For the people of Wales, the country’s democratic deficit has become almost part and parcel of everyday life. While the country has spent its nearly 20 years of devolution building up many of the political institutions that underpin a modern nation, Wales does not yet have a well-developed public sphere. The result is that the Welsh public are not only voting under a misapprehension of what the assembly and government are responsible for, but there is also a lack of public scrutiny.
The problem has been mostly blamed on the lack of political coverage by English language media in Wales. Major outlets like the Trinity Mirror-owned Media Wales, BBC Wales and ITV Cymru have all claimed they are working to remedy the situation, yet still the deficit remains.
The Assembly itself is keen to get to grips with the issue too: a taskforce – of which I was a member – recently recommended direct state investment in journalists that would report on Welsh politics. This may sound like a step into the unknown, but in truth it would not be a radical departure. Three Welsh-language websites that discuss public affairs – Golwg 360, Barn magazine’s website and O’r Pedwar Gwynt – already receive grants from the Welsh government, via the Welsh Books Council. Another Welsh-language news website, BBC Cymru Fyw, is paid for by the licence fee.
The two most prominent of these sites, BBC Cymru Fyw and Golwg360, attracts a small but committed audience of more than 57,000 unique weekly visitors between them. Around half of readers are under 40 years of age – younger than that for Welsh-language print publications, television and radio.
Part of the success of these sites comes from reaching an audience that wouldn’t have made a conscious decision to seek out news stories about Wales or in Welsh in the past. Quite simply because the content appears in their social media feeds, they are more likely to click on it than they ever would be to go out and buy a Welsh-language newspaper or magazine, or tune in to a Welsh-language TV or radio channel.
Though this audience also visits English language outlets for news, readers visit Welsh language sites in search of a certain kind of content that is not available in the English language. My own analysis of Golwg 360’s statistics, as well as interviews with journalists from all four news sites, suggests that the most popular subjects are the Welsh language, Welsh politics, education in Wales, the Welsh media, the Welsh language and arts and Welsh institutions.
Meanwhile, subjects that were already well covered by other English-language news sites – such as British and international current affairs – or sports, tend to do poorly.
However, journalists working for Welsh sites other than the BBC’s Cymru Fyw, did suggest that they did not feel they have sufficient resources to properly scrutinise Welsh institutions –so their ability to carry out in-depth, investigative journalism was severely limited. This problem was made worse by a demand for multimedia content that the journalists did not feel they had the time, resources or technological capability to deliver.
While the number of news platforms providing Welsh-language news is impressive, there may still be a lack of plurality. BBC Cymru Fyw and Golwg360 cover many of the same topics, for example. And the investigative journalism conducted by the numerous Welsh language print magazines does not always find an audience because it isn’t publicised online.
None of the journalists I interviewed felt that their dependence on the Welsh government or the license fee for funding limited what they felt they could report. In fact, it was felt by some that the commercial press was more likely to restrict what they covered because of commercial interests.
The funding of Welsh language journalism by the Welsh government has clearly been a success. It has created a lively public sphere of avid readers who take a great interest in news about the Assembly itself as well as other Welsh political institutions.
One would wish that funding English-language journalism in such a way would be unnecessary – and that the commercial media in Wales will turn a corner and strengthen over the next few years. However, if it continues to weaken as it has over the past 20 years, the future of devolution could depend on a radical solution.