Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Assembly & The Democratic Deficit

Over the last year, Llywydd Rosemary Butler (Lab, Newport West) hosted a series of debates – with contributions from journalists, various experts and hyperlocals - on how the National Assembly is covered by both Welsh and UK medias.

Termed "The Democratic Deficit", it's believed Welsh politics isn't given fair coverage at UK level, while improvements could be made closer to home. This harms democracy because the public aren't as well-informed about decisions taken in Cardiff Bay as AMs would like them to be.

When I covered broadcasting and media in September, I said this would be an "unofficial Part IX". I addressed some concerns in more detail in parts I, II (the press), V (devolution of broadcasting) and VIII (the internet).

As this process draws to a conclusion, a final "up yours" to the Welsh political class came from News International's Guto Harri at the Royal Television Society's lecture last Thursday. There are suggestions Guto's lecture wasn't exactly the response the Llywydd and AMs were hoping for.

What the Assembly proposes

Improvements to press communications facilities and more open
Assembly information are amongst the measures put forward.
(Pic : ITV Wales)
I presume there'll be further details provided, but last week the Llywydd briefly outlined what the Assembly Commission plans to do to address the "democratic deficit" :
  • Improve Assembly reporting by creating a "journalism hub" for national, local and hyperlocal media at the Senedd; provide better communication facilities for journalists, and offer induction sessions for journalism trainees so they understand the Assembly's work.
  • Make Assembly data more open and accessible.
  • Inform AMs about digital communication tools and how to use them to greater effect.
  • "Take the Assembly out into communities they represent" by hosting regional media days.
The first measures are the most important ones. Though considering the Senedd is a modern building, you would've expected half-decent media facilities anyway. Offering more induction sessions is an obvious one, but – again – you would've expected things like that to already be in place.

On open data, I don't think it's a problem at Assembly level. All information is there if someone wants to find it. I've said it many times, but the Assembly itself is transparent. The real issue is at Welsh and local government level. If an institution gets too many FOI requests, they're probably not very open.

On digital communications, most, if not all, AMs give the impression of knowing the importance of social media. Twitter and Facebook pages seem to be a popular way for AMs to keep constituents updated with their work, though some AMs use social media more effectively than others. There's no harm in updating AMs, but I suspect it would only tell them what they already know.

Local papers and hyperlocals do a reasonable job of giving AMs column space and opportunities for statements, promote campaigns etc. The Glamorgan Gazette, for example, has a rotating column for local AMs, MPs and senior councillors, though it's not as prominent as it should be, tucked away with the news from neighbourhood correspondents. I don't quite understand the concept of "regional media days" to be honest.

I think it's worth giving you an idea of what I believe my part is in the grand scheme of things, and my views on why there's a democratic deficit in the first place.

I realise the following will be typically wordy, but after the effort Rose Butler and David Melding have put into addressing the news deficit on our behalf, the subject deserves a thorough evaluation.

How outlets cover the Assembly

Due to low circulation figures in Wales, it's unlikely the UK
print press will ever cover Welsh politics to a great extent.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
Coverage of Welsh politics by the UK media is awful and hard to defend (with exceptions, notably The Guardian). In that respect, Guto Harri was talking out of his backside, but his reasoning for lack of coverage – "not knowing what the big stories (in Wales) are" and political differences "not being interesting in itself" - is correct.

The BBC have improved, but I don't think there's any chance of UK newspapers following suit (more detailed explanation here). Welsh politics only gets prominent coverage at UK level when a devolved issue either potentially affects the UK as a whole or England directly - like the Human Transplantation Act. The solutions will have to come from within Wales, and it's a huge challenge.

Coverage by "national" media (including BBC Wales and ITV Wales) is as good as can be expected based on available resources, but it's second fiddle to UK stories which are Anglocentric by default. As I said, many local and hyper-local outlets give reasonable coverage to the Assembly and Welsh Government initiatives. The issues are at a national, not local level.

Online coverage is OK for a country of Wales' size, though nothing compared to Scotland. It's also dependant on people actively seeking it out. The Welsh political blogosphere isn't as big as it used to be - mostly due to the rise of social media - with peaks and troughs around a core of established bloggers who've done it for a while.

The blogosphere's biggest single weakness is a lack of women (with obvious exceptions like Caebrwyn). Though I'd estimate, based on various measures, that around 30-40% (sometimes up to half) of my audience is female, whenever I've covered what could be termed "women's issues" - like rape, abortion, FGM and female representation in the Assembly - I've felt like a fraud, as though I'm not doing it justice or getting the perspective right.

My other concern is that there's a lot of knee-jerk and self-parodying stuff online. If the internet commentariat isn't already seen as consisting of tin foil hat wearing cranks, it'll happen soon enough. As a result, independent internet commentary is perhaps seen as a fringe source of political news/commentary instead of a serious source.

The Assembly itself

Once hailed as a sign of a 21st century parliament, the use of computers
in the Siambr is now seen as a distraction during debates - one of many
 unfair criticisms IMO.
(Pic : Wales Online)
I don't have any strong opinion on using computers during debates etc. and it's a weak criticism. I appreciate AMs have a heavy workload and I'm glad they can multi-task. I have no issues with "standards of debate" either. The written record proves AMs know what they're talking about. My issue would be ministers dodging giving direct answers to questions.

My pet hate though, is "jargon". You get the impression AMs say certain things to reassure themselves they're "doing the right thing" – but whenever they use such terms, they're talking to "The Bay Bubble" not the public.

Also, many Assembly and committee discussion topics - however important - are incredibly dry, bordering on impossible to make interesting to a wider audience. You can't say I haven't tried! You can understand why newspapers and broadcasters gloss over the details and go for headline-grabbing facts, which are often thin on the ground.

I find it amusing when AMs attempt Churchillian speeches on subjects like free car parking, trees and badgers. I understand part of their job is to be riled-up on behalf of those for whom such things really are important, so I'd never criticise them for it.

I wouldn't mind more forthright opinions from AMs to create talking points, but I'd be concerned about how such remarks would be interpreted by the press, as we've seen outspokenness slapped down before.

Instead, there either need to be more individual member debates, and/or a more prominent role for short debates. They tend to be topical (like the Page 3 debate) and possibly more interesting to the public. AMs seem to get more passionate about issues they take to heart, or issues directly brought to them by constituents, charities and other organisations.

The Assembly website is excellent, though the Welsh Government website is cluttered. I'm pleasantly surprised how quickly proceedings are transcribed, while outreach initiatives and things like the Member's Research Service are second to none (though I prefer to do research myself). There's also the opportunity for more direct influence, like creating and signing petitions.

It's down to us - the public - to make good use of those things, but you can only lead a horse to water.

How I source Assembly stories

The written record of proceedings is usually more important
to me than live/recorded feeds. Though I make full use of most of
the Assembly's online resources.
(Pic : BBC)
My main sources are online (the Assembly itself, other blogs, BBC, Wales Online etc.). I don't watch/listen to political programmes often (because I likely already know the details what's being discussed) and the only print newspaper I read is the Glamorgan Gazette. I think I'm the exception there , so offline sources are still important.

I usually get the headline and an overall picture of the story, then look into the details under my own steam.

I rarely watch Assembly proceedings (live or recorded) because I don't have time to. Instead, I use Y Cofnod to look for relevant quotes, see what arguments/issues are being put forward by AMs and ministers, and because it's quicker. I can scroll through a one hour debate in 5-10 minutes and still get the jist of what's been said.

I don't have any "Assembly sources", so I only use what's on public record. I've never been "told" to write something – politely asked a few times, though never by AMs or their staff - and what I choose to cover's up to me. The only time I've been approached to write something by anyone associated with the Assembly was the photography competition in 2012.

Choosing what to cover

Some topics - especially health and the economy - attract more views and
shares than other, equally important, devolved areas like the environment.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
I weigh up : how much interest it would generate, whether others have covered the story in detail already (so I don't need to cover it), how long it would take me to write, and how easy it would be to cover all of the relevant points and source evidence.

Coverage of technical Assembly matters like committee reports and legislation is probably seen as my "niche". In terms of legislative and committee work - not including casework, evidence, consultations etc. - if AMs produce it, most of the time I have to read it. I'm not paid £50k+ to do that though, so if I believe it'll take too much time, I usually don't cover it unless I believe I'll get a return in terms of views/shares.

The economy, health and education tend to attract more views, but it depends on the specifics. My South Wales Programme post generated more interest and was more "sharable" than my post on the NHS Finance Bill, for example. One directly affects people (and myself) and had been in the mainstream press a lot; the other's a bit anoraky, but still an important part of what AMs do.

Areas I don't cover as often – because they never generate as much interest as I hope – are : the environment, rural affairs, social justice matters and things like culture. Whenever I've covered the Welsh language, for example, it's not "serious" posts like this and this that draw wider audiences, but....this and this. The only exception were posts relating to census data.

If I'm asking a question, or covering something controversial, I'll get more views than for more mundane topics. However, if I frame a "dull topic" in a certain way -  the M4 bypass, for example - then it makes a difference. So how something's presented is as important as the information itself, and it changes levels of interest in the story.

That's something the Assembly and AMs need to take on board too if they didn't already know. Statements full of buzzwords or ideological grandstanding will go over most people's heads.

Meanwhile, reducing things to an overly hyperbolic rump just makes them look silly - comparing TVs to the fall of Rome for example, or saying satirical photos relating to controversial public service reforms were puerile and offensive.

Whenever statements like that are made, I don't think "This will not stand! I can't wait to vote for that person and/or party in 2016!" Instead, I hope the AMs/sources in question have taken their blood pressure medication. Basil Fawlty, Nora Batty, and Homer Simpson often spring to mind.

I don't think AMs realise how fortunate they are Wales doesn't have any prominent satirists. Such people would be merciless as the jokes often write themselves.

Audiences and reach

I can only speak for myself, but I suspect most of my audience are "seriously interested in politics" anyway, not "the public at large". Some well-known figures know of the blog's existence, but I doubt politicians, their staff or Assembly staff read it to any extent.

Most of my hits are search specific or from other blogs. Social media is important but only when I get shares from those with lots of followers, or multiple shares.

Shares from politicians and media personalities are very rare, but definitely broadens a post's reach and audience, often making the difference between three-figure views and four-figures.

I presume I don't get many shares because : I don't use social media much anyway, AMs/staff are careful not to spread "news" from an unsolicited source (which is eminently sensible), I'm only covering what they already know/already said, they're too busy, my posts get lost in news feeds, they simply don't agree with what's been written or I'm not on the radar.

PR problems and bad news stories

Two types of high-profile stories tend to dominate domestic coverage
of Welsh politics - "scandals" and "wasting money".
(Pic : Wales Online)
In Westminster politics, there are more opportunities for headline-grabbing stories about things like criminal justice, foreign affairs, major constitutional issues like membership of the EU and daily life matters like energy prices and macroeconomics.

Health is probably the closest we have to a "headline generating topic" in Wales that's completely under the Assembly's influence. While, as I've said, many other Assembly matters are dry or technical. So a big chunk of prominent Welsh political stories fall under the categories "scandal" or "waste of money" or in terms of public services a combination of the two.

I believe it's because journalists are looking for the few opportunities to provoke a public reaction, and those types of stories are the easiest way to do it in the absence of eye-catching policies from the Assembly itself.

Public service failures are worthy of coverage - no issues there. When it comes to the Assembly or AMs, I approach "scandals" and "questions of propriety" objectively, trying not to jump to conclusions. I make it a point of principle not to delve into personal affairs unless it directly affects public roles, and I won't let mainstream headlines or other blogs guide that. I'm more likely to ignore the story, or criticise an over-reaction by the press.

In terms of "waste of money stories", I weigh up : the circumstances surrounding the use of money itself, the relative size of departmental budgets (a £50,000 misspend has a bigger impact at local level, for example, than at the Assembly) and whether it was spent in good faith/no hints of irregularities before deciding whether or not to cover it.
Stories relating to the Assembly which involve poor judgement but no clear wrongdoing are often hysterically blown out of proportion (like recent office furniture spending at Ty Hywel). Meanwhile, more serious but dull stories don't get the coverage they warrant - Y Cneifiwr's look at the failure of the COASTAL project, for example, which involves tens of millions in public funds.

Taxpayers Alliance-style press releases, "propriety investigations" and anonymous source smears are often spiteful and childish.
There's a real danger such stories will create a "cry wolf" effect too, where people just switch off because genuine scandals are conflated with tittle-tattle about spending too much on stationary, toilet paper etc.

Having said that, "going for the jugular" often - sadly - guarantees publicity and comment. Therefore, a bit of self-awareness from AMs and public bodies wouldn't go amiss.

Decisions should probably pass a test - let's call it a "Shipton Test" - before being undertaken. If you can picture a negative Western Mail front-page splash as a result of what you/your party/your department are about to do, either re-think it or thoroughly explain the reasoning. Don't do a Carmarthenshire and hide behind process to avoid being transparent, and don't expect ordinary people to simply defer to your authority and follow your logic.

Even if such investigations are done - genuinely - in the public interest to hold decision-makers to account, largely unrelated criticism of AMs and long-standing failing policies (perhaps going back generations) is often used as an avenue to attack the Assembly as an institution. That's damaged Welsh politics, and public perceptions of Welsh politics, in terms of media coverage more than anything else.


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