Nordic values could help Welsh press

With Welsh newspapers in crisis Geraint Talfan Davies looks at the way other countries help their newspapers

Anyone watching the first episodes of the new Danish political thriller, Borgen (Government) on BBC Four will have been wondering whether the Adam Price, mentioned in the opening and closing credits was the Plaid Cymru Wunderkind, Adam Price. After all, the plot of the opening double-episode was all about multi-party post-election negotiations of the kind in which Price was involved after the 2007 Assembly elections.

Plaid activists who would have been happy to see Price on the short list for their current leadership contest and hope for his return from his American ivory tower, can rest assured that he has not gone into telly. The Danish Adam Price, who is the creator and lead writer for Borgen is an author and food writer on the Danish newspaper Politiken. I doubt whether he sought advice from his Welsh namesake.

In fact, if he were searching for advice from British politicians – not that he needed any – he would have been more likely to have gone to Lord Neil Kinnock, whose daughter-in-law, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, is Denmark’s Prime Minister. She was elected Denmark’s first ever woman Prime Minister on October 2011, a year after Borgen was screened on Danish TV – a case of life imitating art.

In one area of public affairs Wales might look to Denmark for advice – and that is in the way they support their own newspapers. Currently, a National Assembly Task and Finish Group is looking into the future of the media in Wales, and one area in which it is having difficulty in seeing a constructive way forward is the newspaper field. A previous Assembly inquiry into newspapers failed to come up with any recommendations that would make a serious difference.

At present in Denmark there is a lively debate on the future of newspaper subsidies. Such is the generosity of the current scheme that even some British newspapers circulating in Denmark are eligible for a slice, although in most cases the subsidies would not even buy a meal for four in some of better restaurants that Politiken’s food writer reviews.

The Times will get £350, The Independent £325, and USA Today £350. The Guardian will do a bit better with £795, and the Financial Times will do best of all, receiving no less than £78,500. According to industry watcher, Newspaper Innovation, current debate – not unexpectedly in the present climate – centres on whether to continue subsidising non-Danish newspapers, and even indigenous freesheets.  In total 59 newspapers circulating in Denmark will receive £38.8 million, with eight newspapers, including Politiken, getting £2.1 million (€2.6 million).

Newspaper subsidies are the norm in Nordic countries, although they are increasingly controversial, with some commentators arguing that they have not stemmed circulation decline or stopped closures. For instance, The Guardian recently reported that Jyllands-Posten and Politiken, the two leading broadsheets, had lost more than half their readers in the last 14 years. A few weeks ago the European Commission told the Swedish government to lower the ceilings on their subsidies to the larger Swedish newspapers to avoid distorting competition.

More surprising, is the fact that newspapers in the United States also receive significant subsidies, mostly indirect through discounted rates for newspaper mailing, and tax breaks, mainly at the individual state level. Two years ago it was calculated that postal subsidies to US newspapers amounted to $270 million a year, but the total subsidy to commercial newspapers – including federal, state and local government, postal discounts and printing of public notices – amounted to more than $1 billion.

A decade ago it was estimated that public notices accounted for between 5 and 10 per cent of US newspaper revenues, but since then governments at all levels have been tempted to switch to the web to save money. Currently, Welsh Government is threatening to end the present obligation on local councils to advertise traffic orders in newspapers, in order to fund free blue parking badges for disabled people. This would take a seven figure sum out of newspaper revenues in Wales. Even Ken Skates AM, who is chairing the Assembly’s inquiry in the future of the media is worried. Reportedly, the Scottish Government withdrew a similar plan last year after a campaign by employers and unions.

In the current economic and political climate in Britain, it is difficult to foresee any resort to direct subsidy of newspapers, although continuing with printing public notices will remain of material assistance to Welsh newspapers. More limited, but practical recommendations have come from the Media Standards Trust, in evidence to the House of Lords inquiry into the future of investigative journalism, evidence which has also been sent to the Assembly Task and Finish Group.

Much of this is based on research that the Trust has done in the Neath Part Talbot area, in partnership with the Journalism School at Cardiff University and the European Social Fund. Some of this work was reported in the current issue of the IWA’s journal, Agenda, in an article by Rachel Howells, who is leading the research.

In its evidence the Trust says that it concentrated on Port Talbot because, in its own words, “Port Talbot is almost a news black hole”:

“The Port Talbot Guardian closed in 2009. Since then no newspaper has been established to replace it. The only news about Port Talbot is a small number of articles published in the South Wales Evening Post. There are no broadcast journalists based in Port Talbot. The local commercial radio station does no news gathering. Even the local council newspaper – Community Spirit – closed down in 2011.”

The Trust argues that most local newspapers “are no longer properly able to fulfil their functions as public interest news providers or democratic watchdogs” because of declining circulations and revenues. The ownership model of most newspapers – public companies – means that they have to continue to be as profitable as possible despite declining revenue, the only result being continuous cost-cutting, and a declining journalistic resource. Yet the Trust also points to the irony that new technologies mean that the opportunities for providing local news could not be greater.

The Trust says that there is no easy solution. It dismisses the notion of local television as an alternative, but has another preferred route:

“The DCMS local television plan proposes spending £25 million on temporary GIS transmitters to enable up to 65 UK locations to broadcast local TV, subsidised by £15 million from BBC funds over three years. The plan is technologically myopic, economically unsustainable, highly unimaginative, and will do almost nothing to address the underlying local investigative news problem.

“Imagine for a moment if, instead of spending £25 million on GIS transmitters for local television – transmitters that will be redundant in only a few years time – that money was spent on innovation in information provision.

“The government could use these funds to set up a competition, similar to the highly successful Knight News Challenge in the US, for people to develop news and information services on a local level. Winners could receive anything from £10,000 to £250,000, depending on the type of project and service. Not only would this lead to enormous amounts of creative invention, there is a good chance it would help to answer the question of how to deal with the democratic deficit left by the decline in local news.”

In this way, it says, innovation could be nurtured, particularly in developing skills in the new area of ‘data journalism’ – techniques of dealing with information abundance as central government and local councils start to put more and more data online, not to mention the vast volumes of material coming on stream through Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The Media Standards Trust has been developing tools to do just this.

Another way of aiding public interest journalism would be to lower its cost. This could be done by such things as the live streaming of local council meetings and providing local government data in re-usable formats – all of which would improve coverage of local democracy. The threat of legal costs could be reduced by reforming our libel laws and extending protection for public interest journalism through public interest defences in the Official Secrets Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

It concludes:

“The question we therefore have to ask is: how much do we value the regular provision of public interest journalism? Enough to subsidise it? Enough to provide indirect fiscal incentives? Enough to provide better legal protection?

Without intervention, the provision of public interest news – i.e. regular investigations, especially at a local level – will become increasingly sporadic. At no point will it disappear, but it will be enormously variable. As a result we will lose the benefits of the Fourth Estate that we have, to an extent, taken for granted over the last century.”

The Assembly’s Task and Finish Group might ask whether Wales could be a pioneer in this field.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of the IWA and a Trustee of the Media Standards Trust.

Also within Politics and Policy