Ignorance is bliss?

Sian Powell says the media’s lack of scrutiny in Wales is giving the Welsh Government an easy ride.

Only 48% of the Welsh public know that the Welsh Government runs the National Health Service in Wales.  Whose fault is that?  The politicians for being boring and uninteresting, or the media for not giving them a platform to communicate their policies?

This month Michael Gove and Theresa May publicly rowed over the policy to combat extremism in schools in England.  In the same month Alun Davies, the Welsh Government’s Natural Resources and Food Minister, is under investigation to determine whether his role as a constituency AM has conflicted with his position as a Minister.  While the first instance gained much press attention across a number of days resulting in an apology and the dismissal of an advisor, in comparison the latter hasn’t been widely discussed or analysed.  Does one deserve more attention than the other?  Or is the culture and differences surrounding the press and politics in Westminster and Cardiff Bay resulting in a lower level of scrutiny for our Welsh Government ministers?

The democratic deficit in Wales has been largely reported upon and the lack of coverage from any outlet other than the BBC is worrying.  The ease with which Welsh Government ministers can avoid interviews and therefore fail to be scrutinised or even make themselves visible to the public, is such that doing so could become a campaign strategy for the Labour party ahead of the Assembly election in two years’ time.

If we compare this with the culture of door stepping and dog with a bone attitude of the Westminster press pack you may begin to feel short changed that our politicians aren’t under siege when they seem to misuse their ministerial role and even allegedly appearing drunk in the chamber.  Wales Today did successfully door step both Alun Davies and Nick Ramsey, the Assembly Member accused of being ‘tired and emotional’ in Plenary, this week in an attempt to place both under pressure.  But where does the story go next?

It’s the lack of context surrounding Welsh politics that’s the problem, as highlighted by the worryingly low level of comprehension surrounding who runs the health service.  This is not about BBC bashing, the BBC is alone in Wales in having the resources to cover all the political coverage in Wales, and has a remit to do so.  However where’s the analysis and discussion on the decisions made by the Welsh Government that affect our health and education?  Who’s analysing the decisions taken by the Government and communicating this to the Welsh public?

The old excuses that it’s not interesting enough or that the politicians turn down interviews are becoming old.  Surely it’s not for the BBC to decide what’s important or interesting enough for the Welsh public to hear; it’s their job to make it interesting and relevant.  I sympathise with journalists in Wales for trying to fill the deficit in a world with a thousand channels and falling viewing figures.  However, surely with further powers set to be transferred from London to Cardiff there should be greater scrutiny and the BBC, as should all journalists in Wales, should ensure that our ministers are held to account and are made to be heard.

Sian Powell is studying a PhD into the role of the media during elections in Wales post-devolution. From September she will also be a lecturer at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies.

14 thoughts on “Ignorance is bliss?

  1. The Press (and Media) love a political scandal and we like reading about it. This is about the extent of ‘scrutiny’ that we are ever likely to get outside Westminster. Surely it is the role of competing political parties, not the Media, to scrutinise political, governmental decisions and the (mis)behaviour or (in)competence of ministers. They have the motive to do so since they will (presumably) be competing for election in a future administration and any chance to highlight and scrutinise the failings or direction of government will be taken and attempts to communicate this (via the Media) to the electorate made.
    As to the fact that few people know who ‘runs’ the NHS in Wales, a figure of 48% seems remarkably high. Anyway, the question is irrelevant and framed out of context. What people care about is not who is running the NHS (Westminster or Cardiff) but whether it is delivering an effective service which (by and large) it is (under the circumstances). I think if you ask people if they know where their local hospital is and what their experiences have been 99% will know and you will probably receive a ‘vocal’ response!

  2. I agree that there’s a big problem here, but I’d like to make a few points:

    I don’t believe it’s realistic to expect UK-wide media to report in detail what’s going on in Cardiff Bay. After all Wales makes up a very small part of the United Kingdom. These aren’t all public broadcasters and they will focus on the issues that affect the vast majority of their readers.

    If we want a media that is going to report on Welsh politics that media needs to be home-grown. On one hand we complain that there’s a media vacuum in Wales, and on the other we complain that we don’t get enough attention from the London based media. The solution would seem to be obvious, which is to fill the vacuum in Wales.

    There’s a danger we put too much blame on the media. This is an internet age and anyone who wants to find out about what’s going on in Cardiff Bay can do so quite easily. It takes a simple google search to find out who is responsible for health and other powers. The fact that people aren’t bothered to find out suggests a lack of interest.

    I’m not sure that the excuse that it’s not interesting enough’ is entirely without merit. The ‘consensual politics’ style of Cardiff Bay, and the proportional representation system used in the elections, may be fairer and more dignified but it doesn’t grab people’s attention. If a party loses a constituency seat they tend to get a list seat by way of compensation, and vice versa. There’s no real sense that an election will change the make-up of the Assembly in any radical way.

    I’ve suggested a solution to these problems in an article that will appear in the next edition of Barn – I’d better not discuss them here or the editor will regret including the article in the magazine!

  3. Certainly true in Llangollen & Dee Valley, newspapers and media run scared of politicians. If you express views showing a different opinion than a politician and contact the press they send it to the politicians to vet before publishing! So you find it’s published with the elected representatives comments usually dismissing you as “just another protester”.

  4. Another excellent common sense article via the IWA.
    Lets hope that the South Wales Echo and the Western Mail take this on board, thus ensuring that the people of Wales have the Government that they deserve.

    Also BBC Wales have some tremendous journalistic staff, when they eventually decide to ‘really’ hold Ministers to account, then you will see some changes.

  5. “in the next addition of Barn”

    Which raises another important point. There also seems to be an unbalanced amount of political coverage and/or scrutiny depending on whether or not you can speak Welsh. A ‘linguistic lottery’ we could call it. I’m not sure whether this is deliberate, but if it is then it’s proved an ingenious idea because keeping the majority in the dark has led to the nationalist agenda moving forward at a rate of knots. I suspect.

  6. The BBC and the Welsh Government are very close. Didn’t the head of their Assembly studio go off to work for them a few months back?

  7. Devolved administration and devolved media scrutiny require a devolved mindset on the part of the public. The evidence from low participation in the electoral processes, and the low level of political knowledge found in surveys, shows that most of the public in Wales couldn’t give a damn and that the devolution agenda is being driven by the snouts in the trough and a relatively small number of political and pressure group activists. Some of whom have become relatively big fish in a small pond and therefore disproportionately well covered by the media even though they are not particularly representative of public opinion – Welsh language activists and the Silk Commission come to mind…

    The snouts in the trough have failed dismally to scrutinise each other because their devolution project is more important to them than the people of Wales – the people they were elected to serve. The Wales based media has failed to scrutinise because far too many of the 4th estate are on first name terms with the snouts in the trough as well as being politically aligned with them…

    They have all loaded the dice with skewed surveys designed to prop up their ambitions – which has contributed to public apathy because hardly anybody believes any of them any more…

    It’s a circular pathway of failure driven by ‘greed’ and countenanced by apathy. After 15 years it is clearer than ever to me, and most people I talk in N. Wales, that we would be better off without an unnecessary, expensive, and confusing layer of additional ‘government’ in Wales with or without proper scrutiny by the 4th estate. When nearly all the players are seeking basically the same outcome then it becomes a matter of us and them. So those of us with no time for the political class in Wales also tend to have no time for the Wales media either. We lump them all together as the common enemy!

  8. UK tv (both news, current affairs and magazine programming) is simply not fit for purpose post-devolution: e.g…

    1. A BBC/ITV ‘UK’ news bulletin 5 or 6 times everyday, 50% of whose content relates only to domestic English politics vs. a BBC Wales news bulletin still officially obliged to report in the same way as BBC South East Kent – “a cat was rescued from a tree in Bargoed today”, etc.

    2. Add into that BBC News 24 simply replicating the ‘English’ domestic news agenda on a 24hr continuous loop. – the smallest incident, controversy, cock-up in English health, education, environment, culture, etc., will get three days non-stop coverage on News 24, the resignation of a Welsh minister for drowning kittens, nothing. BBC Parliament broadcasts the HofC and HofL live all day. The devolved parliaments, highlights late at night or at the weekend.

    3. There is no obligation on Channel 4, 5 or any other freeview channel to have any Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish content whatsoever. Their news and current affairs services are entirely London focused.

    4. Better not even think about subscription tv since most of the Sky news agenda, for example, is set in New York, never mind London or Cardiff. You would swear from watching Sky News that the UK had been incorporated into the USA as its 51st state… then again perhaps it has..?

    5. All of the current affairs and ‘magazine’ programming on all UK channels replicates and reinforces all of the above – when the One Show ventures into pieces of social interest it inevitably reports on the England-only situation, rarely, if ever, explaining that the situation is different elsewhere. Multiply this out by a hundred magazine, chat and current affairs shows of one type or another and you have blanket reporting of essentially ‘English’ life within the English system, overseen by English authorities.

    It’s not surprising that the 2.980m people in Wales who don’t read the Western Mail have no idea of the structures, polemics or issues within devolved domestic Welsh life. How could they know? The standard paradigm of multi-format mass communications by which they could reasonably expect to be informed of such things (since that is how the English [and every other modern society] are informed of important aspects of public life) tells them a completely different story. Can we expect the Welsh people to self-consciously transcend or bypass the interconnected system of communications in front of them and ‘find’ the truth on their own?

    Blaming it all on a lack of print media in Wales, or lack of coverage by Fleet St., is naïve and completely ignores the elephant in the room. The blame rests on the totality of tv coverage in the UK which overwhelming (and almost exclusively) focuses on a domestic English narrative. There will be no material change until this changes.

  9. I would say this wouldn’t I, but the Western Mail carries many pages of news and analysis every week about Welsh public services. And we broke the Alun Davies conflict of interest story, which incidentally the BBC only followed up when there was a Ministerial statement. The coverage is there for those who are interested. The fact that many aren’t is a reflection of the celebrity-obsessed society we inhabit.

  10. Sian does well to highlight a real problem but more “door stepping” is definitely not the solution: following what was said on another thread, it is the sort of thing that puts good people off public life.

    Indeed, part of the problem with public disengagement with politics in general is the media obsession with alleged personal transgression rather than policy.

    The public ignorance of who is responsible for health is just more evidence of how the media have failed in their duty to educate and inform. Ifan is right that the gerrymandered electoral system also works against proper democratic debate, but that does not excuse the media for their failure.

    The media need to scrutinise politics at all levels more actively and intelligently. Their role is not to entertain the voters but to engage them: once they are engaged, and informed, they will pay attention to current affairs without the need for ‘bells and whistles.’

    Much of the problem in Wales is due to the excessively deferential attitude of local media towards the Assembly. This is due to a combination of factors. First, most employed in the local media are active devolutionists or full-on nationalists, and are not inclined to attack their own sacred cow. Second, journalism in general has become very lazy, and it is quicker and cheaper to reprint the latest press release from the Assembly than to research and ask difficult questions. Third, the Assembly has the biggest PR machine, and practically a monopoly of ‘spin doctors,’ in Wales. Fourth, an ambitious journalist cannot afford to be ‘frozen out.’ Fear may be the biggest factor – Labour, like the Lannisters, always pay their debts.

  11. Comeoffit: “Which raises another important point. There also seems to be an unbalanced amount of political coverage and/or scrutiny depending on whether or not you can speak Welsh. A ‘linguistic lottery’ we could call it. I’m not sure whether this is deliberate, but if it is then it’s proved an ingenious idea because keeping the majority in the dark has led to the nationalist agenda moving forward at a rate of knots. I suspect.”

    Alas, there’s no Welsh nationalist plot to take over the country. We’re a remarkably stoic lot.

    However, you’re right that there’s an unbalanced amount of political coverage and/or scrutiny in one language. Apart from one or two monthly magazines, it’s all in English.

    (I would also argue that it can’t be a ‘linguistic lottery’ because that implies that it’s all down to chance, while a language can be learned by anyone.)

  12. There seems to be a lot of complaint/assumption that it is the Media and journalism that is to ‘blame’ for lack of scrutiny of government and that this should be their role in life…doh?! Since when have the Media ever assumed this role? The ‘third estate’ is there to earn a living for journalists and Media professionals and promote advertisers. Journalists whether print or media live in a world of Us and Us, with the us being the political class, the police and the public sector. They have to cohabit at the (very real) risk of being ‘frozen out’, as the commentator above points out (and which can be, has been and is easily done by the threat of withdrawal of advertising). Journalists (and their media proprietors) will only risk disturbing this cosiness or mutual dependency if there is a big enough story that warrants it and which the owners of the medium can afford to defend legally or replace any advertising revenue that might be lost thereby. This is not a Welsh problem but a trait of media everywhere.
    In Wales, there is (fortunately) very rarely a big enough ‘political’ story or issue to warrant risking a livelihood. There are plenty of other stories of car accidents, domestic abuse, social security abuse, cats up trees, routine crimes to keep the journos buzzing about claiming mileage allowances and scoffing their egg/sausage butties at road side cafes.
    I suppose it should be argued that the BBC already have the responsibility for this ( and it is in their charter) and that is true but the BBC will always have bigger fish to fry. It may be time, therefore, for S4C to grow some cojones? Of course there is always the ‘wild west’ of the bloggers, tweeters and chatterers and independents out there on the erm…world wide web? An iteration of eighteenth and nineteenth century pamphleteering?

  13. The coverage of political stories by the media both Welsh and UK is not the only contributor to a poor understanding of who is responsible for GIG (Welsh NHS).

    At the last general election both Conservative and Labour parties chose to campaign in Wales on the future of the Health Service. Effectively lumping together Wales’ GIG with the English NHS as though they were one and the same. You would think that Labour at least would have known that health was a devolved matter.

    The TV series Casualty, a drama about an English hospital, but filmed in Wales, incorporates story lines that are only relevant to the English NHS.

  14. Living out in Australia, there does seem to be more coverage of state level politics and issues more generally. It would be interesting to see the figures on understanding of the split political responsibility over here as a comparison. It does seem to be structured differently over here though, with news more focused on the state level with coverage of national/federal issues almost secondary rather than the other way around. I think the media back home, especially the BBC which is taxpayer funded could do more to take account of the post devolution settlement.

    But also there is an issue with how seriously the Welsh public take Welsh politics and the Welsh Assembly, and how much power they think it has to affect their lives. Most won’t really take that much notice until their is more notice taken at a UK level, and that will take more Welsh people in key political and media positions at a UK level (much like the Scots have done). And it doesn’t really matter their political persuasion as long as they take Wales seriously.

    We can’t force people to take an interest, but some more charismatic and intelligent politicians in the Assembly would also help, politicians more willing to rock the boat and challenge us to think. Wales always does what is expected of it i.e. votes Labour. That hasn’t really been newsworthy for about 100 years.

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