Devolving broadcasting is the first step to building a more democratic Wales
“You could argue that Wales is an artefact created by Broadcasting.” So recalled the late historian John Davies.
As he argued in one of his finest academic works on the impact of television and radio on Wales, Broadcasting and the BBC in Wales, after it opened its Cardiff station in February 1923 the BBC emerged as the most significant institution for defining contemporary Welsh nationhood during the twentieth century. Particularly in the early days of radio programming, a regional broadcaster became a national institution.
Close to a century later, the BBC continues to dominate Welsh public life. You only need to arrive in our capital city by train to notice. What is the first thing you see as you leave Central Station? It’s not the Senedd, Cardiff Castle or even the Principality stadium, but BBC Cymru Wales’ new office. No broadcast or print outlet can compete with the might of the Welsh Modryb.
That is not to say either that the glossy new BBC Wales offices are a sign of a healthy media landscape. In reality, the current pandemic has accelerated what was a slow and painful decline of our nation’s print, radio and television journalism. Reach, Newsquest and BBC Cymru Wales have all announced job cuts this year. First minister Mark Drakeford told a press conference in July that this was a “threat” to democracy. Quite. But jobs have been lost anyway.
Of course, in the digital age many Welsh newspapers have struggled. The Western Mail, for example, has seen its print readership decline to around 10,000 (while its digital sister WalesOnline generates millions of monthly online hits with tabloid coverage). So in the absence of a substantial print media, the Welsh public have mostly consumed their news and information through the column inches of the Daily Mail more than local or regional papers. Nation Cymru, alongside some hyperlocal new media sites, may be a long-term alternative for Welsh news and analysis.
COVID-19 has brought us to a critical juncture for the future of the Welsh media, and has this week led to debates over what role it should play after the pandemic.
Throughout the crisis, the difference between Wales and Westminster has been communicated to the public through broadcasts by the first minister. It has been a significant period for the Welsh public, who have used the BBC and other Welsh media channels to understand that democracy is here to different to other parts of the UK.
The public would however be forgiven for a lack of understanding of who does what. London-based outlets have sought to stir up the ‘confusion’ caused by different rules and regulations across the UK. To the credit of some London-based publications, they have sought to cover different parts of the UK fairly with scant resources. But legacy issues of underreporting are hard to shake-off; new polling this week showed, for example, that showed that 40% of the people of Wales incorrectly thought that Plaid Cymru were in government in Wales between 2011 and 2016.
Most depressingly, the study from Cardiff University and YouGov also suggested that only 6% of the Welsh population read Welsh newspapers, while the corresponding figure for Scotland was 46%.
Thus, as the National Communications Council argued this week, we need “a real Welsh media” with the help of the Welsh Government. These members called for the full devolution of broadcasting powers to the Senedd and also a new media service for Wales.
I agree, but it seems the executives don’t. Earlier this year, devolving broadcasting powers was a matter that the heads of BBC Wales, ITV Wales and S4C were “neutral” on. It’s also not a position supported by administrations in Cardiff or London, but the Council want the Welsh government to ensure decisions are “made in Wales – and for Wales.” There is indeed an air of romanticism about such arguments.
Yet while devolving broadcasting powers will not solve the democratic deficit in Wales alone, it would certainly be a good first step. As the first minister said this week, the weakness of the Welsh media has always been a challenge when conveying the rules and responsibilities of devolved government. In the midst of further fractions with Westminster and the fall-out from Brexit, building a strong Welsh media is even more important to ensure transparency and robust scrutiny of our democratic structures.
For too long, we have lacked policy and perspective from UK media outlets on the situation in Wales. Besides, what healthy democracy lets its media become dominated by publications and organisations outside its own nation? Nobody is pretending that the problem facing the media in Wales is an easy fix – and devolving broadcasting powers is not the only solution – but at this critical time in our history ahead of the Senedd elections, it is obvious that such a move would help create an independent Welsh media that can facilitate democratic discussions in every corner of our nation.
Of course, no government should drive the creativity and innovation we need for a future media landscape in Wales; nor should it prop up every single newspaper or broadcaster either. But it can intervene when it needs to.
Campaigning for the devolution of broadcasting powers to the Senedd, therefore, would be a noble cause from the Welsh government. It would certainly be a good first step in creating a healthier Welsh democracy, and it needs to work with organisations such as the Council to develop a practical plan that is financially viable in order to rebuild an ailing Welsh media.
By doing so, there may be some hope for a new and more modern artefact – the one that we call Wales – to take on a different meaning in the years to come.