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More powers and less media scrutiny: That’s not democracy. [Mar. 17th, 2009|04:23 pm]
The Mabiblogion
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There was an interesting article in the Independent media section a while back about the demise of The Scotsman newspaper. The falling standard of journalism at the Scotsman and the Herald has been accompanied by a rapidly falling set of circulation figures.

This is indeed worrying and I have repeatedly said the same of Wales. A burgeoning democracy must have an active, inquisitive and strong press to challenge, investigate and hold to account those in power. However, without wanting to enter into a competition to see who is worse off, the Scots don’t know how lucky they are.

It is a much repeated fact that the 85% of the newspapers bought in Scotland are produced in Scotland. It is also a fact that 85% of newspapers bought in Wales are produced in England.

The current demise of Wales’ only national newspapers, The Western Mail and The Daily Post has seen circulation figures, for the Mail in particular, reach ‘critical mass’ level, falling below the 40,000 readers credibility figure.

This fall represents a yearly loss of around 2000 readers which could translate into a readership of only 15,000 in years to come, a circulation figure that Trinity Mirror may find unsustainable. Sales of both The Western Mail and The Daily Post have fallen by 40% since 1997, and as a consequence the figure of 15% of Welsh people reading Wales based newspapers may now be even smaller.

Rumours continue to abound about the merger of these two papers.

James Thomas back in 2006 in a report to the Culture Welsh Language and Sport Committee pointed out that the Welsh daily press is regional, not national, with The Western Mail being primarily circulated in South Wales and The Daily Post being the main paper in North Wales.

The two nationals in Wales are supported by an ever decreasing range of up to forty evening and other papers, including free weeklies (which carry the highest circulation).

Back in 2006 when this report was undertaken (more recent figures are unsurprisingly difficult to come by) Trinity Mirror’s monopoly on the Welsh media was at its height with it owning over 42% of the papers in circulation. The Daily Mirror, of course, was the only UK national to have had a Welsh edition in recent times, and it was hugely important to Welsh people, if not always ‘on message’. Thomas makes the point that,

‘A case study of the life and death of the Welsh Mirror (1999-2003) illustrates very clearly how dominant power structures outside Wales – namely Trinity Mirror and the City of London – have far more influence in determining the structure of the Welsh press than the people of Wales or Welsh politicians.’

Thomas also contrasts the situation in Wales with Scotland stating that the lack of agenda setting newspapers in Wales is the polar opposite of the situation in Scotland. He concludes that,

‘Welsh newspapers, for all their virtues are regionalized, with limited financial resources, circulation and agenda setting power.’

As far as a lowering of the standards in journalism goes, Wales was also there well before Scotland. A number of writers have already bemoaned the “tabloidisation” of the content carried in local newspapers.

Most of them lay the blame at the door of Trinity Mirror whose monopoly in Wales once prompted Patrick Hannen to comment ‘If you don’t write for Trinity Mirror, you don’t write.’

When this is all placed within the context of devolution it becomes all the more worrying. In 2006 Thomas found, during a study of the content of the Welsh press, that the most popular front page stories involved crime, followed by accidents/human interest and lastly politics.

The 10% figure for political splashes does not seem particularly low until Thomas points out that this occurred at a time of community elections in Wales. He states that, at a time when it might be reasonable to expect that the press would engage in detailed ‘scrutiny of local democracy, the overwhelming front-page attention still lay with softer issues.’

With this in mind here is a quote from Professor Tim Luckhursts’ article about the demise of The Scotsman. He says,

‘Although there is similar chaos and decline at newspapers worldwide, there is a dimension to the Scottish problem that adds to its significance. Wherever you take your starting point, it is impossible to identify a society in which the scrutiny of a free and diverse newspaper press has not been vital to the development and success of representative democracy.’

This is quite correct, but it is worth noting that Wales has never had a free and diverse newspaper press.

Whether or not we have a successful representative democracy is a matter for debate. Whilst new powers are being debated, isn’t it worth discussing what might happen if our media continues to decline whilst our Government acquires more power?

We certainly can’t rely on the English national press to keep us informed about the Assembly. More power, ever decreasing media scrutiny – it’s not a great recipe for democracy.

Scottish democracy is now facing the problems Welsh democracy has always faced, the difference being that the Assembly in Wales has always had less power.

Bringing Wales more in line with Scotland would do wonders for the legitimacy of the devolution project, but with a disorganised and depleted media can AMs really be held to account?

I’m going to finish with a quote from the Luckhurst article as an illustration of the problems facing the Welsh media and just how little scrutiny they are given,

‘Devolution is too new, unproven and vulnerable to cronyism to thrive without the bracing scrutiny of robust, independent journalism. But if the newspaper industry cannot provide it some wag of an MSP may propose state-subsidised newspapers. One recent former editor of a Scottish title says: "Scotland is in danger of becoming the first modern democracy without reliable organs of free speech."’

Absolutely right, but Scotland is by no means the first modern democracy without reliable organs of free speech.

Wales already holds that dubious honour.

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