Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Second Report

17.  Memorandum submitted by Dr Richard Wyn Jones


  The following is a series of points which I would like to draw to the committee's attention regarding the inter-relationship between the broadcasting media in Wales and Welsh political culture. For reasons of time and space, the points are made in a rather stark form. I shall look forward to expanding upon them and responding to any points which members may wish to pursue further during the session in Cardiff on Monday.

Broadcasting and politics (general)

  The media has long been considered an essential element in the political infrastructure of any democratic society—one might say that the information which the media "moves" around society is as blood to the human body; without it citizenship becomes a dead letter. In political terms, broadcasting (and especially TV) plays a particularly important role. We know that it is from (terrestrial) TV that most people pick-up their information about politics. We also know that this is the source of information that people believe to be most accurate and balanced.

The political infrastructure in Wales

  Given the importance of broadcasting in underpinning democratic politics, the relative weakness of the Welsh broadcasting media should be a major source of concern—especially given the imminent establishment of the National Assembly for Wales. There are two issues which I wish to highlight as being crucial in terms of the inter-relationship between broadcasting and political culture in Wales:

    1.  How many people in Wales watch Welsh-based terrestrial TV?

    2.  How adequate is the political coverage on Welsh-based terrestrial TV?

  Given that the former issue is obviously logically prior to the latter, I will concentrate on that.

How many people in Wales watch Welsh-based terrestrial TV?

  One crucial point to bear in mind when considering broadcasting in Wales is that about 35 per cent of the Welsh population live in so-called "overlap-areas"—that is areas where signals can be received from transmitters in both Wales and England. This means that they can potentially view both Welsh-based terrestrial TV (BBC Wales, HTV Wales and S4C) and English-based terrestrial TV (Various BBC regional services in England, Granada, HTV West, C4 etc). The crucial question is what do we know about how viewers in overlap areas tend to behave? This is of course an acutely sensitive issue for the broadcasters for all kinds of commercial and political reasons, therefore it may be useful to differentiate between what they say and what other evidence suggests!

  Both BBC Wales and HTV Wales claim that some 85 per cent of the Welsh population are regular viewers of their programmes. However, information from the 1997 Welsh Referendum Survey (a large scale and authoritative social survey conducted in Wales) suggests that 71 per cent of the Welsh population are regular viewers of BBC Wales with 68 per cent tuning-in regularly to HTV Wales.

  A second issue is what proportion of those living in Wales cannot receive a signal from Welsh transmitters? Here the only information I have is from a letter from the BBC in Cardiff (11.6.98) which stated that 10 per cent of the Welsh population cannot receive their signal. The situation for HTV Wales is likely to be similar.

Digital may make things worse

  I am not an expert on digital technology but it has been suggested that despite the desire of the Welsh broadcast media to embrace the digital age, the coverage of Wales-based terrestrial digital channels will be even worse. This may well be an issue the committee will wish to explore.

Does it make a difference in terms of participation in the political process?

  In a word, yes. The 1997 Welsh Referendum Survey has clearly demonstrated that regular viewers of BBC Wales and HTV Wales were more likely to vote in the referendum than those who do not watch Wales based terrestrial TV.

The information deficit

  With an eye to the establishment of the National Assembly, it is clear that lack of coverage of the Welsh-based terrestrial broadcasters represents a key weakness in the country's political infrastructure. As Welsh politics develops a character of its own and becomes increasingly distinct from politics in the rest of the UK, around a third of the population may well have little information about what is actually occurring. Indeed 10 per cent of the population simply will not have any access to the main and most trusted source of information on politics. The weakness of the Welsh print media means that they are unlikely to fill this information deficit (only around 13 per cent of the population read either of the two Welsh daily papers).

  If this "information deficit" is not addressed seriously—and quickly—the result may well be the creation of a sizeable minority increasingly alienated from the political process in Wales. Lack of information not only effectively precludes active participation in the democratic process, but breeds mistrust and misapprehension.

Institute of Welsh Politics

University of Wales, Aberystwyth

13 November 1998

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