Last month the Western Mail printed a front page a story which claimed that a lack of rich people was “holding Wales back”.
The news hook for the piece was the publication of new data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) which showed how the gap between rich and poor in Wales was smaller than anywhere else in the UK. 90% of Welsh households, we read, have a combined income of between £400-£650 per week, and millionaires are pretty few on the ground.
Instead of celebrating this (qualified) good news as a sign the nation’s wealth was more evenly distributed than elsewhere, the paper quoted a succession of very rich people arguing pretty much the opposite.
First up was the Director of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in Wales David Rosser saying that equality was all very well, but what we really need is more mega-rich people getting even richer so they can create jobs for the proles. Next came the millionaire owner of designer sprog-tog-shop JoJo Maman Baby, Laura Tenison, who bemoaned the “fact” that “more than half the population seems to work for the Assembly or in local government” and complained our “flabby public sector strangles entrepreneurship”.
Intrepid readers mystified by this exercise in journalistic doublethink had to plough a long way into the report to find mild dissenting voices from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (who, masters of dry understatement as they are, suggest Wales has “more pressing worries” than a dearth of mega-rich businessmen) and an actual economist, Professor Patrick Minford (who said: “I don’t see why we should be concerned about this”).
The whole three-page spread was illustrated by pictures of banknotes and a bling silver dragon Rolls Royce which looked like it had been pimped by a Taffia don: a crass cymric-neoliberal fantasy object that stands as a neat visual metaphor for the whole sorry story.
Why is this article important? I think, for a number of reasons.
A series of journalistic practices and harsh economic realities underpin its production, and they all point to the necessity of fostering a thriving independent radical public sphere in Wales.
Many of the reasons it was written like this are down to the journalist’s individual choices. For instance, when faced with a fairly dry “diary story” in the shape of a dense set of data from the ONS the author decided who to quote in order to choose a news angle. Instead of going left (to the Unions or some workers, for instance), he took an emphatic right turn and allowed the CBI and others to set the agenda and provide a frame.
But most of the factors which determined the telling of this story are structural, and relate to the political economy of the Welsh commercial news media. Trinity Mirror, the UK parent company which owns the Western Mail has consistently mismanaged its Welsh titles with a view to squeezing every iota of profitability out of them. They’ve sacrificed what should be a Welsh public good (the news) for private shareholder profit.
They’ve employed a suicidally short-termist business strategy. As formerly healthy revenues have dropped because of circulation or advertising pressures Trinity’s cut costs (meaning staff) to maintain profitability; the cuts reduce the quality of the newspaper which causes audiences to decline, which creates further pressure on circulation and advertising; this then leads to further cuts and the cycle begins again.
Circulation figures at the Western Mail have plummeted. In 1979 it had a circulation of 94,000; now it stands at around 30,000. Meanwhile, huge profits have been made at the expense of cutting more and more journalistic staff. Media Wales now regularly posts double the profits it did in the late 1990s, but the number of journalists has fallen by more than a third. Those who are left in the newsroom have shouldered massive workload increases and are increasingly desk-bound, unable to get out on their “beats” in the local community to make contacts and find news stories. This kind of air-conditioned journalism has a clear effect on the way reporters do their jobs: active journalists become passive “churnalists”, with little choice but to re-write press releases.
Journalists have always favoured official news sources over the man in the street, but these changes have exacerbated the problem. In our public relations democracy increasingly desk-bound reporters have to rely more and more on processing material produced for them by powerful groups and individuals with large press offices. Research conducted in 2007 found that 84% of hacks at the Western Mail think their workloads have increased in recent years, and 92% say that they use PR material in their stories more than they used to.
This partly explains why a hard-pressed journo with five or six stories to research, check, and write up in a day, took the choices he did when faced with writing up the report from the ONS. It also points to the clear necessity for more radical citizen journalism in Wales. Bloggers can’t do the full job of a well-funded independent mass media – we simply don’t have the numbers, the time, or the resources. But in a Welsh mediascape dominated by a structurally compromised press, where the cards are stacked in favour of powerful (often right-wing and neoliberal) voices with slick PR machines, we have an essential part to play.
A tip of the hat to Welsh Ramblings and Plaid Panteg who wrote about this Western Mail story in June.