Paul Rowland is editor-In-Chief for the Trinity Mirror-owned Media Wales.
For almost as long as I can remember, there has been a debate raging in Welsh public life about a so-called democratic deficit: encompassing, but not limited to, its existence, definition and potential solutions.
It’s not a debate I’m going to get into here, except to say this: anything that increases the scrutiny of Wales’ governing institutions, and the public’s understanding of their work has to be a good thing.
So it’s in that context that I assess the recommendations announced today by a taskforce chaired by former education minister Leighton Andrews, established to look at ways to improve how the National Assembly communicates with the public about its activities.
Its headline suggestion is that the Assembly should employ a team of journalists, led by an “experienced, impartial editor”, to “establish an integrated content service using social media and other channels (such as dedicated email newsletters) to engage directly with the people of Wales”.
In other words, the proposed solution for the Assembly’s failure to engage the broader public is to set itself up as a news provider. Unsurprisingly, the comparisons with Pravda, or its latter-day equivalent Russia Today, were quickly forthcoming..
“We’re not suggesting a kind of Pravda-style operation, as you might have in Soviet regimes in the past, this is very much about the democratic forum, engaging directly with the people of Wales,” said Andrews, making the entirely justified point that this would not be the Welsh Government publishing propaganda about its decisions and policies, but instead the Assembly seeking to communicate with the public about the way that devolved democracy is executed.
Nonetheless, there’s a rightful degree of nervousness about the principle that news organisations that are both publicly-funded and controlled can ever be the solution to ensuring democratic functions are scrutinised, held to account, and understood by the public.
Of course, there’s an important distinction to be made publicly-funded and publicly-controlled. The BBC is publicly-funded, and (most of the time) appears to be capable of separating the contingencies around its funding from its journalistic purpose.
However, I’d suggest a more apt comparison for what the taskforce is aiming at would be the way that the Office for National Statistics has reinvented the way it reports its data in recent months.
It’s a vibrant example of how a public institution can harness the enormous wealth of information it possesses, and turn it into stories which vividly portray the changes in the world around us. In no way is it an arm of Westminster propaganda.
If something along those lines is what’s being proposed for the Assembly, then it’s to be welcomed.
Clarity is not a word that many would associate with official Assembly communiques and documentation, and improving that would go some way to developing more familiarity with the instruments of devolution. Replacing cold and sterile statistical releases with shareable, interactive, user-friendly data visualisations has to be a good thing.
This recommendation from the taskforce, for instance, is a very good point, irrespective of whether a dedicated team of Assembly journalists is a workable solution: “All Assembly staff should consider themselves as content producers. Anything published for public consumption – from the date and time of Plenary meetings, press releases, tweets communicating Senedd opening times, committee reports, legislation flowcharts and business forward work programmes – must be communicated with the external audience in mind.”
Resolving that Assembly staff speak in plain English and Welsh is undoubtedly a helpful step, but the grand proposal to recruit a team of journalists and content professionals rather masks a pretty important detail. Isn’t that what the Assembly press office should be?
The most effective communications teams are both reactive and proactive, dealing efficiently with media enquiries, but also using their journalistic instincts, digital storytelling and social media skills to convey key messages about their organisation to their target audiences.
The Assembly website currently describes its press office’s purpose as making audio and video clips available for members of the press, providing stock images of the Assembly, background information on the institution, and dealing with media enquiries relating to the Assembly.
If there’s an identified need for a team of people to create compelling stories about the Assembly’s work, and use multiple distributive platforms (social media and newsletters, suggests the report) to engage a large audience with those stories, then wouldn’t it be better for the Assembly to develop the staff already employed in that capacity, rather than recruiting a separate department in addition?
As a Welshman, a journalist, and an advocate for devolution, I welcome any move that offers a genuine, cost-effective and sustainable means of ensuring people in Wales have the best possible understanding of the decisions that affect how they live their lives.
Reading the recommendations, I was struck by the number of similarities between the approach proposed by the taskforce, and the way in which we aim to cover politics on WalesOnline – publishing on platforms where our audiences are found, putting people at the heart of our storytelling, and producing content that bridges the gap between matters of democratic importance and the lived experiences of the people they affect.
So it’s disappointing that reports such as this always seem to adopt a tone that is implicitly critical and adversarial when it comes to the established written media.
Call me paranoid, but the narrative consistently seems to be: “Traditional media structures have failed us, we must create something to replace them.” That’s generally followed by something along the lines of: “The decline in newspaper sales mean that people no longer have access to important news. We must harness new digital platforms to tackle this.”
Or, to use the words of today’s report: “The rise of social media channels provides a more direct forum for engagement. It also gives members of the public their own audience. Smartphone ownership and access to the internet through a mobile device is widespread.
“The representation of Wales across UK news networks is in decline as is the circulation of Wales-based newspapers with people opting to get their news through much more diverse routes.”
What never quite seems to be recognised is that the very companies experiencing these circulation declines have already gained a significant foothold in this new digital world, enabling them to reach digitally some of those readers lost in print (and in many cases, some entirely new ones).
WalesOnline is one of the biggest news websites in the UK. It has won awards for the quality of its journalism. It has a large and rapidly growing social media following. The audience for political coverage on the site is growing at more than twice the rate seen on the site as a whole. And yet these facts – all publicly available – are routinely absent from discussions about how to tackle Wales’ perceived democratic deficit.
Along with the talented team of journalists at WalesOnline, I work every day to overcome the problems identified by this report – finding a way to make the public engage with issues, subjects and processes that we know are critically important to their lives. We’ve had some success with it. We know a bit about how to make it work.
And yet a browse through the biographies of the members of these taskforces reveals that not one has a background in the written, commercial media, with the exception of Ifan Morgan Jones, who has previously worked at Golwg.
I’m sure they all believe passionately that Wales must have a thriving, inclusive and accessible information eco-system. So do I, and so do all my colleagues. There is no doubt that the media in Wales faces serious structural challenges, and that it is changing in shape before our eyes. But this is not a story of terminal decline. There are successes, and there is growth. There is positivity to capitalise on. Talking down our success stories gets us nowhere.
Conversations about how we can improve engagement in democracy are absolutely crucial. If Leighton Andrews and his team think a cohort of Assembly journalists is the single answer to Wales’ democratic deficit, they are mistaken. I’m sure they believe it’s just a step in the direction, and they may well be right. But the wider solution needs a level of collaboration far in excess of what I’m seeing at the moment.