Why responding to Covid-19 has been a challenge for Wales’ opposition parties – and our media too

 

Wales’ party leaders. Mark Drakeford. Picture by Christopher Jones / Alamy Stock Photo. Adam Price. Credit: Euan Cherry/WENN. Welsh Liberal Democrats leader Jane Dodds. Picture by Keith Edkins (CC BY-SA 4.0). Paul Davies. © Russell Hart/Alamy Live News.

Ifan Morgan Jones

Politico Daran Hill, always ready to challenge the Welsh political and media establishment, was keen to draw attention yesterday to what he saw as BBC Politics’ bias towards the Welsh Government.

This was echoed (or perhaps elaborated upon?) in an anonymous article on the Bubble website in which the author bemoaned what he or she saw as a wider bias across Wales’ media towards the Welsh Government:

“The problem with the mainstream media in Wales is that they seem to be so milky that they’ll publish anything that panders to what the Establishment wants. Yep, a clip of the First Minister discussing cheese will go viral.

“And yet there’s no word of what really matters to the people of Wales, and no challenge in the press. Of that press conference, there were half a dozen takeaways that the BBC could have used. And yet they chose cheese.”

On the one hand, one could simply interpret this as people who aren’t particularly keen on the Welsh Government (Bubble’s website was registered by a staffer for one of the Senedd’s numerous right-wing populist opposition parties) being a bit miffed that Welsh Labour are, at the moment, enjoying something of a resurgence in the public’s estimation.

And also, to be fair Drakeford’s now-famous cheese answer which caused this backlash from Daran Hill and Bubble didn’t actually come from a Welsh Government press conference.

It was just a funny clip taken by a BBC journalist from Mark Drakeford’s unscripted public question and answer session which went viral among the public because of the First Minister’s honestly quite remarkable and genuinely hilarious levels of excitement about cheese.

But there is a wider and fair point to be considered here which is whether the media in Wales have become uncritical cheerleaders of the Welsh Government’s approach to tackling Covid-19. And it is a question that every editor and journalist – including me – need to ask ourselves.

 

Accessible

And to be honest I think the answer is ‘no’. Quelle surprise, some may say, but let me explain. I certainly didn’t set up Nation.Cymru to cheerlead the Welsh Government – quite the opposite in fact, in that I thought they needed far more scrutiny.

I do however admit that the Welsh Government has received a level of news access and attention which would, in normal times, be problematic.

But what I think has happened is three things, a) The Welsh Government’s own comms have improved tenfold, b) Wales’ opposition parties have struggled to respond effectively to Covid-19.

And b) so much of what the Welsh Government have actually been saying has been in the public interest that journalists couldn’t not cover it.

Ironically Daran Hill may partly have himself to thank for a) in that his early complaints about the Welsh Government’s Covid-19 comms operation may have been something of a kick up their backside.

Since late March they have completely transformed the way they communicate with the press and public. After 20 years of being very, very hard to pin down for interviews, slow to answer press enquiries and generally uninterested in scrutiny they have gone from one extreme to another and become extremely accessible to both press and public and as a result, have attracted much more press interest than at any point since the early days of devolution.

This has, of course, happened out of necessity because it would have been completely impossible for them to impose different lockdown rules to the rest of the UK if the public didn’t understand that they were in charge of health and didn’t know what those rules were. But hopefully, this new openness will continue, beyond the days of the immediate Covid-19 pandemic.

Hymn sheet

In the meantime, however, it is fair to say that the opposition parties have had a hard time deciding on the best way to attack the Welsh Government.

I’m in a slightly different situation to most members of the public in that as a journalist I get information straight from the parties themselves rather than having it filtered through the BBC or ITV.

And the impression I have had is that they have been unusually muted in their criticism over the last two months or so and are biding their time until the Covid-19 pandemic settles down a little bit.

This failure to go for the Welsh Government’s jugular may not be entirely their fault as I’m not entirely sure, even with hindsight, what I would have done differently to them and what I would do differently if I were in their shoes today.

Plaid Cymru scored a couple of big hits in the early days of the pandemic, particularly on subjects such as cancelling the rugby, PPE and the UK Government’s apparent gazumping of the Welsh Government’s testing kits deal with Roche.

However as the pandemic has gone on opportunities to criticise the Welsh Government from Plaid Cymru’s point of view have become fewer and further between, particularly as Mark Drakeford has become more confident in diverting from the UK Government’s approach and more strident in his criticism of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

In fact, after a rather wobbly start, over the last two months or so he has acted largely exactly as a nationalist First Minister would have done. How does Plaid Cymru criticise someone singing from the same hymn sheet as Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon?

As a result, Plaid have been stuck largely resorting to calling for the Welsh Government to move faster on some issues such as setting a strategy for school reopenings and reaching testing capacity.

Important, no doubt, and all covered by the press but not the kind of earth-shattering criticism that might be enough to get them noticed with any frequency by a wider public.

Cruel rule

The Welsh Conservatives meanwhile have been in the difficult position of attempting to criticise the Welsh Government while also having the UK Government’s own record to defend.

As a result, they have largely stayed away from topics where the comparison might be unfavourable, such as excess deaths, and focused instead on criticising the Welsh Government’s reluctance to ease the lockdown.

The problem with this approach, of course, has been that the polls show that a majority of voters – even those in England – actually prefer the Welsh Government’s more cautious approach.

As a result, the Conservatives’ message has largely been targeted over social media at a more sympathetic audience rather than aimed in a more scattershot manner on news websites or over the airwaves where it could alienate some voters.

For instance, the ‘five-mile cruel rule’ has been endlessly mentioned on social media but only five times in the Conservatives’ press releases since May.

Interest

With just a year to go until the Senedd elections, both parties will be desperate to make ground and seeing a resurgent Labour dominating the news cycle will be extremely frustrating for them.

Just a few months ago the Welsh Conservatives were looking at a possible Senedd majority, and Adam Price’s appeal as the Mab Darogan may not survive a trouncing at the polls.

But there are still 11 months until the next election and that is a very long time in politics. Sometimes staying quiet and biding your time when you have little to say or when harsh criticism might alienate the public is the best strategy.

For instance, the Conservatives’ criticism of the Welsh Government’s slowness in easing the lockdown may garner more public support as the economic downturn begins to bite in a month or so.

However, in the meantime, journalists covering Welsh politics are faced with opposition parties staying relatively schtum while the Welsh Government has an awful lot to say.

And an awful lot to say about issues of high public importance, too. Things journalists have to cover because they are in the public interest to know them.

Here at Nation.Cymru we’ve largely thrown concerns about giving all parties equal coverage out the window and focused instead on prioritising the information that would keep the public healthy and alive.

In such a situation it is perhaps not surprising that we and others may seem to be giving the party in charge of the pandemic response a lopsided amount of coverage over the others.

What matters, however, isn’t so much what happens in the depth of a pandemic but whether the balance is restored by the time of next year’s Senedd election.

No doubt in the months leading up to that historic and key vote, all parties will be keen and will be given a full opportunity to have their say.

Keep the criticism coming however, Daran Hills and Bubbles of this world – journalists need constructive scrutiny as much as politicians do.

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