The BBC and Wales’ information deficit

Daniel Evans says Wales is facing a serious problem with its media.

Wales has a serious problem with its media.

Of course, the UK as a whole is hardly a paragon in this regard, with its rabid tabloid press out to distort and manipulate at every turn.

Yet Wales suffers the unique problem of invisibility, of no information rather than distorted information – it’s difficult to say which is worse.

Welsh people simply don’t hear anything about Wales or Welsh politics. There is a glaring information deficit. Less than 5% of Welsh people read Welsh newspapers (unlike most nations, Wales has never had a truly ‘national’ daily newspaper) instead reading English papers which never mention Wales or Welsh politics. This is the same for television, with Welsh citizens overwhelmingly consuming English/’British’ news media which again never mentions Wales or the Welsh Assembly. The Welsh television news which exists is tiny. It consists of a Welsh supplement which follows the ‘proper’ BBC or ITV news. These segments are generally 15 minutes long in the afternoon, half an hour at 6, and 10 minutes at 10 PM. This short time scale means that these shows are almost always ‘roundups’ which have to cram in of a combination of assembly news- normally a 10 second talking head of a minister or expert (with the honourable mention of ITV’s Sharpend)- sport, local news, crime and so on. On top of this, wider issues of political economy have further weakened what little indigenous media exist in Wales. Wales three ‘major’ papers – The Western Mail, South Wales Echo (both South Wales) and Daily Post (North Wales) are owned by Trinity Mirror, a chief player in the reduction of journalism to listicles and clickbait. As a consequence, their content has become increasingly trivial and unconcerned with Welsh politics or culture.

The information deficit has an incredibly pernicious impact on Welsh society.

The general lack of coverage about the Welsh assembly or Welsh policy distinctiveness has led to a farcical situation whereby no one knows who does what, who is in charge of what, and so on.  In my own field of education research, for example, teachers have told me how they are frequently confronted by upset parents scared about changes to education, unaware that the changes they have seen on the news only apply to England.

This lack of information directly contributes to political disengagement and the uniquely low election turnout in Wales, as well as undermining the Assembly and devolution itself- devolution hasn’t really embedded in the public imagination because of a lack of awareness of the role it plays in everyday life.

Next, the lack of media coverage means a lack of scrutiny which reinforces the awful state of Welsh politics. Welsh politics continues to be so partisan and the Welsh government continues to underperform and contradict itself because they simply get an easy ride, as their failures either go unreported or unseen. A final corollary of this invisibility- it not just the news media: dramatic portrayals of Welsh life remain largely invisible in film, music and literature – is that it contributes to an extremely weak sense of national identity in Wales. The nation is a discursive construct, and we know who ‘we’ are through the media- through the constant, banal framing of ‘us’ as a nation through the news, drama, through seeing ‘people like us’ on the screen. In Wales the ‘we’ is not ‘we Welsh’ unless it comes to the 6 nations. The rest of the time ‘we’ refers to ‘the UK’ and ‘us British’.

There is, thankfully, an increasing realisation that this has to change.

BBC Wales

In the animated discussions about transforming Wales’ media landscape, the BBC has featured heavily. To understand the role the BBC can and will play in Wales’ future, it is first worth reflecting on the history and nature of the BBC as an institution in Wales.

The role of the BBC in Wales, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland, is complex and contradictory. Like the British state (and indeed Britishness) itself, which has always been flexible and accommodating to national minorities, the BBC has always had to balance its commitment to the Union and status quo with a strong commitment to Wales. The BBC first established establishing Welsh transmission in 1937. After pressure, BBC Wales Cymru was launched as a distinct service in 1964, moving to Cardiff permanently in 1967. The new service provided both Welsh language and English language broadcasting. This was followed in the 1970s by the establishment of BBC Radio Wales & BBC Radio Cymru.

Many nationalists in Wales view the BBC in simplistic terms, as an entity which simply pumps out ‘Britishness’ at the expense of Welshness. This is easy to sympathise with when one looks at the Olympics coverage (‘COME ON OUR BOYS’) and the twee nationalism of shows like Bake Off, amongst other things.

Thomas Hajkowski’s ‘The BBC and British national identity’ challenges the traditional assumption that the BBC simply pumped out state propaganda from London, arguing instead that the regional BBC offices were nearly autonomous from London, and developed a strong Welsh national culture. He argues that “in an era of local or provincial newspapers on the one hand, and a London or Hollywood dominated cinema on the other, the regional BBCs were the only truly ‘national’ media in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’, although this was later somewhat fractured by the advent of commercial broadcasting.

In other words, whilst the BBC has always been central to promoting a sense of Britishness, it has also simultaneously functioned in many ways as a de facto Welsh national broadcaster and has always had an influential role to play in shaping Wales’ imagined community (within the boundaries of the UK, of course), something which continues today. Indeed, such was the BBC’s ostensible sympathy for the Welsh language and ‘cultural issues’, the great Welsh Marxist Gwyn Williams once spoke of two rival ‘establishments’ within Wales: the formidable Labour party apparatus on one hand, and the ‘nation-conscious Welsh BBC’.

Yet pointing out the central role the BBC has played in recent Welsh history does not make the BBC a benevolent, neutral entity. Hegemony does not mean the absence of domination or the absence of a self-aggrandizing ruling class, but rather speaks of a “quality of rule on the part of particular ruling classes”. Raymond Williams tells us that the state will attempt to incorporate ‘harmless’ subaltern narratives and cultures – evident in the BBC’s recognition and co-optation of ‘cultural’ Welshness – but when this is not possible, threatening discourses will be “extirpated with extraordinary vigour”. So for example, whilst the BBC always recognised and helped promote the Welsh language, Hajkowski argues it did also attempted to marginalise  Welsh (and Scottish) political nationalism, which it saw as beyond the pale and a threat to the established order (for example by barring Plaid and the SNP from making political broadcasts until the 1960s).

This constant balancing act is why the BBC in Wales & Scotland is often accused of being nationalistic by Unionists, and Unionistic by nationalists.

The BBC and the devolved political

Devolution was meant to rejuvenate Wales, including its media. But just like all the other issues that devolution was meant to solve, the structural problems of the Welsh media have gotten worse, not better. The lack of any other Welsh media and the lack of interest in Wales from commercial television ultimately means that post-devolution Wales is now even more dependent on the BBC as a source of local news and affairs than other part of the UK. BBC Wales remains the most watched Welsh news outlet. The BBC Wales news website is where the majority of people get their online news about Wales. The BBC continues to reflect the realities of devolution better than its commercial rivals, although as Stewart Lee puts it, this is a bit like being the world’s tallest dwarf, and the BBC’s Welsh political coverage has been criticised for lacking substance. The BBC’s ‘lift and shift’ policy (where it is obliged to have a certain production outside London) has made it a significant employer in Wales, producing the likes of Dr Who, Torchwood etc., (although of course these are basically English shows made in Wales).

Despite this centrality to the Welsh ‘public sphere’, the BBC’s Welsh outputs have declined steeply in quality and quantity in recent years: Welsh language output has fallen by 15% since 2006/7; English language Welsh programmes have been impacted by a 32% cut in spending. In other words, the BBC, Wales’ only beacon of hope, is failing to accurately represent Wales.

How do you solve this problem? One huge obstacle is that media policy and broadcasting are not devolved to Wales,  meaning that the Welsh government doesn’t have the tools to sort the information deficit out. More worryingly, as with so many other things, the Welsh government also does not really seem interested in equipping itself to deal with the problem. Academics and other experts working on the Welsh media have passionately called for media policy and broadcasting to be devolved, only to be met with resistance or fatalism from the Welsh government. The weaknesses of the Welsh devolution settlement- constantly having to ask for permission to do something- have, over time, produced an institutional culture of helplessness and impotence which permeates everything the Welsh government does. Its first instinct always seems to be to assume that something is not possible –‘we couldn’t do that’- to fundamentally misunderstand that the function of government is to legislate and rule. A cynic might also say that the Welsh government simply enjoys the lack of responsibility and scrutiny, and is therefore not serious about wanting to change a situation which suits it very well.

Wales’ lack of power over broadcasting means that the relationship between the Welsh government and the BBC has to occur via Whitehall and the Secretary of State, normally through the timeless Welsh tradition of establishing committees, which then make recommendations which are sent to Westminster. This is basically a form of lobbying, except The Welsh government doesn’t have any political leverage (bizarrely, numerous Welsh Labour leaders seem to think Wales’ reluctance to rock the boat represents a negotiating strategy in itself, and have claimed Wales’ political docility should be rewarded with greater crumbs from the top table. The reality, of course, is that their timidity means that Wales is simply easy to ignore).

These Welsh ‘demands’ are complicated further by the wider political context in which the BBC operates. The BBC as a whole is undoubtedly under threat. It is faced with severe cuts from a Tory government that is itching to privatise the BBC (like everything else), as well as paradoxically attempting to erode the institution’s independence from government, (reflecting the twin pillars of Thatcherism). So the weak Welsh government is making demands of an organization which is already overstretched. This is why BBC representatives have implied that in this environment, increasing services to Wales would mean diverting resources from elsewhere.

The demands from Wales on the BBC have belatedly become somewhat more urgent and aggressive. The latest Enquiry into the BBC Charter Review writes:

“it is incumbent on the BBC to ensure that its output reflects the diversity of Welsh life and culture. It is in this regard that we believe the BBC has fallen short of its obligations…. The significant decline in the BBC’s investment in English-language programming over the last ten years has resulted in fewer hours of Wales specific programming and a schedule that has failed to capture and explore adequately the lives and experiences of Welsh communities, as well as the changing political landscape post-devolution. Further, this decline in investment has been more severe in Wales than the other nations of the UK.  Whilst the BBC Executive has publicly acknowledged these shortcomings for some time, it seems to have done little to address them.

Moreover, after pressure from Welsh civil society, the Welsh government has called for an extra 30 million to be spent by the BBC on English language programming to better reflect Welsh culture. However, experts in the same report also correctly note that the timidity of the Welsh Government is an obstacle to radical reform, stating “a number of witnesses questioned what political pressure would be brought to bear by the Welsh Government if this additional £30 million funding was not forthcoming”.

The BBC draft charter and Wales- problems solved?

From this milieu, a draft of the latest BBC charter (the BBC’s rolling constitution) has emerged, complete with updates which impact on Wales. Most noticeably, Wales will now have a non-executive representative on the BBC’s new unitary board. The BBC is also now to be made accountable to the Assembly for its Welsh output, which will be quantified and scrutinised by the Assembly and Ofcom.

These changes have predictably been portrayed as radical but  there are significant caveats. Money is still a very big issue. The demand that more programmes being made in Wales is problematic, for these will not necessarily be Welsh in content. What counts as distinctly Welsh programming? If more English language shows are actually made, what aspects of modern Welsh life will be reflected? (I suspect more focus on the valleys at the expense of everyone else).

At best, these new measures are stopping the rot, but hardly progress. It is difficult to foresee an actual increase in the BBC’s Welsh political coverage. In all likelihood, BBC Wales’ politics and Welsh news coverage will remain a ‘round up’ after the ‘proper’ news.

The Future

The struggle over the Welsh media and the begging letters to the BBC sums up the failures of Welsh devolution. Twenty years on, Wales remains powerless and dependent.

So long as Wales remains in the UK, and as long as the British state remains interested in keeping Wales on side, BBC Wales will always provide some concessionary coverage to Wales and will remain the main pillar of Welsh broadcasting. The only issue will be about the amount and quality of this provision, which will alternate depending on who is in government: like the civil service, the BBC tends to absorb and reflect the ideologies and hegemonic strategies of whichever government is in power in Westminster, and some are more inclined to pursue strategies of consent than others. But so long as the BBC also remains committed to the Union, Wales and Scotland will never be provided any more than the absolute minimum, for the simple reason that this might, in the words of John Bird, ‘foster separatist tendencies.’

The people of Wales should be asking themselves: is this is good enough?

All this is about democracy. The idea of the ‘public sphere’ is thrown around a lot these days. It simply refers to an idealized image of a democratic society whereby all citizens are involved in the decision making process. It is about political participation and the belief that the public can be a check against the state and abuses of power. This requires a politically educated public, and this is facilitated by an accessible and open flow of information.

When Wales voted for devolution in 1997, these high minded ideals were prominent, but have sadly faded from view as Welsh expectations have successfully been managed downwards.

Like all dependent peripheral nations, Wales is basically used to change coming from the top, rather than from the bottom- everything is always sorted out by someone else. Changing this culture of dependency is perhaps the most important step in achieving a Welsh public sphere: instead of waiting for small concessions to be granted by the BBC, or trusting our incompetent government to sort this out for us (they won’t), the future for the Welsh public sphere lies in exploring innovative non-statist alternative media forms, a la Scotland . We also have to realise that the public sphere goes beyond just ‘the media’ but also depends on the contribution of Universities, schools and civil society, and that ultimately we all have a part to play in creating it.

Dr Daniel Evans is a sociologist working on education, Welsh devolution, Gramsci, class, placeand other issues. He works for the Welsh Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods (WISERD) and the University of Cardiff. This article was first published on openDemocracy:

13 thoughts on “The BBC and Wales’ information deficit

  1. “pumps out Britishness”

    Errr…. doesn’t S4C get north of £80 million a year to pump out Welshness and barely a soul watches it! True I don’t like some of the nauseating aspects of the BBC either…. but god help us all if we’re forced to watch 24/7 Mabinogion readings and sheep dog trials!

    It’s not like Welsh media doesn’t exist… it does, you described it in your article. However, its a curious Welsh nationalist mindset that seems to think that when something is optional and not taken up, the solution is to remove the option and enforce it.

  2. The problem isn’t the media, the problem is the delusional vociferous minority (on and off the taxpayer funded payroll) pretending that Wales is a country while simultaneously and studiously ignoring the ~£15 billion per annum of English taxpayers’ money which keeps many of them in the style to which they have regrettably become accustomed!

    Most people can’t be arsed to take part in exposing or fighting this delusion and the damage it is clearly doing so they simply ignore it – they don’t read Welsh media, they don’t watch Welsh TV, they ignore the Welsh language, and they don’t often vote in local or regional elections but they might turn out in a general election. Functionally they are still British but logistically they still suffer from the decline of nearly everything that matters in their lives since devolution.

    As far as content goes, far too much in the Welsh media comes from vested interest overt or covert Welsh nationalist sources – Plaid and Llafur plus their collection of payroll henchmen in academia and other politically unaccountable sources like NGOs. The 4th estate should be holding these bodies to account with rigorous investigative journalism but it does the exact opposite most of the time by retailing third rate and biased material without question as cut-and-paste propaganda.

    When I complained about the obvious political bias in his newspapers, a senior Trinity Mirror editor agreed and told me they “print what they are given” and that is mainly the kind of pro Plaid, pro Llafur, pro Welsh language, pro red-green environmental material which makes the Welsh media so intolerable to read/watch for so many people. It is up to the politicians and other people with opposing views to get organised and make the same amount of effort to get their messages into usable press releases and to make sure they give journalists the same access to tame rent-a-quote sources. Then the Welsh media might, at least, become credible because it isn’t now…

  3. Of course the BBC’s Welsh political reporting lacks substance – there is very little of substance to talk about/report on in Wales. A little Assembly hot air here and there, but not much more than that. If there were a supply, there would be a conduit.

    The lack of commercial interest is simply the market at work.

    As for reporting on ‘modern Welsh life’ – what?

  4. Brilliant analysis! Exactly highlights to “timidity” of Welsh Labour and the Unionist Agenda of the BBC! The failure of Welsh government to publicise its works and achievements to the Welsh public! Shocking statistic less tha 5% of People in Wal s read read Welsh press.
    Carwyn is in Norway, a nation of just 5Million, perhaps he will bring back a blueprint of their press activities? We need to devolved media!

  5. Very well argued and set out. It is, as you say, ENTIRELY a matter of democracy – and the distinct lack of it in our benighted little country. The lack of awareness of ourselves as a collection of communities is what accounts for the disengagement from the political process, and the lack of accountability of political power.

    People did, in June last year, feel a surge of frustration and gave vent to it – but that was entirely in the context of Westminster politics. The arguments simply did not stand up in a Welsh context – but most voters did not have access to that analysis. Whatever people think about the outcome of that vote, the Welsh Government have belatedly awoken to the fact that they need to act to save jobs and shore up a consistent approach to quality of life here – but it is being done in a rather eerie vacuum of comment or agitation. Its a case of too little too late – with the damage being done when the politicos were sitting back (almost) unchallenged in comfortable silence up until 2016.

    The Republic of Ireland supports publicly funded and commercial tv and radio channels, and a host of daily and weekly periodicals, with a population only slightly larger than Wales. The comparison may not be exactly like for like for geographical and historical reasons, but there is an equivalence, and our failure (pace S. Bytts) to grasp the connection between discourse and power is really puzzling. Listen to RTE Radio 1 ( now and again to make the comparison.

    The 19th century in Wales was another matter entirely, with a very lively press in a rapidly changing society, and a strong social awareness as a result. The culture of dependency – fostered by the majority of Welsh politicians since then, it has to be said – has made us immature and adolescent. We need to have again that internal discussion that thriving media would bring. Its up to us, is it not?

  6. Very enjoyable read.

    There is lots of coverage of Welsh politics out there as this article lists. Could it be better? Easily. Would this make a positive difference to how the public understand and engage with devolution? Impossible to say with certainty.

    Does our TV lack Welshness or just people from Wales on it? Have we defined Welshness and/or Britishness yet? Is there a difference? Does it matter?

  7. “The idea of the ‘public sphere’ is thrown around a lot these days. It simply refers to an idealized image of a democratic society whereby all citizens are involved in the decision making process. It is about political participation and the belief that the public can be a check against the state and abuses of power. This requires a politically educated public, and this is facilitated by an accessible and open flow of information.”

    We shouldn’t just focus on the media as being the cause of a democratic deficit: at my secondary modern school we had time to be taught social and economic history to A level; had a thriving debating society; visited council meetings – after lessons about who-did-what; had school parliaments at election times – divided on strong political lines; we were encouraged to read reports of parliament – verbatim those days in the qualities; participate in the young people’s United Nations; etc etc.

    Political parties, the churches, youth clubs as well as schools, all played their part in ensuring that a substantial part of society had at least some understanding of the democratic structure and how to influence it. That knowledge hardly exists today, and rather than moan about the BBC and Trinity Mirror political parties should accept that they have to get on a do the educating.

    And what ever happened to the Workers’ Education Association ……..?

  8. “The Public Sphere… …requires a politically educated public, and this is facilitated by an accessible and open flow of information.” Agreed, but this information should be impartial and not coloured by nationalistic leanings (which seem to be detectable in your writing).

    “When Wales voted for devolution in 1997…” – just, by 0.6%, “…these high minded ideals were prominent, but have sadly faded from view as Welsh expectations have successfully been managed downwards.” Do you have any evidence that Welsh expectations (already low as demonstrated by the referendum result) were actively managed downwards, and if so by who?

    “Like all dependent peripheral nations, Wales is basically used to change coming from the top”. Such leading language and please provide examples of other “dependent peripheral nations” that you can demonstrate have the same expectations.

    To paraphrase Seamor above – you can’t just force a nationalistic view on people if they have already been offered options (local newspapers now printed and edited in England due to poor sales, TV and radios stations that failed commercially) and rejected them.

  9. My curious Welsh nationalist mindset is very interested in constitutional documents. Because the UK specialises in smoke and mirrors including the monarchy (does it have power or doesn’t it?), Brexit (does a government parrotting “Brexit means Brexit” have a policy or doesn’t it?) and appeals to a love of tea, cricket and and glorious memories of WWII. The UK hates constitutional things things that are in writing and enforceable in a Court. Me, I like them because they are more honest.
    The BBC has a constitutional document ie its written Charter Public Purpose number 4 which includes “The BBC should bring people together for shared experiences and help contribute to the social cohesion and wellbeing of the United Kingdom.” So there is no doubt where the BBC will stand when the chips are down eg a Scottish Referendum or a Brexit mess. The BBC will get the UK wagons in a circle and and rally us round that flag, no not the Ddraig Goch or the Saltire. We know this, surely.
    From a nation’s point of view, Dr.Daniel Evans is right. It must come from the people up, not top-down. And yes, the apathy of the Welsh in the face of a £15bn pa deficit, flaccid Assembly, economy based on a “Welfare Union” funded via a Block Grant is truly and deeply depressing. And what must come from the people up is a desire to change things. Does Seamor Bytts want to change things for the better? It is hard to tell. On the one hand he’s in the IWA so he must be interested in improving Wales. But on the other he expresses such morbid cynicism and has no action to propose.
    Well this Welshman wants to see more grass-roots Welsh media. Because nothing else will get the Welsh off their knees and rebuilding their country. I want a new voter-built Constitution for Wales please that I can read and teach my grandchildren and enforce in a Court. No more Sewel Conventions please. Offers of help to me via the IWA please. Diolch.

  10. The fact that this (very good) article was first published in openDemocracy and not here, implies that the author felt that he would receive more coverage and wider readership than anywhere in the Welsh media. In fact, I did read it first in openDemocracy.
    My question is that no matter how many ‘initiatives’ or attempts to get Welsh flavoured ‘grass roots’ media off the ground, will the younger generation see or look at it? Young people are not watching broadcast TV (with the possible exception of sport), certainly not newspapers or periodicals. This is pretty obvious to anyone with children.
    It is the Internet – websites, blogs, social media and Youtube. The ‘old’ media has been disintermediated by Twitter. Trump has shown comprehensively that ‘politics’ can be done by Tweets. Politicians don’t need ‘briefing’ by experts anymore or have to give press conferences – they can just tweet whatever comes into their heads . The ‘holding to account’ role for the Media and its Commentariat that previously existed has died in this ‘untruth’ world we now seem to inhabit.
    Personally, I have not bought or looked at a print newspaper or magazine (er..apart from Trout Fisherman) for a decade. In the last year or so I have hardly switched the expensive 52″ widescreen TV on (except for Bake off) and am a bit annoyed at having to fork out £150 odd quid for my TV licence. I have not watched any ITV channel or S4C for over five years. I get my ‘news’ (sic) on my ‘smart’ phone or computer(s) and do most of my ‘communication’ by email and text. I admit to having social media accounts. I get my entertainment from the likes of Netflix, Amazon. My entire retail shopping is done online. I don’t think I am alone in these ‘media consumption’ habits – in fact, I think I am now becoming ‘typical’ – and yes I am a ‘wrinkly’ or an ‘old fart’ if you must.
    Does it all mean I am suffering from an ‘information deficit’? Or that I don’t care about my fellow Welsh people and their predicaments or wish to vote for or against some issue? Maybe so. I don’t know. You see, Trump has told me, personally, that I can say and think anything I like now.

  11. This is second attempt,and hopefully it meets standard needed for ‘publication’. In a free society people are allowed (within the law) to do what they wish,and clearly the purchase of media outlets comes within that activity,so if BBC Wales/CYMRU,S4C aint being watched/listened to its the people’s fault???. The sheer fact is that to many welsh people the life in general,over the border is of more interest that welsh life,particularly as BBC Wales has been captured by an exclusive ‘elite’ whose politics/attitudes are thrust down the throats of the non-believers,and hence the turn off!!.Why am I subject to welsh language useage on ENGLISH language channels and the ‘propaganda’ about performance of all things welsh!!. The coverage of welsh rugby is a national disgrace with is a)lack of objectivity,b)bias,c)old pals ‘filling their boots etc etc,and less said about paying for S4C the better.Looking forward to tonights news when it appears that Westminster will ‘outline’ approval for major energy development in Swansea,whereas our Assembly seems unable to move anything forward,except ‘welshification’ at a pace.

  12. The Bellweather: Does it all mean I am suffering from an ‘information deficit’? Or that I don’t care about my fellow Welsh people and their predicaments or wish to vote for or against some issue?

    Do you want an answer? It’s yes.

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