The devolution of broadcasting is essential to creating a functioning Welsh democracy

Liz Saville Roberts

Founding father, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a handwritten letter to the Welsh philosopher, Richard Price in 1789:

 “…wherever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.” (Jefferson, 1789)

These words remind us that we politicians are answerable to those who elect us and that our citizens are intrinsic to our democracy in holding our representatives to account.

Our citizens act as a counterweight on the scales of democracy, without whom, our government and legislators will be unchecked and left to become an aristocracy.

The success of our democracy, therefore, relies on our citizens, and relies specifically on them being well-informed so that, “whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”

With the self-styled “national newspaper of Wales” getting circulation figures of around 15,500, and despite the hugely valuable forum provided by this website reaching substantially more, our citizens remain largely reliant on broadcast media to keep themselves informed on Welsh affairs. Broadcast media that is, who are focussed on Westminster.

Despite the 19 years of devolution, the media is yet to adapt to the devolved, multi-national nature of the UK state. UK-wide broadcasters still operate as if the UK is one country, with one NHS, one education system and one budget.

The population of England compared to that of the other three countries makes it the dominant focal point for all UK-wide broadcasters.

No doubt, a major crisis in the English NHS or education would grab UK-wide headlines, including in Wales, whereas a similar story in the context of Wales would have repercussions for only the small number of people resident in Wales and would therefore not be eligible for coverage on UK-wide news bulletins or current affairs programmes.

This not only deprives the Welsh electorate of significant and important information, but potentially also misleads the Welsh electorate into taking English-only matters as being applicable to them.

Polling has reflected this concern. A poll for the BBC in 2014 found that fewer than half the population realise the Welsh Government, rather than Westminster, is in charge of the NHS in Wales. More people are aware that education is devolved but almost a third still think our schools are run by the Tories in Westminster.

Damaging democracy

This democratic deficit is perhaps most explicit in the context of current affairs and debate programmes such as Question Time and Newsnight.

In the case of Question Time, Welsh viewers will frequently find themselves watching a debate on very important and emotive issues such as (English) education reform or the privatisation of the (English) NHS that have no relevance to them as Welsh citizens.

It is clear that the BBC are aware of its frequent irrelevance to Wales and other devolved nations, because when broadcast from Wales, audience members are told that they are not allowed to ask questions on these policy areas because they will not be relevant to the majority English audience.

That one of the most popular current affairs programmes broadcast in Wales is prevented from covering devolved matters – that is, those matters that are of most significance to the people of Wales – is clearly damaging to Welsh democracy.

The cross-party Commission on Devolution in Wales (Silk Commission) recommended the devolution of S4C funding. For me, and for Plaid Cymru, there is no question that decisions relating to Welsh language broadcasting should be made in Wales in our own democratic institutions. There is no reason why Westminster should have control over S4C.

Neither is there a reason why Welsh speakers should be treated differently to non-Welsh speakers. We are all citizens of Wales – what is news to a Welsh-speaking citizen is news to a non-Welsh speaking citizen.

It is worth noting that Welsh speakers have access to the BBC-produced, Newyddion, shown on S4C, the content of which is on a par with the six or ten o’clock English language news services, rather than regional programmes such as the BBC’s Wales Today, in that it covers global events, not just domestic matters, and those domestic matters it does cover are the domestic matters of Wales, not those of England.

This BBC-produced service should be available to non-Welsh speakers too, offering all viewers a truly “national” service that is relevant to them.

It should be considered a duty on broadcasters, and on the BBC especially as a state broadcaster, to facilitate democratic accountability and at the very least offer the equivalent of the service provided to Scottish viewers in allocating a twenty minute slot within Newsnight, providing Welsh viewers with an in-depth discussion of Welsh political affairs every evening on BBC Two in English and on S4C in Welsh.

To have daily, public scrutiny of Welsh governance would drastically improve democratic accountability in Wales and would go some way in addressing Wales’ democratic deficit. Ultimately, it is the people of Wales who are tasked with setting the government right when things go wrong but without being well-informed, the people of Wales simply cannot be expected to trust themselves to do so.

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