The BBC and Wales' information deficit

Wales suffers the unique problem of a lack of information, as opposed to misinformation. Welsh people need to explore alternative media forms to create a Welsh public sphere

Dan Evans
22 December 2016


Wales player Hal Robson-Kanu. Mike Egerton PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.Wales has a serious problem with its media.

Of course, the UK as a whole is hardly a paragon in this regard, with its rabid tabloid press out to distort and manipulate at every turn.

Yet Wales suffers the unique problem of invisibility, of no information rather than distorted information - it’s difficult to say which is worse.

Welsh people simply don’t hear anything about Wales or Welsh politics. There is a glaring information deficit. Less than 5% of Welsh people read Welsh newspapers (unlike most nations, Wales has never had a truly ‘national’ daily newspaper) instead reading English papers which never mention Wales or Welsh politics. This is the same for television, with Welsh citizens overwhelmingly consuming English/’British’ news media which again never mentions Wales or the Welsh Assembly. The Welsh television news which exists is tiny. It consists of a Welsh supplement which follows the ‘proper’ BBC or ITV news. These segments are generally 15 minutes long in the afternoon, half an hour at 6, and 10 minutes at 10 PM. This short time scale means that these shows are almost always ‘roundups’ which have to cram in of a combination of assembly news- normally a 10 second talking head of a minister or expert- sport, local news, crime and so on. On top of this, wider issues of political economy have further weakened what little indigenous media exist in Wales. Wales three ‘major’ papers - The Western Mail, South Wales Echo (both South Wales) and Daily Post (North Wales) are owned by Trinity Mirror, a chief player in the reduction of journalism to listicles and clickbait. As a consequence, their content has become increasingly trivial and unconcerned with Welsh politics or culture.

The information deficit has an incredibly pernicious impact on Welsh society.

The general lack of coverage about the Welsh assembly or Welsh policy distinctiveness has led to a farcical situation whereby no one knows who does what, who is in charge of what, and so on.  In my own field of education research, for example, teachers have told me how they are frequently confronted by upset parents scared about changes to education, unaware that the changes they have seen on the news only apply to England.

Wales suffers the unique problem of invisibility, of no information rather than distorted information.

This lack of information directly contributes to political disengagement and the uniquely low election turnout in Wales, as well as undermining the Assembly and devolution itself- devolution hasn’t really embedded in the public imagination because of a lack of awareness of the role it plays in everyday life.

Next, the lack of media coverage means a lack of scrutiny which reinforces the awful state of Welsh politics. Welsh politics continues to be so partisan and the Welsh government continues to underperform and contradict itself because they simply get an easy ride, as their failures either go unreported or unseen. A final corollary of this invisibility- it not just the news media: dramatic portrayals of Welsh life remain largely invisible in film, music and literature - is that it contributes to an extremely weak sense of national identity in Wales. The nation is a discursive construct, and we know who ‘we’ are through the media- through the constant, banal framing of ‘us’ as a nation through the news, drama, through seeing ‘people like us’ on the screen. In Wales the ‘we’ is not ‘we Welsh’ unless it comes to the 6 nations. The rest of the time ‘we’ refers to ‘the UK’ and ‘us British’.

There is, thankfully, an increasing realisation that this has to change.

BBC Wales

In the animated discussions about transforming Wales’ media landscape, the BBC has featured heavily. To understand the role the BBC can and will play in Wales’ future, it is first worth reflecting on the history and nature of the BBC as an institution in Wales.

The role of the BBC in Wales, as in Scotland and Northern Ireland, is complex and contradictory. Like the British state (and indeed Britishness) itself, which has always been flexible and accommodating to national minorities, the BBC has always had to balance its commitment to the Union and status quo with a strong commitment to Wales. The BBC first established establishing Welsh transmission in 1937. After pressure, BBC Wales Cymru was launched as a distinct service in 1964, moving to Cardiff permanently in 1967. The new service provided both Welsh language and English language broadcasting. This was followed in the 1970s by the establishment of BBC Radio Wales & BBC Radio Cymru.

Many nationalists in Wales view the BBC in simplistic terms, as an entity which simply pumps out ‘Britishness’ at the expense of Welshness. This is easy to sympathise with when one looks at the Olympics coverage (‘COME ON OUR BOYS’) and the twee nationalism of shows like Bake Off, amongst other things.

Thomas Hajkowski’s ‘The BBC and British national identity’ challenges the traditional assumption that the BBC simply pumped out state propaganda from London, arguing instead that the regional BBC offices were nearly autonomous from London, and developed a strong Welsh national culture. He argues that “in an era of local or provincial newspapers on the one hand, and a London or Hollywood dominated cinema on the other, the regional BBCs were the only truly ‘national’ media in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’, although this was later somewhat fractured by the advent of commercial broadcasting.

In other words, whilst the BBC has always been central to promoting a sense of Britishness, it has also simultaneously functioned in many ways as a de facto Welsh national broadcaster and has always had an influential role to play in shaping Wales’ imagined community (within the boundaries of the UK, of course), something which continues today. Indeed, such was the BBC’s ostensible sympathy for the Welsh language and ‘cultural issues’, the great Welsh Marxist Gwyn Williams once spoke of two rival ‘establishments’ within Wales: the formidable Labour party apparatus on one hand, and the ‘nation-conscious Welsh BBC’.

Yet pointing out the central role the BBC has played in recent Welsh history does not make the BBC a benevolent, neutral entity. Hegemony does not mean the absence of domination or the absence of a self-aggrandizing ruling class, but rather speaks of a “quality of rule on the part of particular ruling classes”. Raymond Williams tells us that the state will attempt to incorporate ‘harmless’ subaltern narratives and cultures - evident in the BBC’s recognition and co-optation of ‘cultural’ Welshness - but when this is not possible, threatening discourses will be “extirpated with extraordinary vigour”. So for example, whilst the BBC always recognised and helped promote the Welsh language, Hajkowski argues it did also attempted to marginalise  Welsh (and Scottish) political nationalism, which it saw as beyond the pale and a threat to the established order (for example by barring Plaid and the SNP from making political broadcasts until the 1960s).

This constant balancing act is why the BBC in Wales & Scotland is often accused of being nationalistic by Unionists, and Unionistic by nationalists.

The BBC and the devolved political

Devolution was meant to rejuvenate Wales, including its media. But just like all the other issues that devolution was meant to solve, the structural problems of the Welsh media have gotten worse, not better. The lack of any other Welsh media and the lack of interest in Wales from commercial television ultimately means that post-devolution Wales is now even more dependent on the BBC as a source of local news and affairs than other part of the UK. BBC Wales remains the most watched Welsh news outlet. The BBC Wales news website is where the majority of people get their online news about Wales. The BBC continues to reflect the realities of devolution better than its commercial rivals, although as Stewart Lee puts it, this is a bit like being the world’s tallest dwarf, and the BBC’s Welsh political coverage has been criticised for lacking substance. The BBC’s ‘lift and shift’ policy (where it is obliged to have a certain production outside London) has made it a significant employer in Wales, producing the likes of Dr Who, Torchwood etc., (although of course these are basically English shows made in Wales).

Despite this centrality to the Welsh ‘public sphere’, the BBC’s Welsh outputs have declined steeply in quality and quantity in recent years: Welsh language output has fallen by 15% since 2006/7; English language Welsh programmes have been impacted by a 32% cut in spending. In other words, the BBC, Wales’ only beacon of hope, is failing to accurately represent Wales.

The lack of any other Welsh media  ultimately means that post-devolution Wales is now even more dependent on the BBC as a source of local news and affairs than other part of the UK.

How do you solve this problem? One huge obstacle is that media policy and broadcasting are not devolved to Wales,  meaning that the Welsh government doesn’t have the tools to sort the information deficit out. More worryingly, as with so many other things, the Welsh government also does not really seem interested in equipping itself to deal with the problem. Academics and other experts working on the Welsh media have passionately called for media policy and broadcasting to be devolved, only to be met with resistance or fatalism from the Welsh government. The weaknesses of the Welsh devolution settlement- constantly having to ask for permission to do something- have, over time, produced an institutional culture of helplessness and impotence which permeates everything the Welsh government does. Its first instinct always seems to be to assume that something is not possible –‘we couldn’t do that’- to fundamentally misunderstand that the function of government is to legislate and rule. A cynic might also say that the Welsh government simply enjoys the lack of responsibility and scrutiny, and is therefore not serious about wanting to change a situation which suits it very well.

Wales’ lack of power over broadcasting means that the relationship between the Welsh government and the BBC has to occur via Whitehall and the Secretary of State, normally through the timeless Welsh tradition of establishing committees, which then make recommendations which are sent to Westminster. This is basically a form of lobbying, except The Welsh government doesn’t have any political leverage (bizarrely, numerous Welsh Labour leaders seem to think Wales’ reluctance to rock the boat represents a negotiating strategy in itself, and have claimed Wales’ political docility should be rewarded with greater crumbs from the top table. The reality, of course, is that their timidity means that Wales is simply easy to ignore).

These Welsh ‘demands’ are complicated further by the wider political context in which the BBC operates. The BBC as a whole is undoubtedly under threat. It is faced with severe cuts from a Tory government that is itching to privatise the BBC (like everything else), as well as paradoxically attempting to erode the institution’s independence from government, (reflecting the twin pillars of Thatcherism). So the weak Welsh government is making demands of an organization which is already overstretched. This is why BBC representatives have implied that in this environment, increasing services to Wales would mean diverting resources from elsewhere.  

The demands from Wales on the BBC have belatedly become somewhat more urgent and aggressive. The latest Enquiry into the BBC Charter Review writes:

“it is incumbent on the BBC to ensure that its output reflects the diversity of Welsh life and culture. It is in this regard that we believe the BBC has fallen short of its obligations…. The significant decline in the BBC’s investment in English-language programming over the last ten years has resulted in fewer hours of Wales specific programming and a schedule that has failed to capture and explore adequately the lives and experiences of Welsh communities, as well as the changing political landscape post-devolution. Further, this decline in investment has been more severe in Wales than the other nations of the UK.  Whilst the BBC Executive has publicly acknowledged these shortcomings for some time, it seems to have done little to address them.

Moreover, after pressure from Welsh civil society, the Welsh government has called for an extra 30 million to be spent by the BBC on English language programming to better reflect Welsh culture. However, experts in the same report also correctly note that the timidity of the Welsh Government is an obstacle to radical reform, stating “a number of witnesses questioned what political pressure would be brought to bear by the Welsh Government if this additional £30 million funding was not forthcoming”.  

The BBC draft charter and Wales- problems solved?

From this milieu, a draft of the latest BBC charter (the BBC’s rolling constitution) has emerged, complete with updates which impact on Wales. Most noticeably, Wales will now have a non-executive representative on the BBC’s new unitary board. The BBC is also now to be made accountable to the Assembly for its Welsh output, which will be quantified and scrutinised by the Assembly and Ofcom.  

These changes have predictably been portrayed as radical but  there are significant caveats. Money is still a very big issue. The demand that more programmes being made in Wales is problematic, for these will not necessarily be Welsh in content. What counts as distinctly Welsh programming? If more English language shows are actually made, what aspects of modern Welsh life will be reflected? (I suspect more focus on the valleys at the expense of everyone else).

At best, these new measures are stopping the rot, but hardly progress. It is difficult to foresee an actual increase in the BBC’s Welsh political coverage. In all likelihood, BBC Wales’ politics and Welsh news coverage will remain a ‘round up’ after the ‘proper’ news.

The Future

The struggle over the Welsh media and the begging letters to the BBC sums up the failures of Welsh devolution. Twenty years on, Wales remains powerless and dependent.

So long as Wales remains in the UK, and as long as the British state remains interested in keeping Wales on side, BBC Wales will always provide some concessionary coverage to Wales and will remain the main pillar of Welsh broadcasting. The only issue will be about the amount and quality of this provision, which will alternate depending on who is in government: like the civil service, the BBC tends to absorb and reflect the ideologies and hegemonic strategies of whichever government is in power in Westminster, and some are more inclined to pursue strategies of consent than others. But so long as the BBC also remains committed to the Union, Wales and Scotland will never be provided any more than the absolute minimum, for the simple reason that this might, in the words of John Bird, ‘foster separatist tendencies.’

The people of Wales should be asking themselves: is this is good enough?

All this is about democracy. The idea of the ‘public sphere’ is thrown around a lot these days. It simply refers to an idealized image of a democratic society whereby all citizens are involved in the decision making process. It is about political participation and the belief that the public can be a check against the state and abuses of power. This requires a politically educated public, and this is facilitated by an accessible and open flow of information.

When Wales voted for devolution in 1997, these high minded ideals were prominent, but have sadly faded from view as Welsh expectations have successfully been managed downwards.

Like all dependent peripheral nations, Wales is basically used to change coming from the top, rather than from the bottom- everything is always sorted out by someone else. Changing this culture of dependency is perhaps the most important step in achieving a Welsh public sphere: instead of waiting for small concessions to be granted by the BBC, or trusting our incompetent government to sort this out for us (they won’t), the future for the Welsh public sphere lies in exploring innovative non-statist alternative media forms, a la Scotland . We also have to realise that the public sphere goes beyond just ‘the media’ but also depends on the contribution of Universities, schools and civil society, and that ultimately we all have a part to play in creating it.

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