one want them to deliver. It may not be great for Plaid if they do, but will be great for Wales, which is the whole point, isn’t it?

    I am critical of Labour and Carwyn because since the end of One Wales, they have effectively stood still, which in politics means going back at a rate of knots. If the press are be happy to watch Wales wither on the vine, then Plaid is most certainly not.

  10. I am a little confused. While It is fascinating to hear that 100% of the press in Wales is pro Plaid. Any supporter of any one view will always assume the media is against their point of view. Anyway, you can hardly accuse the London-centred media which utterly dominates the political and public discourse in Wales of being the Plaid’s puppets, let alone in any way favourable to nationalistic thoughts in Wales.

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