Why Wales needs a strong media
© National Assembly for Wsles
10 November 2015
If Wales is to be a strong democracy, it needs a strong press, but as the media sector finds itself in crisis, positive action must be taken.
This was the message of the NUJ's media manifesto for Wales, launched at a conference held at the University of South Wales which asked "Who will pay for Welsh journalism?"
Paul Scott, who represents Welsh members on the NUJ's national executive council, said:
"A number of pressures on the media sector has led to a diminution in the provision of quality journalism in Wales and has led to an escalating democratic deficit. We believe a laissez-faire approach to media policy is unsustainable.This crisis in the Welsh media requires intervention and democratic leaders must accept there is a need to tackle today's unsatisfactory and uncomprehensive coverage of Welsh life.
"As Wales and its institutions strive to achieve greater influence and autonomy, it becomes incumbent on us all to preserve, protect and promote a critical, professional and curious media."
Among the demands of the manifesto were grant support from an independent or arms-length Welsh Government funding body for new news start-ups in areas with limited or no local news and funding towards business and media training.
The conference in Cardiff provided the background to the current crisis.
Tom O'Malley, emeritus professor of media studies at Aberystwyth University, set out the current situation. Wales does not have national newspaper; it has regional and local press. London-based newspapers dominate the market. National news is carried by the BBC and ITV. The decline in the circulation of local papers in Wales has been a long-term trend; as has the decline everywhere in print.
Concentration of ownership has increased. As the Institute of Wales' latest data shows, Trinity Mirror, Newsquest, Tindle and NWM Media dominate. Cuts and journalist job losses, he said, have been the order of the day across print and broadcast. "If news is being produced on the cheap, then where will the quality, detailed and attractive work on Wales come from in the future?" he said.
He called for the National Assembly to establish as standing committee on communications to inform media policy and to look at how government intervention can help. He said there must be resistance to the cuts proposed to the BBC as part of its charter renewal and said there should be levies used to fund Welsh news and current affairs.
Andy Williams, a lecturer at Cardiff school of journalism, media and cultural studies, presented research he has carried out on hyper-locals. These are geographically and community-focussed publications and websites. Almost half are run by trained journalists and they don't make much money or provide much employment. They are precarious, often depending on one individual to keep them going. While many of them thrive, they do not significantly fill the gap of lost titles and redundant journalists.
Among the doom and gloom, there are successes. Richard Gurner had just produced the 62nd issue of the Caerphilly Observer, which first saw life on his kitchen table and is now a fully-fledged news organisation. He found there was still an appetite from advertisers and readers for a printed newspaper. Likewise, the Port Talbot Magnet, set up by a group of members of the NUJ, continues to flourish; filling a vital gap in a news blackspot.
Rachel Howells, of the Magnet, has just completed a PhD which analysed the local news market. Five newspapers used to have offices in Port Talbot, with 11 journalists chasing each other for stories. Today, the Magnet is the only presence. The closure of offices, she said, means journalists are no longer embedded within their communities and often no longer have the knowledge and background to cover local stories. "People are becoming under-informed about important news in their area," she said.
Laura Davison, NUJ national organiser, outlined the summer of sackings and autumn of axings of staff at Newsquest titles this year. Journalists' posts are being cut and photographers are being sacked from the staff and forced to contribute as freelances. Those left on newspapers experience heavy workloads and poor pay. The take-over of Local World by Trinity Mirror has worsened an already poor plurality of provision – and there are more cuts to come.
Hywel William, a member of the Institute for Welsh Affairs' policy group said the consolidation of commercial local radio was also leading to a diminution of choice. That is why the NUJ's Local News Matters campaign has called on the Welsh Assembly to hold a short, sharp inquiry into the future of the nation's media.
Martin Shipton, FoC of Media Wales, said the quality of journalism is also under attack as reporters' performance face being measured by the number of clicks per story. This, he said, could force reporters to go for quantity rather than quality stories.
The NUJ may be battling against the cuts, but it also plays a major role in monitoring the ethics of the press, said the union's president, Andy Smith. The NUJ has a code of conduct and is fighting for employers to include a conscience clause so reporters have the right to refuse to act in a way they believe is unethical.
The NUJ's A media manifesto for Wales: visible, accountable, diverse, is about starting the debate in the run-up to the Assembly elections. It is about opening up a dialogue with the politicians and industry. Launching the document, Paul Scott said that when Trinity Mirror proposed to close its office in Caernarfon, 100 people took to the streets in protest. "This shows people really do care about their local press," he said.
The manifesto sets out the media landscape and makes the following demands:
- A Wales that upholds the values of quality journalism and which holds the powerful to account and enables us to celebrate national, regional and local life.
- A Wales in which national broadcasters, operating in both Welsh and English, are protected, emboldened and scrutinised by the people they serve.
- A Wales in which quality local news is recognised as both a right and a necessity in a functioning democracy.
- A Wales in which journalistic entrepreneurship and cooperative community engagement in news provision is encouraged, nurtured and rewarded.
- A strong, publicly-owned, licence fee-funded BBC and greater oversight and scrutiny of public service broadcasting in Wales by the Welsh Government and Assembly.
- A vibrant and properly-resourced S4C, funded and managed in Wales, and overseen by the Welsh Government and Assembly.
- Broadcast media outlets that continue to challenge, question and investigate with news and current affairs at the heart of the output offered by public service providers such as the BBC, ITV Wales and S4C, across all platforms.
- Newspapers, websites and outlets based in the communities they serve.
- Publications staffed by professionally-trained paid journalists.
- An exploration through research of what constitutes a minimum acceptable level of news provision for local communities if a Welsh democratic deficit is to be addressed.
- Protection against closure for historic newspaper titles where alternative proprietors can be identified through devices such as the UK-wide Localism Act 2011.
- Plurality of regional media ownership.
- Grant support from an independent or arms-length Welsh Government funding body for new news start-ups in areas with limited or no local news coverage that demonstrate a sustainable editorial and business case.
- A minimum or agreed quota of statutory notices to be published through new print and online outlets.
- Business and journalistic training and support for potential start-up entrepreneurs or community concerns.