Around the Welsh media in five sessions

It was just one day – but it covered a lot of ground.  In the first session, Claire Enders took us on an exhilarating, and at times disturbing, canter through what the data tells us.  Odd that the closest the day came to getting us into campaigning mode was in a session given by a London-based analyst. But Enders is no ordinary number cruncher. First, her data descended on us all like a shroud: people under 45 NEVER buy books, they use online far more than TV, and many are getting their news via social media sites. Time spent by people under 45 with traditional media is massively down and will never recover. “If you have no income, no power, why bother?  Remember that there was a 44% turnout at the referendum among young people.  We are dispossessing them.” Her data-studded account of the dire state of traditional media in Wales, as elsewhere, tolled like a bell throughout the day.

But she wouldn’t let us wallow in the awfulness of it all: she reminded us that Wales at least has the benefit of predictable and decent income flows for broadcasting, and she put some fire in our bellies with her rousing call to defend the right of PSB broadcasters to reach niche audiences, “otherwise we don’t have a Britain”.  And if we don’t defend that right to the hilt “against the crazies coming over the hill”, there will certainly be no Welsh language, no Gaelic. Indeed.

The BBC’s Director of Content Charlotte Moore, interviewed by Jane McCloskey, was engaging and positive, saying the things we all wanted to hear about the importance of nurturing new Welsh talent, finding new voices and telling strong stories., The recent announcement of £8m new money for BBC Wales English language TV and a £2m portrayal fund for BBC TV creating a glimpse of what someone described as “sunnier uplands” ahead.  She urged us not to be cynical about the BBC’s intentions. But it’s hard to break the habits of a lifetime; Wales has grown used to hearing BBC executives promising more network TV portrayal.  Tony Hall has been promising change for a good few years now, and one of Ms Moore’s predecessors as Director of Television, Jana Bennett, made a rousing speech in Cardiff as long ago as 2009 saying that the metropolitan bias of BBC television had to stop. It didn’t. With new “portrayal targets” (do we know exactly what they are?) in place, as the song goes “Maybe this time?”

The impact of digital on news and journalism in particular was a theme throughout the day, but was tackled head on in the session headlined Will professional journalism survive in Wales?  The grim headlines told us the jury is out on that question – print in apparently terminal decline (though not quite in nosedive formation), young people more interested in popular culture than in finding out what the powerful are up to, Wales Online getting big numbers, but with visits to the site pretty short-lived.  

Both ITV and BBC Wales are struggling with the same challenges here: what does a traditional news organisation do when its audiences have been online and already know the news that it is about to give them?  BBC Wales’s Garmon Rhys said they were looking at cutting the story count and putting more resource into original journalism. Community journalism may be on the rise in places like Wrexham and Port Talbot, but that can’t take the place of the sort of rigorous, challenging reporting holding the powerful to account at a national level which Guto Harri says Wales lacks.  By way of having a really good dig at what he saw as the somewhat supine state of Welsh journalism, he said: “If I’m an aspiring politician, I’d see Wales as a good place to be.  Welsh journalism isn’t rigorous or in your face enough to remind the public what they are voting for.”

The tiny number of Welsh newspaper titles, declining budgets in print and broadcast news, and the relentless 24 hour pressure to “repeat,repeat, repeat” (to use Enders’ phrase), are all contributing to the shortage of so-called “forensic journalism” in Wales as elsewhere.

Not far below the surface of this conversation was a growing appetite, amongst some in the room at least, to see the broadcast news tenets of balance and impartiality given a good shake. The argument goes that the Referendum coverage across all news organisations failed to flush out the fundamental issues at stake, thus demonstrating that those basic journalistic values are no longer fit for purpose. I found myself thinking we need in Wales a regular forum which would allow journalists and media leaders to talk openly about the challenges they face, to argue and voice concerns – as BAFTA does for TV programme makers and executives.

With so much doom and gloom around, it was surprising to hear that it’s not over yet for print.  Rumours of its death in the UK are exaggerated. We still have the highest print penetration in Europe, and Claire Enders is confident that older people will still be reading them in 2030. But their role is changing.  “People read papers not for news but for opinion. Strong opinionated voices are at a premium.”  That’s fine, but who is going to do the kind of investigations that The Guardian and Sunday Times built their reputation on?

The session on “a sustainable media workforce” had plenty of good news to talk about with the creative industries seeing spectacular growth in Wales in the last decade. But the elephant in the room (or rather the elephant that WASN’T in the room) was Creative Wales, recently launched by the Welsh Government to give strategic leadership to the creative industries, fostering the necessary skills development and building our reputation abroad. Also absent was anyone from the Welsh Government’s advisory panel on the sector.  Strange that the people shaping the national strategy hadn’t thought it worth turning up to a forum trying to shed light on the subject.

The final session – Welsh Language Media – dwelt quite a lot, and with understandable envy, on the nature of Basque and Catalan language media provision in Spain.  Ringing in everyone’s ears were Enders’s earlier remarks that if Wales were more interested in “separation” (as the Basques and Catalans are) it would get more investment.  The session lacked the kind of “wake-up call” data that we had seen about digital in Claire’s presentation, and, heaven knows, there is plenty of evidence that Welsh speakers aren’t drawn to Welsh content as much as they should be.

Looming over the whole day was the pervasive and unaccountable power wielded in Wales, as in the rest of the developed world, by the big digital players such as Google and Facebook.  Everyone wants them to be better regulated, or even regulated at all, and to pay for the professionally produced content which they scavenge from broadcasters and news organisations across the world.  But there wasn’t much of a sense of campaigning zeal on the matter. It could be that, on this subject, even the movers and shakers of the Welsh media feel a bit like those 20-somethings we talked about all day – dispossessed and powerless.

Clare Hudson has recently left BBC Cymru Wales, where she was head of productions, and is now a freelance executive producer

2 thoughts on “Around the Welsh media in five sessions

  1. Good summary. There seems to be a great deal of talking and no action. Can anyone start to redress the concerns expressed especially about journalism (or should that be churnalism)? Anyone? Is there anyone out there? Major Tom? Houston?
    I am shocked that, according to Ms.Enders, people under 45yrs NEVER buy print books! But do they still read? This may also apply to older people. People with declining vision read eBooks which are easier to see (larger font, backlit). The market is still there for ‘long’ reads – ‘Medium’ has shown that. Publishing and journalism is evolving not dying – the new paradigm just hasn’t reached us fully yet here in Wales. But it will.

  2. Good round-up from highly esteemed Clare Hudson – but unsurprising that there’s not much zeal at an event where seats cost around £180 (even if ‘early birds’ only half). Most shocking from this summary is the comment by Guto Harri that politicians get an easy ride in Wales. Shocking but not a surprise. Too often energy is wasted on ‘trolling’ (and ‘counter-trolling’) instead of asking and answering questions.
    Isn’t it the case that everyone in journalism must know that there’s little point trying to get to some sort of ‘truth’ when a ‘fake news’ tweet can go viral and a factual and informative news item may never see print.

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