Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The Western Mail, £400k and the backlash

I was going to post something on Bridgend Recreation Centre today, but that can wait as there's been only one story dominating the Welsh cybersphere – and not in a good way.

This morning, the Western Mail, on its front page, published a "controversial" and harshly-worded editorial on possible future translation costs at the Assembly - accompanied by a picture of the dullest line up for Celebrity Squares in known history.

Proposed amendments to the Official Languages Bill - currently going through the legislative process - would require all proceedings to be bilingual - including committees - when at present, only plenary meetings are subject to it. The editorial claims that the projected £400,000 cost is excessive at a time when "budgets are squeezed and public services are being cut".

The Western Mail have been building up to this story over several weeks, publishing article after article on spending at the Assembly. I suspected it was heading in this direction when they mentioned the Assembly "increased spending on itself". I hoped they would keep it in wider context – for example a single paragraph in a list of "spending crimes" - to attract the usual names in the comments section.

They seem to have opted for the ghoulie-grabber, and it's backfired stupendously.

There was an instant firestorm on social networking sites, and the inevitable petition was doing the rounds. The re-tweets and re-sends reached, within hours, more than double the WM's daily circulation. That in itself isn't a particularly good sign for the long-term future of the paper.

I believe I have to do something I didn't really want to do, but feel is necessary – defend the Western Mail. But first I'm going to have to dissect the story itself.

£400k – but where's the meat?

The story is based on conjecture and a figure that "could" happen at some point in the future. It's somewhat shoddy journalism that they should be embarrassed to have splashed over the front page.

Not for the first time, Martin Shipton and his team have placed their trust in anonymous "sources".
We've heard a lot from "sources" recently - including attacks on Leanne Wood from Labour. If these people are vain and arrogant enough to go into public affairs/politics in the first place, surely they should be big enough to show their face or put names to quotes?

To put things into context, £400,000 equates to:
  • About 0.9% of the Assembly's administration costs for 2012-13
  • 0.003% of the entire budget of the Assembly
  • About 3-and-a-bit Local Authority executives (out of God knows how many).
  • One third of the Older People's Commissioner budget.
  • Roughly the cost of 7 AM's annual salaries.
  • Slightly less than the Value Wales budget. (No, I hadn't heard of them before either)
  • £23million less than the Welsh Government have chosen not to use to counteract Council Tax Benefit cuts.

It's next to nothing in the grand scheme of things. I'll be posting on the much-vaunted Infrastructure and Housing Plans in the next couple of days and weeks. Having scanned through them, there's an awful lot of stuff in both that needs exposure. I'm not a particularly happy bunny.

I wish the Western Mail had such a strong reaction to the Green Investment Bank bid, effectively being lied to by the Health Minister, or that the recently-elected Cardiff Council is in the process of ripping apart one of the most ambitious urban development schemes in Wales. There's significantly more than £400k at stake there.

They've noticed that a gnome is out of place in the front garden, while ignoring that the house is on fire. Poor show. They've also made the - near suicidal -decision to weasel-in language like:
"....purist's devotion to an all-embracing bilingualism at any cost...."

How do you think that's going to be interpreted? It's a more erudite version of "monkey language" - entrenching Welsh as second-class to English. Isn't decent translation, in itself, a "public service"?

If cost-saving measures can be introduced, without compromising quality – great. But concentrating on relatively minor administrative details doesn't do any of us any favours.

They also make a distinction between plenary and committee, as though one is more important than the other. I'm sure some AMs - who seemingly do sod-all in the Assembly outside of the committees - in particular Labour back-benchers, will be pretty annoyed with that.

Politics is dull, largely rewardless, thankless, and most of the time seems to consist of saying not very nice things about other people, while believing with all your heart you're right even if you're completely wrong and know it. We expect our politicians to live like monks, and that's why there was such a backlash to the Westminster expenses scandal.

The day-to-day running of the legislature, however, isn't something at the top of most people's concerns I'd imagine. What our AMs do with their time there, and the decisions they make on the wider budget and laws, are far more important.

Overlooking the importance of the committees is more damaging to our democracy than lack of coverage or scrutiny. That's where most of the grunt-work is done in the Assembly.

FMQs is a sideshow in comparison. It's theatre, not politics. We can't afford to reduce public understanding of how the Assembly works to the weekly ego stroking and question dodging.

Having said all that....

We need somebody to keep the Assembly on its toes. Somebody has to go through the spending figures. Somebody has to dig the dirt. Somebody has to break the cosy consensus within the Assembly and provoke debate. Like it or not, the Western Mail is best placed to do that.

Recently I posted on the findings of the Task & Finish Group on the Welsh media. I said:
"With pressure being exerted on Welsh media outlets, for various reasons, it's vital that the perceivable decline is halted and turned around. No media. No accountability. No democracy."

Many are probably hoping that this is the final nail in the coffin of "Llais y Sais". Maybe they deserve it for pulling stunts like this. But that would be a catastrophe for Welsh civic life. There's no replacement - short of the Liverpool-based Daily Post "going national", the even more hysterical South Wales Echo become a low-brow, tabloid replacement, the Evening Post breaking out of south west Wales. Or even someone with a bottomless pit of cash stepping in, and propping up what is to all intents and purposes a dying medium.

It doesn't help when Western Mail attempts to commit seppuku, but I suspect it'll survive this because we have no other alternative other than BBC Wales and ITV Wales. Both of them are bit-players easily subsumed in larger pan-UK institutions. The Western Mail might be too within Trinity Mirror – a profitable part keeping the whole afloat – but they are the only source of highly-detailed analysis of Welsh politics, public life, sport and the economy.

For every editorial like this morning, there's an AWEMA scandal uncovered.

For every over the top headline about unemployment figures, there's a Wales Top 300 list.

When Welsh sport stories consist of a small column, tucked away in the back pages of the British press, it'll make the front page or back page of the Western Mail.

They can do better than this, and they've proven that more than once before. They've picked the wrong target. They'll probably need to apologise, or explain in more detail, their slight against the Welsh language to prevent the palpable anger turning into something that could affect the long-term survival of the newspaper.

However, they should never apologise for doing their job.

If anything, this "incident" highlights the need for greater plurality in our media, a rethink of how we want to hold the Assembly to account (and for what reasons) and some pretty determined actions by our politicians to make it so - as a matter of urgency.


  1. According to the Assembly itself, the translation cost is £95,000. Duw knows where they got the £400,000 from!

  2. The stunt hasn't back fired, it has done exactly what they wanted. The Western Mail (like all newspapers) doesn't exist to report the news, but to make money. It does this by selling copies and by getting hits on its website, and nothing gets WalesOnline readers fired like 'the language.'

    It doesn't matter in the slightest whether people visit the site because they have been sent there by twitterers and bloggers condeming the article, so they will no doubt be delighted by the twitter storm.

    I don't buy the idea of them holding the Welsh Government to account either, their second objective after making money is to support the Labour party. They kicked off the AWEMA story by accident and tried to bury it as soon as they found out Malik was a labour man, they only started reporting it again when bloggers made a fuss. Likewise their reporting of labour/unison's attack on Leanne Wood was out of character and probably got someone in trouble.

    Kicking off a new argument about the language will help get them back in labour's good books as they are always happy to fight the 'evil elitist NATS' on the language.

  3. Fair enough Dedeiax, I'm sure the website has had a huge surge in visits today, there are over 300 comments on the story at the moment. The only problem is that news websites don't make money unless you have a paywall like the Times, and even they're not hugely profitable. What makes money for Trinity Mirror is the Western Mail itself, and if only a small percentage of those outraged Tweeps pledging never to buy the rag again ever go through with their threats then the WM is going to be losing some serious income. When your week-day circulation is down to 21,000 every lost reader starts to count.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Anon - Peter Black has been quoted on Betsan Powys' blog that the cost would be around £350-360,000 per year using Google Translate - a system he has trumpeted I'd like to add.

    Dedeiax - I agree with you re. publicity, but I haven't linked to any of the stories because I know that would be what they would want. Although I agree that the WM probably is a Labour-leaning, or Labour-friendly paper, I wouldn't want them to slavishly devote themselves to any of the opposition parties either. I'm sure many of those who praised Matt Withers' "condemnation" of Andy Richards comments were the first to react negatively to todays editorial.

    And yes, mentioning the language is a very easy way to attract sock puppets to the comments section.

    As Lyndon says, and the Task and Finish Group reported, many newspapers have been "optimistic" about online revenue streams and they are still largely reliant on physical sales. They haven't done themselves any favours today, but I suspect it'll be "business as usual" once everyone calms down.

  5. £400,000 is roughly what the Welsh Government spends advertising jobs in the Western Mail. There's a saving to be made right there, wonder if Shipton will champion it?

  6. Not all publicity is bad but damage has been done, one company has cancelled its weekly subscriptions to the Western Mail and called on others to do the same. However the Western Mail has been on the ropes for a while and although this might give them temporary relief, long term are the anti devolution, anti language sock puppets as you called them better spenders than the rest of us to keep the paper afloat?

    I don’t entirely disagree about the Western Mail, but do take issue with Martin Shipton, he’s been treading this anti Assembly path since well before the last Welsh Assembly elections and been questioning any spending on AM’s, staff or the running of the Assembly with glee.

    He may me deeply disillusioned with his Labour mates in power in Cardiff Bay, but unlike many of us he’s in a position to do something about it and doesn’t, so yesterday was more likely boredom kicking in and an opportunity of creating a shit storm for his own publicity and amusement.

    And he may have broken the initial story about Naz Malik and AWEMA because he likes sensationalism and tittle tattle, but it was Dragon’s Eye who did the boring spade work to finally corner Malik & Co about his dodgy dealings, the Western Mail followed when it could have lead on one of the major scandals since devolution began – why, not enough resources, too political or journalists who couldn’t be arsed, kinda sums up the problem in the Welsh press to me.

    It would also be extremely ironic to see the Western Mail become a weekly as Martin predicted a few weeks back because of his actions over this story.

  7. Anon 01:37 - I'm not sure who would come out looking worse if the WG withdrew advertising funding based on this story. I'd have the popcorn out for that one.

    ACOP - Personally, I think Martin Shipton does a pretty decent job. Perhaps he is disillusioned, and I wouldn't really blame him for that. He seems to be using the "excessive spending in an time of cuts" angle, and that would resonate with a few people.

    £400,000, or however much it is, isn't a small figure. However the Assembly's administration would be looking at 50-60% cuts across the board to make up, for arguments sake, the shortfall in Council Tax Benefit which Martin highlighted. That's not a suggestion that they shouldn't look for saving, but if they did make cuts on that level, would they even be able to keep the lights on at Ty Hywel?

    I don't think there's anything wrong with sensationalism - sometimes - as long as it's put within a wider context. Maybe because things are so boring here, it's easy for Welsh journalists to focus on the minutiae while ignoring the whole.

    I wouldn't mind the WM going weekly, as long as it were an incredibly high-quality publication and there was a replacement for it in the daily market - perhaps a slimmed-down freesheet.