April 3, 2017
On Wednesday 29th March 2017 the Institute for Welsh Affairs held its third annual Media Summit, bringing together academics, industry personnel and other key figures from the media sectors in Wales. Highlighting important issues such as the threat to journalism in a media landscape that is becoming increasingly digital, the future of Welsh language media, and how to create a sustainable workforce for the creative industries, the event allowed reflection on the complex and rapidly changing media ecology that small nations such as Wales must negotiate. Whilst crucial questions for the future of the media in Wales were raised, the third Media Summit also offers the opportunity for some looking back and reflection on where those of us interested in, and concerned about, the state of media in Wales have come from and where we currently are.
Where we are…
I first began to research Welsh media and culture back in 2008 when I took up a post as a Research Assistant at the University of South Wales (then the University of Glamorgan). Since then I have continued to research around topics including celebrity in small nations, the representations of place in television drama, and broader work on the links between mediated space and place and tourism. As part of the University of South Wales’ Centre for the Study of Media and Culture in Small Nations I have watched with interest how the media in Wales – and our study and understanding of it – has developed over almost a decade. Working primarily on television, it was initially clear to me that, despite the work of organisations such as Cyfrwng: Media Wales Journal and the efforts of those academics researching across different mediums, there was a surprisingly limited amount of academic research. There was also an almost constant need to articulate the importance of studying the media in Wales, especially to those outside of the country who were often unfamiliar with the different media and cultural landscapes of the different UK nations.
Since then, we have seen several key changes. Jana Bennett’s announcement in 2008 of the BBC’s ‘Beyond the M25’ strategy to move production from the centrality of London to regions and nations including studios in Salford, Glasgow and, of course, Cardiff led to the creation of the Roath Lock BBC Studios. As the Centre for Small Nations’ research project on Roath Lock Drama Studios and the Creative Industries in Wales found, the studios were a welcome addition to the landscape of Welsh television drama production due to its ability to contribute to skills and its signalling of a more ambitious and confident era of Welsh production. The presence of Roath Lock, alongside other key organisations such as Wales Screen, has undoubtedly helped attract big budget productions on both the big and small screens. It is doubtful whether ten years ago a Hollywood blockbuster such as the sequel to Jurassic World would be planning to film in the Brecon Beacons this Summer, for example. However, the security afforded to those working in the creative industries remains an area of concern, given the precarious nature of fixed-term contracts and the inevitable ebb and flow of productions in the country. Such issues were discussed at length at the IWA Summit’s panel on ‘A sustainable media workforce’ where the negotiation between the advantages of flexible working and the security of long-term employment was a key theme, alongside debates about improving accessibility to the media and creative industries for those in minority groups. Whilst conscious of these issues, the panel, and the audience however, remained confident that Wales’ success as a small nation also offers opportunities for doing things differently and rethinking how sustainability and security can be encouraged.
Journalism, news media and the ‘democratic deficit’
In the past ten years there have also been improvements in how news media reports on the nuances of politics and governance in an increasingly stratified United Kingdom which sees devolved governments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. As the realities of Brexit become clearer, it remains to be seen how United the Kingdom will truly be. However, recent research from Cardiff University has highlighted how the BBC has made some improvement with their blog for the IWA summit commenting on the fact that there are “more reporters covering Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and greater clarity in communicating the devolved relevance of policy issues”. Despite this, there are clear threats to the media in Wales. The Media Summit featured a panel asking ‘Will journalistic professionalism survive in Wales?’ which discussed the limits to civic participation. The panel drew further attention to the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ wrought by the decline in circulation of print newspapers and the concentration of ownership by large organisations such as Trinity Mirror. Even as the emergence of local print papers and hyperlocal news offers hope for a changing news landscape, issues over ethics and professional codes of conduct remain. As the panel demonstrated, whether the relatively small press within Wales can truly hold politicians and those in power to account remains a thorny issue.
The future of Welsh language media
The future of Welsh language media is perhaps even more precarious given cuts to S4C’s funding for broadcasting and the extremely limited availability of Welsh-language newspapers. However, S4C’s online strategies have reaped rewards with promising use of its Clic catch-up service and presence on i-Player, whilst social media platforms such as Twitter offer opportunities for connecting with others who speak the language, as well as making visible the enduring use of Welsh in everyday life. The panel dedicated to this topic dealt with these issues, as well as considering the possibilities offered by examining the broadcasting models offered by other minority language nations in Spain and Canada. There is clearly much to learn from countries with broadly comparable cultural and media landscapes, both in terms of English and Welsh language broadcasting. As the Centre for Small Nation’s recent project on Television in Small Nations discovered, there are shared challenges including “less access to talent, fewer capital resources, higher production costs, and a smaller market for advertising and license fee revenue”. However, engaging in knowledge exchange with international partners also allows us to develop approaches to dealing with the tensions inherent in the need for local, regional and national media in an increasingly globalised media world.
Portrayal and representation
As a researcher who has primarily focused on issues of representation and portrayal of Wales on-screen, it was interesting to me to see how little they were really addressed at the Summit. It was touched on in various panels but only really brought to the fore in the Interview between Professor Jane McCloskey and Charlotte Moore, who is currently Director of Content for the BBC. The IWA Media Audit in 2015 identified portrayal as a crucial area for improvement and, in this interview, Moore discussed the importance of the balance between moving production into regions and nations and the importance of the opportunities for increased portrayal that this offers. Similar conclusions were reached by the Small Nations Centre’s project on Roath Lock, which found that those who were involved in it were disappointed in the lack of production of Welsh stories and no upturn in the visibility of Wales across the network. There is, however, cause to be hopeful. At the Summit, Charlotte Moore noted the increase in spend in terms of what is being made in Wales but expressed a desire to still encourage Welsh content from Welsh writers and directors. This, coupled with an apparent desire to contribute a substantial chunk of the extra £8million that BBC Wales will see in its funding to producing content for the network that portrays Wales on-screen, offers some optimism for the future. Given the requirement that the BBC represent all the nations and regions of the UK, it is to be hoped that a new flagship network drama or comedy series reflecting Wales (in all its complexities) can be developed.
Considering the Welsh audience
As we consider where we go next in terms of researching and understanding the state of the media in Wales it seems to me that there remains huge value in turning to those who actually consume and use it – the audience. There continues to be a dearth in audience research about the varied viewers, listeners, readers, or browsers in Wales. The statistical analysis provided in Claire Enders’ fascinating and detailed opening talk on ‘The future of media in Wales’ at the Media Summit tells us much about the demographics of who is engaging but it cannot tell us why. It is seven years since the publication of the BBC Audience Council for Wales report on Screening the Nation that I worked on, and whilst the the IWA’s Media Audit in 2015 offered an incredibly broad and detailed overview of policy documents and existing studies, sustained empirical audience research fell outside of its remit. I would like to urge those of us who are concerned about where we go from here to consider a return to empirical audience research that draws on qualitative approaches – interviews, focus groups, analysis of online discussion and practices. Such methods are labour-intensive and can be costly but, as prior empirical research has shown us, they are key to truly understanding the importance of the media and culture in Wales. For example, my own recent research into the links between celebrity in Wales, the development of creative industries in Cardiff, and audience encounters with mediated figures highlighted the complex links between celebrity, representations and embodiments of national identity, and the ‘value’ accorded to places when media production occurs there and famous people are seen there. By way of closing, then, I would advocate that, in addition to the detailed policy work and industry/academic engagement that those of us researching the media in Wales already undertake, we take advantage of audience research to help us better understand how they people in Wales are using the media that they have, what they want, and why this matters to them.
Dr. Rebecca Williams is Senior Lecturer in Communication, Culture and Media Studies in the Division of Media and is the Course Leader for BA Media, Culture & Journalism at the University of South Wales.