Dylan Moore says we must urgently recognise the public interest nature of our Welsh media, local and national.
The Media Priorities published by the IWA in 2021 laid four key recommendations at the door of the Welsh Government.
We want to see funding for public interest journalism. We want the Senedd committee with responsibility for communications to investigate the threat to our democracy posed by mis- and disinformation. We want our public service media to be accountable to the Senedd. And we want to see Wales’ thriving creative economy develop further, telling stories of Welsh life in all its diversity.
Despite the majority of powers relating to broadcasting being reserved to Westminster, there are many levers Welsh Government could pull to breathe life into our ailing Welsh media. But our democracy, which relies on the health of that media, is also far too important to leave to the government alone.
Now a new IWA project, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and running for a minimum of two years, will examine the relationship between Wales’ democracy, media, and wider creative industries.
The Institute of Welsh Affairs has been observing and commenting on the Welsh media for a long time.
We have a strong idea of our immediate priorities, as outlined above, but we also need pause, to think about how we might approach things differently this time around.
The Institute of Welsh Affairs has been observing and commenting on the Welsh media for a long time. We have a proud record of conducting comprehensive audits of Wales’ media landscape, producing rigorous analysis and making often copious recommendations for solutions.
We did so as long ago as 2008, when Facebook was just a year old and a young senator called Barack Obama was tapping into the new opportunity social media afforded politicians to connect with communities. Rhodri Morgan was First Minister, Gordon Brown was resident in Downing Street. Back then, the world was still coming to terms with the Information Age.
Now discourse around information is often preceded with the prefixes ‘mis’ and ‘dis’. Threats to democracy have proliferated. Obama’s unlikely successor is banned from Twitter. Covid has shone a light on Welsh governance like never before. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates how even war is foreshadowed online.
In their joint-authored introduction to the 2015 IWA Media Audit, Angela Graham and Lee Waters wrote: ‘At a time when Wales as a democratic entity has never been more clearly defined, the sources for debate and scrutiny about our Government, culture and identity are drying up.’
Since then, of course, we’ve seen the launch of Nation.Cymru (2017), Voice.Wales (2019) and The National Wales (2021). And the collapse of many local papers has been partially mitigated by a brave new breed of hyperlocals. Caerphilly Observer was launched in 2009, wrexham.com and Cwmbran Life in 2011, deeside.com in 2014.
Across Wales, good people are doing good things – desperately trying to plug the long-identified democratic deficit. But in a world of Netflix and Amazon, TikTok and Instagram, what chance do they have to cut through the noise?
Similarly, positive steps made in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement have seen a raft of schemes aimed at diversifying newsrooms and roles across the creative industries so that our media better reflects our society. The Books Council of Wales, who part-fund the welsh agenda, recently announced the recipients of specific funding for innovation in this area, with more to follow.
Organisations like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have also altered the storytelling landscape, aiming to ‘report on inequality and the communities, institutions and services… harmed, ignored and under-represented… by making our journalism open, inclusive and human-centred from start to finish.’
What you see on your news feed might be completely different – the opposite, even – of what your neighbour sees.
This new project from the IWA shares with the Bureau a desire to ‘collaborate, co-create and share space, resources and experience with active members of a community – journalists, storytellers, experts and engaged citizens… harness[ing] data and evidence and us[ing] innovative techniques to find and tell stories so they are accessible for everyone.’
My first month in post coordinating this work has consisted primarily of meetings with those who have worked on this territory for years, if not decades. More than a few have pointed out that what we’re saying now is what we’ve been saying for a long time.
But these discussions have also thrown up many new and interesting questions, posed in different ways and from different perspectives, but boiling down to this: how can we engage the Welsh public in Welsh public affairs?
I think it’s time we turned the question over.
‘We’ should not be the focus of the question if what we mean by ‘we’ is a political and media class locked into a cyclical habit of talking to and about ourselves, perpetually ‘reaching out’ to ‘engage’ underrepresented groups without considering that the supposedly ‘hard to reach’ are actually the vast majority of ordinary Welsh people, who understandably go about their lives that are not focused on thinking about the sources from which they derive information.
Welsh people still predominantly turn to UK-wide sources for their news, with The Daily Mail and The Sun the only traditional newspapers with a sizeable chunk of the total audience share. BBC Radio 2 is by far the most popular station. The most common news sources used by Welsh citizens remain the big broadcasters – BBC One, ITV Wales and Sky News – along with tech behemoth Meta (both Facebook and Instagram are in the top five news sources used by Welsh people).
Outside of these mass audience sources of news, the picture is more fragmented than ever. And as in the digital world, so in the physical.
The pandemic has sped up social processes whereby people are increasingly siloed. What you see on your news feed might be completely different – the opposite, even – of what your neighbour sees. And that has grave consequences for democracy.
So we want to do things differently this time. We want to work with everyone who has a stake in Welsh society, and by that we really do mean everyone.
Robust debate and agenda-setting research.
Support Wales’ leading independent think tank.
We will be working with a range of partners – kickstarting conversations, and joining some positive ones that are already happening. We will not be seeking to duplicate the work of others, but working collaboratively to assess where we can, as Wales’ leading independent think tank, add value.
Underpinning the whole project will be our unique independence, and our power and desire to bring people together; not only a wide range of stakeholders and experts, but diverse audiences too – from the margins to the mainstream, from television to TikTok, from the tables where decisions are made to kitchen tables throughout the land.
To this end we are already working with the Open University on a project to set up a Citizens Assembly, allowing a cross-section of people from throughout Wales to discuss how the news in all its current forms both helps and hinders our understanding of democratic structures and processes.
We have also signed up with The Democracy Box, and will be regularly sharing host duties at The Talking Shop at Castle Arcade in Cardiff – and if funding allows, at other locations throughout the country – meeting people to talk about what’s important to them.
And leveraging our own titles across print and online, the welsh agenda will continue to play its part in developing a more innovative and inclusive Welsh media. Look out for our forthcoming partnerships with Aberystwyth’s photography festival The Eye and Africa Welsh News, as well with Wales PEN Cymru and others.
We want to ensure that the voices of all Wales’ citizens are heard, so if you have an idea about how we can collaborate, then please – get in touch.
One thing we won’t be doing is labouring old arguments. There are many conclusions to draw from the previous work of the IWA, and recommendations from ageing reports that remain unimplemented.
What sort of public service media do we want and need?
We think the case has been made for the intervention of the public purse in public service journalism. We don’t just welcome the fact that Creative Wales is chairing a working group to improve the communication and coordination of action on issues relating to the journalism sector in Wales, we are already involved in it.
We also think that whatever the challenges, our public service media organisations must be formally accountable to the Senedd. Devolving at least some responsibility for broadcasting goes hand in hand with our maturing democratic institutions. We therefore welcome the announcement of the expert panel on the devolution of broadcasting, and urge a slowly but surely approach to make sure Wales gets it right.
Now is the time to move conversations forward, and to take them to places they have never been before.
There are big questions to answer. What sort of public service media do we want and need? How do we fund new services? Can we find a mechanism to fund journalists directly? Could local news services be redefined as community assets?
How can we support the Welsh media ecosystem – with clear routes for new entrants, and ongoing training opportunities for journalists, and people in various roles right across the creative industries? How can we ensure our media better represents our society? How do we secure better pay and conditions for these key workers in our democracy?
How do we ensure reach and impact for public interest content? How do we protect and preserve it? What do we want from portrayal of Wales on screen?
Rather than lamenting what’s past or bemoaning the present, we need to embrace – fully and enthusiastically – the future.
We concur with the spirit of the working group commissioned by the Scottish Government to look at how public interest journalism might be afforded a sustainable future there.
In Wales too, we need ‘a reliable supply of accessible, trusted information, [to enhance] democratic accountability at all levels, [bind] communities together and [represent] all groups in… society, including those that have not had a strong voice in the media.’
The very existence of our country is predicated on a rich culture that holds in the very highest esteem the role of beirdd a chantorion. Poets, singers and storytellers of all kinds are central to our collective sense of identity and nationhood. And in our modern, plural, diverse society we need stories that tell us about ourselves.
Who we are. Where we’ve come from. Where we’re going.
In a society saturated by it, we can sometimes forget that at its most basic level the media is simply how we speak to each other. When we talk about television and radio, newspapers and magazines, websites and apps, what we’re really talking about is our public square – the places we come together.
And when something as big and as important as our public square is broken, it is up to all of us in society – not just politicians or those of us working in the Welsh media sphere – to play our own part in fixing it.
If you would like to contribute to discussion about Wales’ media, or to be involved in the IWA’s Media and Democracy project in any way, please contact [email protected]