Why is Wales treated differently?

Bethan Jenkins asks if the public is being well enough informed by our media, and what impact that has on democratic decision making here in Wales.

The referendum may be over but the waters are far from calmed. Both sides are still effectively at each other’s throats if Facebook and Twitter is anything to go by, and the consequences of Brexit are now being played out across all political, economic and social walks of life.

It was important, therefore, to spend as much of the weekend speaking with those who didn’t vote in the same way as I did – those people who want out of the European Union. Not easy to do, given the heat of the debate, but important, not least because over half the people in Wales and in all of the UK don’t want to be part of the EU anymore.

The reasons I got were varied, from the vague “We want to take back control”, to rehearsed Leave arguments about immigration, to more considered replies about having given the EU some 40 years to deliver. This last point isn’t one I agree with. We seem to have reached the point where many people plump for doing away with the institution rather than changing its executive at the polls.

However, it is attitudes like this and others among those people who voted to leave that myself and the political class in Wales must confront. While the reasons varied, it remains an angry vote. A common theme throughout was of modern politics’ failure to deliver better lives for everyone.

That is a consideration for another piece, because it’s also worth focusing on an interesting if little remarked-upon anomaly in the result: why was it that Scotland voted overwhelmingly to Remain, while the similarly post-industrial South Wales Valleys voted for Leave?

No doubt this requires real research to arrive at a definitive answer, but we can talk in general terms by examining where Wales and Scotland differ. They both have a different constitutional settlement, and there is an argument that Scotland’s is more capable of delivering improvement for its people than Wales due to those additional powers. But then, time and again, research has shown that the devolution journey is not an abiding concern for the public, ranking somewhere below refuse collections and litter in our streets.

In a campaign dominated by whether there is enough to go around – because that’s what the migrant argument boils down to – the constitutional aspect certainly played no part in Wales.

Where Wales and Scotland differ significantly is in our media. Scotland has four national newspapers, and numerous regional dailies. The Daily Record, once Scotland’s biggest seller, has recently slipped behind The Scottish Sun. But here’s an interesting aspect: The Scottish Sun supports the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon’s government.

The difference between its coverage of Scottish affairs and that of its sister paper sold in Wales and England is like night and day. While The Sun mocks up the First Minister as Miley Cyrus, under the headline “Tartan Barmy”, its Scottish counterpart has her as Princess Leia above the words “Stur Wars: a new hope”.

While these two titles are owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, The Daily Record is part of Trinity Mirror. There’s no doubt that the parent company has subjected its Scottish title to the kind of cuts we have become well used to in its Welsh newspapers, but again the coverage is pro-SNP, and distinctively Scottish. Last Saturday’s paper, in the wake of Sturgeon floating a second independence referendum, splashed with “EU go, girl”.

Scottish papers – overwhelmingly for the Union – were credited with delivering a No vote when the issue last went to the people in 2014. With the Record now seemingly having taken the seismic step of swinging its support behind independence via a second referendum, will this prove to be a game changer in Scotland?

By contrast, there are no Welsh editions (let alone separate titles) of what used to be called the Fleet Street papers. Their coverage of the Assembly elections amounted to almost nothing. The argument that the Assembly simply is not “interesting” is not germane here. When I hear this claim from editors, I know that it isn’t based in any kind of research. Rather, its logic (such as it is) is down to a comparison – that the merits of spending millions on upgrading the Heads of the Valleys road for the good of the economy is unlikely to excite the public as much as the latest Z-list starlet stepping out for the night.

And yet this doesn’t seem to be a problem for the working class in Glasgow, or Catalunya, where readerships can comfortably digest their showbiz alongside serious debate about how money is spent on public services. So why is Wales treated differently, and why is it that two seemingly identical demographics voted in entirely different ways?

None of this considers the problems facing our own media, whose problems are well documented and deserve a separate look. But there are questions to ask around whether the public is being well enough informed by our media, and what impact that has on democratic decision making here in Wales.

I am sure that there are experts and media professors analysing the EU referendum result as we speak, and this should be one of the initial tasks of the newly announced Independent Media Forum for Wales by Welsh Government. We need to understand how people are consuming their media in the first instance, and how then we can create an indigenous Welsh media, potentially by supporting hyper local start-ups in a sustainable and viable way – which may not, incidentally, equate to Welsh Government direct funding, who may not wish to fund media outlets that will criticise and scrutinise them. Or potentially it could work the other way, whereby any media outlet directly funded by Government may not wish to bite the hand that feeds them.

What I do know is that we need to raise this issue to the top of the political agenda, and urgently so. If people are not consuming media about Wales, or about their lives and how Welsh political decisions directly affects them, then how can we ever seek to educate them and empower them to engage in debate about their own communities and people? If people see Nigel Farage on their screens more than they do the First Minister of Wales, is there any surprise then that many people I talked to on the doorstep believed that he was actually standing in the last Assembly elections?

We should all be concerned about the EU referendum result, especially given that we need to move forward now as a nation, and offer clear, radical leadership that will hold the Leave vote to account for the promises they made. Just how easy that will be when the media here is still so weak will be a mighty challenge, but one in which I – and others, I hope – will take up with gusto.

Bethan Jenkins is Plaid Cymru AM for South West Wales. She is also Chair of the Assembly'/s newly formed Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee.

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