This article is part of our 'What's next? Key issues for the Sixth Senedd' collection.
Policymakers face a conundrum as to how to support a sector that is vital to democracy, but works best at a distance from those that wield democratic power.
What happens to a democracy when people lose access to trusted and reliable information about the people they can vote for? Since 1999, as the Senedd has gained further powers, professional journalism has retreated from local communities in Wales, as it has across the world.
At the end of the Fifth Senedd, the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications (CWLC) Committee concluded that the “supply of media content for Wales is inadequate”. The biggest shortfall it identified was in news and current affairs.
Print pounds turn to digital pennies
Welsh newspapers have seen continued decline in their print circulations. Since 2008 the Western Mail’s circulation has sunk by over three-quarters – from 37,576 to 8,419 in 2020. Over the same period, the Daily Post’s circulation has more than halved – from 36,432 in 2008 to 14,250 in 2020. This is in sync with what has happened in the UK dailies, with the Mirror and the Express both more than halving their circulations over the same period. These patterns are mirrored across the world.
While print circulation has dwindled, online traffic has soared. WalesOnline’s use grew by over 1400% between 2008 and 2020, with monthly visitor numbers up from 680,000 in March 2008 to 9.7 million in June 2020.
News organisations have struggled to monetise this increasing traffic. Other than a few examples, they have been reluctant to charge for access to their content, instead relying on digital advertising, the bulk of which is hoovered up by Google and Facebook.
The result has been newspaper closures, job losses and market-consolidation by the big players. These trends accelerated during the pandemic, despite increased news consumption. UK Government analysis in July 2020 suggested an advertising revenue reduction of 20.5% on the previous year for national newspapers, and a 24.1% decline for regional newspapers. Declining print sales were further impacted by lockdowns, as shopping footfall plummeted.
Television and radio are losing audiences to unregulated competition
News isn’t all about newspapers. Television remains the most common news source in Wales, being used by 75% of people, compared to 43% for radio, 33% for print newspapers, and 31% for other websites and apps – including those dedicated to news.
But regulated broadcast services that carry news – such as the BBC, ITV and commercial radio – are all losing audiences to largely unregulated online competition such as Netflix and Spotify. These streaming platforms may carry some news and current affairs content, but they aren't required to by regulation, and so far this content forms only an incidental part of their business models.
A growing proportion of people – 46% in 2020 – gain their news from social media. Again, this is largely unregulated and, despite carrying reliable news from trusted sources, is bedevilled with concerns about disinformation and fake news
Loss of news suppresses voter turnout and increases corruption
There are many theoretical arguments for the value of news journalism in a liberal democracy. These include encouraging an informed public, political accountability and plurality of opinion. Recent research, summarised in a report for the UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has given these claims an empirical basis.
The authors found that an additional daily or weekly local newspaper title increased voter turnout by 1.27 percentage points, and that “the closure of local and regional news titles has led to underreporting and less scrutiny of democratic functions”. Other cited benefits of public interest journalism range from reducing political polarisation to saving public money by reducing corruption and public mismanagement.
The devolved nature of many powers used to respond to the pandemic provided a worked example of the importance of Welsh news. In April 2020, the Fifth Senedd’s CWLC Committee wrote to the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee outlining the potential of misreporting to damage public health, citing inaccurate news reports from across the UK press. The most popular print and online newspapers in Wales are the Mail and the Sun. Readers in Wales are therefore often reliant on London-based editors to clearly communicate what lockdown measures are in place in Wales.
The Committee’s claims were backed-up by research by Professor Cushion at Cardiff University. He found that the “vast majority” of study participants could spot “fake news”, such as quack cures for COVID-19. But many cited “government or media misinformation” as sources of misleading information about the pandemic.
A challenge for policy-makers, which the Welsh Government does not have all the tools to address
The decline of news journalism provides a significant challenge for policy-makers. In recent history they have been able to rely on the market to provide a flow of broadly reliable and trustworthy news.
The freedom of this market hasn’t been absolute – with newspapers long-receiving tax-breaks and implicit subsidies in the form of paid-for advertisements from public bodies. And broadcast media is either publicly-funded (such as the BBC and S4C) or regulated to ensure reliable news content. But this approach has helped politicians minimise the awkwardness of directly interfering in a sector that’s dependent on independence from the state to do its job.
In 2018 the CWLC Committee called the retreat of news journalism from Wales “a profound public policy issue, which policy makers at all levels, not least the Welsh Government, need to address as a priority issue”.
The previous Welsh Government accepted this recommendation in principle, but was limited in what it could do. “Broadcasting and other media” is a reserved matter, meaning that the power to pass laws in this area rests with the UK Parliament. This leaves direct funding as the main policy option for the Welsh Government.
Welsh Governments have long-funded Welsh language news and current affairs, via the Welsh Books Council, in recognition of the market-failure in this area. In recent years it’s provided funding for some English-language journalism, such as Nation.Cymru – via the Books Council, and ‘hyperlocal journalism’ via its own £200,000 Independent Community Journalism Fund. The argument, made by the CWLC Committee, that the market for English-language journalism in Wales has also failed, seemed to have been accepted by the previous Welsh Government.
The then Deputy Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Lord Elis-Thomas, had previously said that it was “not for Welsh Government to be providing media outlets or supporting media outlets”. But by the end of the Fifth Senedd he revealed that discussions were “ongoing” to provide further support to English-language journalism “similar to the Welsh language model”. The Senedd Commission has also explored whether it could offer support to journalism.
Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg has long called for the devolution of broadcasting to give the Welsh Government more tools to support the media. These proposals recently gained limited support from the CWLC Committee. But further powers would mean that tricky questions about how to increase public service content in an age of deregulation would be for the Welsh Government, rather than UK Government, to answer.
Though several new news services for Wales have started in recent years (such as Nation Cymru and The National), none of the broader market trends show any sign of abating. If politicians want people to know more about the people and institutions they vote for, it will be up to them to work out how.
Article by Robin Wilkinson, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament