Saturday, 17 May 2008

What the papers don't say

Posted on Comment is Free on July 7th 2007

For generations politics in Wales has been predictable. Not any more. In the two months since voters went to the polls to elect a national assembly, old certainties have collapsed.

Not only were the Conservatives on the brink of power in a country that has rejected them ever since the introduction of the secret ballot (a deliciously nerdy error by Liberal Democrats caused the seemingly unstoppable "rainbow coalition" to implode). But now the unthinkable is about to happen.

Labour and Plaid Cymru members meet this weekend to endorse a formal coalition between bitter enemies. It is a truly historic development in Welsh politics - not that you'll have seen much of it reported.

It's a tiresome truism that the metropolitan media brackets Welsh politics alongside provincial English local government. A point underlined by a recent piece in the Times about free prescriptions for the chronically ill in Scotland (which failed to mention medicines are now free for all in Wales) and a story in the Telegraph about tuition fees in Scotland (which failed to mention their abolition in Wales for home grown students who stay in the country).

Policy innovation and constitutional change in Wales falls into the blind spot of the London media.

Of course it's irksome to the Welsh political class, but more importantly it has far-reaching implications for Welsh democracy.

An option poll in March showed that after seven years in power 57% of people had never heard of Rhodri Morgan. And just 6% could identify the leaders of the opposition parties.

How can you create an informed electorate when information is scarce?

With so little interest in Welsh affairs from London based journalists, Welsh people rely disproportionately on sources of news from within Wales. But as the latest figures show, less than a third of the country access Welsh daily news.

The total number of viewers for BBC's Wales Today, ITV's Wales Tonight and S4C's Newyddion combined amounts to less than 400,000.

The circulation of the five highest-selling Welsh based newspapers (South Wales Evening Post, South Wales Echo, Western Mail, Daily Post and the South Wales Argus - in that order) adds up to less than 250,000.

Even allowing for a generous margin of error, two-thirds of the people living in Wales don't consume Welsh daily news. And it's getting worse.

In the last thirty years, the Western Mail and the South Wales Echo have each lost more than half their readership. The decline has been less marked at the Daily Post, but it has still lost more than a fifth of its circulation since 1997 according to research by Cardiff University.

It's not a problem unique to Wales. "Scottish papers, produced by Scots for Scotland, have seldom, if ever, had it so bad," according to the media analyst Peter Preston. Sales of The Scotsman and Herald are down and for the first time the Sun now outsells the Daily Record in Scotland (414,655 vs 390,000).

It's hard to feel too sorry for the Scots though. Whereas most London-based papers have Scottish editions, the Welsh edition of the Daily Mirror has long gone, and the News of the World and the Star's Welsh editions amount to little more than a red dragon on the masthead.

As competition increases, television audiences are declining too. And with analogue signals being switched off in Wales in 2009, the availability of hundreds of television channels will pose huge challenges for the future of public service broadcasting. Few expect ITV Wales to survive in its current form for long.

Taken as a whole these trends pose serious threats to the viability of democratic devolution. Without a vibrant national debate it will be impossible to create an informed electorate.

So as Labour's Rhodri Morgan and Plaid Cymru's Ieuan Wyn Jones prepare for government, it's worth asking: will anyone notice?

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