Adam Somerset cast a critical eye over BBC Cymru Wales’ latest programme that focuses on political and civic life in Wales in his review of The Wales Report.
I missed The Wales Report on 24 March. That is ‘miss’ not in the sense of being out or elsewhere, but ‘miss’ as in the sense of ‘regretted its absence’. The programme took its Easter holiday a week early, and something felt lacking on a Sunday evening. It is still a new series, yet to find a tone of editorial consistency. It contains elements on occasions that are gaudy and discordant, but its virtues are considerable. Three at least are foremost.
The first is that it is released from the shackle of the non-stop pell-mell of events. As Daniel Boorstin reported back in 1961, a large measure of news comprises ‘pseudo-events’, created not for any intrinsic contribution to the bodies politic or civic, but solely for purposes of publicity. The Wales Report over February to March covers fifteen topics – for an unexplained reason, the BAFTA ceremony on 10 February prevents a programme that week. The subjects divide between the immediate – adulterated food, Merthyr’s education crisis, the Cabinet reshuffle – to issues of public concern such as the ill-effects of a widely prescribed medicine, child poverty, the possible existence of a shadowy employer blacklist.
It also covers issues of political structure and process. This area allows the second virtue of The Wales Report to come through. The speakers are allowed space to express themselves without rat-a-tat interruption. Thus, Andrew R T Davies is able to communicate his party’s thinking on devolution’s continuance; not in favour, at present, of justice, but favourable towards energy and broadcasting. As a human touch, the Conservatives back St David’s Day as a public holiday.
Similarly, on the subject of political structure, Lord Elis-Thomas is able to express his perspective. The four tiers of representation are out of kilter. It is ‘ridiculous’, for instance, that planning responsibility be divided between twenty-two local authorities and three National Parks. The electoral process for the Assembly, the division between regional and list members, ‘does not make any sense.’ From The Wales Report it looks as if local government rationalisation is simply a matter of time. Leighton Andrews awaits a report after Easter on the structure of education authorities, with his response then due in June.
The Wales Report does numbers, not in profusion, but enough to illuminate. The local government budget is £4.4 billion, the potential shortfall £128 million. Wales, says Richard Wyn Jones, has more councillors than Scotland. Assembly Members say that scrutiny of government, and representation, would be greatly enhanced by a number larger than sixty. That is a view of an interested party, but Betsan Powys provides the key statistic. The formula for representation is that the optimum number should be the cube root of the population.
David Melding is a good contributor on this issue of effective representation. Other politicians who feature include Vaughan Gething, David Jones, Paul Flynn and Ken Skates. On subjects as various as new media, the Information Commissioner or the MHRA, they are thoughtful and informed. Party is irrelevant in their approach to very different issues of public concern. Even where party is central the programme format allows space. Thus, Kirsty Williams occupies a position that has no precedent in British politics, in opposition at home but necessarily supportive of the Westminster government. She is able to explain a particular issue, the extension of Labour’s policy of regional pay, where the influence of the Liberals, and the Welsh Liberals, has been brought to bear.
The range of interviewees is broad and includes private sector representatives who are succinct and informative communicators. ‘Survival,’ says one; ‘it’s the new growth.’ Laura Tenison gives a clear analysis on re-reconfiguring the high street. National brands are going to go for the least-cost, biggest square footage sites. High streets are not going to thrive on single-site local shops. Getting the mid-size chains, like Tenison’s network of fifty-six, is key to creating a sense of part-familiarity. The language of interviewees is crisp and to the point. ‘Risible’, ‘preposterous’ and ‘embarrassing’ feature among the adjectives used by Richard Wyn Jones. Later ‘incongruous’, ‘inconsistent’ and ‘irrational’ are strung together as a spiky trio.
The studio interviewing is supported by location work, often headed by Helen Callaghan. Some topics are well-researched, edited and presented. The blacklist story is traced in its history, including the ambiguous role of a government agency, a victim and a present-day spokesperson in the form of Vaughan Gething. The item on Port Talbot’s response to the local newspaper’s decline with a volunteer-driven news service is of importance. The programme-makers also seek out the view of both a professional and a politician in the form of Ken Skates.
Two aspects currently let down The Wales Report. The first is a tendency to a gaudiness of approach, as if the makers are worried that current affairs are boring. The second, more serious, is shallowness and inadequacy of research.
Thus an item opens with the presenter standing before Cardiff’s stadium, the place where ‘we pledge our loyalty to our country’ before ‘doing what we do most of the time, beating each other up instead of uniting in a sense of common purpose.’ This soggy, voelkisch-tinged language is fundamentally anti-politics. The makers buoy it up with soaring music from Carmina Burana. Now there is a reminder of a composer who did not have a problem with his own country uniting in a sense of common purpose.
An interesting encounter is arranged between Kim Howells and Rod Richards. Cue background music: ‘the Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and later ‘Two Tribes.’ The editorial line is astonishment, more than once, that these two retired political actors should be in agreement. In this case it is the response of Britain’s car industry to the savage drop in demand in 2008. Yet cross-party agreement at a personal and working level is common, as any quick look at the Parliament Channel would indicate. Conversely the old Westminster adage runs, ‘It’s your opponents who are opposite but your enemies are behind you.’ The makers give the impression that public issues need dressing up to make a bit of a show.
Similarly, a report on the Assembly has the reporter looking through the glass of Richard Rogers’ building. There is a perception that debate in Cardiff Bay is not lively, and it is probably true. But the institution was never intended to mirror Westminster but to be akin to the flavour of a Select Committee. The business of government is government; judgement should be made whether it is any good or not. Decent politics are slow and deliberative. If it gets a little ponderous, that is indicator maybe that thoughtfulness is taking precedence over peremptory action. To focus entirely on First Minister’s Questions is akin to a restaurant critic raving over T G I Fridays, where the show is important, the menu less so. If a reporter wants drama, BBC Wales has a vacancy for a critic of theatre.
To the shallow. In January the economist Patrick Minford declares his interviewer to be talking rubbish. The subject is economic stasis, and the possible role for enhancing public sector capital expenditure. Professor Minford’s explanation is that Welsh businesses are hampered by the banks’ withholding credit. It is a view, not one shared by Britain’s best-known venture capitalist tycoon, and the interviewer’s role is to interrogate that view. However, there appears to be a belief, and repeated, that the greater prospering of businesses in Wales is principally beneficial to South East England. Professor Minford is a strong personality, but it certainly feels like rubbish. The encounter suggests that the research has not had the level of rigour to engage properly.
On the 24th February programme the assertion is made that the Welsh Assembly Members ‘haven’t captured the public imagination after all these years.’ It comes without qualification, a poll for example, but assertion is not journalism.
The programme tackles the Welsh meat industry. Helen Callaghan fronts a report that diligently explores the subject in different dimensions. As reported, meat is a flourishing export industry, with ninety-five percent of the lamb trade being exported. It is not surprising; the health profile for a start indicates a large number of households do not eat meat other than in its cheapest processed form. The researchers locate a Cwmbran butcher with a short integrated supply chain from farm to shop. With that kind of supply chain, lower prices would stimulate demand.
However, supply chain and marketing require some diligence in preparation. The interview instead chooses a path of ease but irrelevance. The Deputy Minister for Agriculture is badgered six times as to whether the Assembly sources its meat a hundred percent from Wales. ‘Can you give the Welsh people the assurance..?’ runs the question, even though the interviewer admits the issue to be purely symbolic. A current affairs programme that goes for symbolic over real issues needs consideration.
A thumbs-up for The Wales Report, then. But the Easter break should not be entirely holiday for its makers.