How can devolved politics be more effectively communicated?

As part of our week-long focus on the media in Wales in the run up to the #iwamedia summit on 29 March, Stephen Cushion and Justin Lewis on how network news struggles with the political realities of devolution

In 1999 UK politics dramatically changed with the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Major areas of policy such as health and education have now been devolved, with distinct and different policy regimes across the four nations. But despite nearly two decades of devolution, surveys show people in Wales remain confused about where power resides. According to one survey, 43% of respondents thought health was the still the UK’s government responsibility.

In Wales, political devolution has manifestly not been accompanied by the devolution of news and information. There are, of course, important sources of news produced in Wales, such as the Western Mail, Wales online, Welsh news on BBC and ITV and a growing group of community news outlets. But, as our research shows, most people in Wales read newspapers produced in London (in particular The Daily Mail), or rely on UK network television news, such as BBC News at Ten.

The BBC Trust – the BBC’s former regulator – recognised the danger of this potential democratic deficit a decade ago. It commissioned us (at Cardiff’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies) to examine a wide range of BBC and commercial UK network news in 2007 to explore how far the nations were reflected in coverage and how accurate they were in communicating devolved politics.

We found a network news system that was often failing to come to terms with the new political   realities of devolution.  England overwhelmingly dominated coverage – a default setting for the UK as a whole – with a lack of clarity about devolved areas of responsibility. So, for example, not only were health and education news items dominated by stories about England, they often failed to mention that they only applied to England.

The BBC responded to this criticism (detailed in the King Report), and our 2009 follow up study found some notable improvements in BBC coverage, with more reporters covering Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and greater clarity in communicating the devolved relevance of policy issues. We found no such improvement on commercial network television news.

Devolved politics has, since then, became more politically charged, with different political parties running all four nations, with increasingly divergent policies across the UK. In 2015/2016 the BBC Trust asked us to see if the BBC’s coverage of devolved political issues had continued to improve. Overall, we found that progress on coverage of devolved issues had stalled – with small moves forward in some areas and steps backward in others.

The 2016 study found that geographical references to the location of devolved stories (usually in England) were at a higher level than our previous studies. However, England still dominated the news agenda, and these references were less likely to be explicit than in 2009.  Typically, stories would be located as being “in England” at the beginning of a news item, without any further explanation.

Explaining where power and responsibility lies in the UK

How far this is helpful to news audiences remains open to question. Given so many people are confused about where power and responsibility lies in Wales, it suggests audiences may need greater clarity in UK news reporting. To explore this further, we interviewed 15 people in Wales, showing them different news clips with implicit and explicit references to stories involving devolved issues. So, for example, during the junior doctors’ strike – which was only relevant to the English NHS – a BBC News at One item on November 4 used two implicit references to locate the story:

The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is offering junior doctors in England a rise in basic pay of 11%. It comes the day before they start receiving ballot papers for strike action over the government’s plans for seven day working. The basic pay rise is offset by other measures, including what constitutes unsociable hours and some doctors say they could still lose out. Mr Hunt is writing to all 50,000 junior doctors in England in a last ditch attempt to persuade them not to go on strike over the new contract (BBC News at One, November 4, 2015; emphasis added).

These implicit references were weakened by references to the Health Secretary and the government, with no indication, in this case, of their English jurisdiction.  After watching five similar stories with implicit references to England, most respondents – including those with an interest in politics – assumed that they must also apply to Wales. Indeed, one of the two people who did manage to catch these inferences admitted that this was because they had recently realised – quite late into this news story – that the junior doctors’ dispute only involved the English NHS (without being entirely clear why this was so).  

Only after watching a news item which explicitly stated that “the planned reforms will affect England.  The Welsh and Scottish Governments have opted not to change the current contact (BBC News at Six, November 6)” did most people, after further prompting, realise that the story did not apply to Wales. This left them with more questions than answers, and they expressed their frustration that they had been given so little explanation about the differences in policy between English and Welsh administrations. This was a small audience study, but it suggests implicit references are too subtle and cursory to alert people to the devolved relevance of stories.

The BBC may claim their new “Scottish nine” news bulletin on a bespoke BBC Scottish channel is a major step forward in addressing the democratic deficit of reporting the UK post-devolution. But not only does it do nothing for viewers in Wales, it allows network news broadcasters to pass the buck, absolving themselves of their responsibilities as British broadcasters. In doing so, viewers in England are also impoverished, as opportunities to compare and contrast different policies across the UK are repeatedly missed.


Editorial note: This is part of Click on Wales’ week-long focus on media issues.  The Media Policy Group of the Institute of Welsh Affairs is holding the third Cardiff Media Summit on 29th March and booking information can be found here

Stephen Cushion is a Reader and Justin Lewis is a Professor at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies

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