Democratic Deficit to Digital Dialogue

(Title image: National Assembly Blog)

If you love buzzwords, then the report from the Assembly Commission’s task force on digital news and information – published towards the end of June – will be right up your street (pdf).

Chaired by former Welsh Government minister, Prof. Leighton Andrews, the task force was given the unenviable job of figuring out ways to take stories from the Senedd to a wider audience. It continues a process that began in the Fourth Assembly to tackle what’s been dubbed the “Democratic Deficit”: lack of information about, and engagement with, the Senedd’s work.

It’s undoubted that the main reason (other than general political apathy) is the Welsh public are over-reliant on TV and print news produced and sourced for an English audience – a situation very different from Scotland and Northern Ireland, where their domestic media is in a much stronger position.

Wales doesn’t have a national newspaper (our biggest newspapers are regionals); a disproportionate amount of Wales-focused media is through the medium of Welsh; while WalesOnline, BBC Wales and ITV Wales do often commendable jobs of covering Welsh current affairs, they have to compete with “News From Where You Are™”: i.e. cats up trees, charity fundraising, crime, sport, weird people doing weird things and – increasingly in WalesOnline’s case – listicles and stealth adverts (more from the highly-recommended Desolation Radio podcast).

In summary, the headline recommendations were:

  • An independent digital content service should be established by the Assembly Commission, staffed by journalists and headed by an “experienced, impartial editor”. It would be focused on covering stories from the Senedd.
  • The Senedd’s online platforms should be more user-friendly (i.e. easy to share, better navigation, easier to make video clips, simpler language).
  • Committee investigations requires better forward planning, editorial work and scheduling.
  • Renewed commitment to open data with social media friendly presentation of complicated issues (i.e. infographics).
  • A dedicated online platform aimed at younger audiences.

These recommendations are nothing we haven’t heard before. In 2014, myself and several others attended a “Blogger Day” at the Senedd and some of these issues were raised then.

The headline recommendation – calling for Assembly-employed journalists – nearly matched word-for-word what Leighton Andrews said himself in a Click on Wales article published in March 2017. So you’ve got to ask whether that was a pre-determined conclusion?

The digital content service sounds like a fancy name for a press office. In that scenario, you would assume they would simply repackage what’s already produced by Commission staff into a more digestible format, which would then be used by smaller media outlets who don’t have the time, resources or staffing capacity to cover the Senedd themselves. On paper, that’s pretty uncontroversial.

While Leighton Andrews pre-emptively dismissed suggestions this proposed service would be a Pravda, press offices can and do routinely publish propaganda (see Carmarthenshire Council). Politicians of all types have a public image problem and there’s always a danger that an internal news service will try and present the best possible angle, not the reality; the reality being that sometimes you can’t polish a turd.

It would be a pretty damning, and potentially very chilling, state of affairs if one of the primary sources of political journalism in Wales were people employed by the legislature itself; but it should also tell you how bad things are.

I’m going to have to accept none of my sites are ever going to be considered mainstream news publications. That comes with the territory because I don’t have an NUJ card or journalistic training, and I’m not one of these people who like to “network” or re-publish press releases. I do my own work to my own rules.

But the mainstream press, as well as the Welsh “Fifth Estate”, do something vital. Collectively, we independently interpret and comment on what happens in Welsh politics at a national and local level. It provides a measure of plurality that politicians and commentators have long whined doesn’t exist in Wales, when it actually does but isn’t properly nurtured or supported.

Will a couple of extra tweets, infographics and Facebook posts cut through the mind fog? I remain sceptical.

The most important conclusion in the report wasn’t the stuff about open data, social media engagement or the digital content service, but that people may be more open to topical news stories with an emotional human interest element: “Why should this matter to me?”

That’s a question every single AM, the Senedd as an institution, and every talking head and commentator (including myself) have failed to answer since 1999. Far from feeding them information, the public is often force-fed sprouts and given indigestion.

It’s not because nobody’s tried. It’s because there comes a point where politics and government can’t be dumbed down any further to compete with other distractions, and that key question – “Why should this matter to me?” – becomes impossible to answer in a way the audience might understand. Maybe part of the solution is to revisit how people are taught about politics and current affairs.