Welsh Assembly yet to find its voice

This is an article by Matt Warlow.
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The National Assembly for Wales has an important message to get out to the public, but despite having two languages at its disposal, it seems to have difficulty finding its voice says Matt Warlow.

If you wander into the National Assembly building in Cardiff Bay, you can buy a cup of tea and watch the proceedings taking place in the chamber below. The Richard Rogers-designed home for Welsh politics speaks of openness and connection, with the panorama of Cardiff Bay’s oddly shaped skyline visible through the building’s massive glass walls. The people on the outside are very much linked to the Assembly Members within, which fits in very nicely with the new image that Wales is trying to shape for itself as friendly, relaxed, and open. Nothing like stuffy old England.

Welsh Assembly It’s a huge success, both in terms of providing an iconic focal point for politics in Wales, but also by creating an open public area where politicians, school trips and curious tourists share the same space. For a silent building, it communicates its messages clearly and directly.

Yet despite this setting, those wanting to talk Welsh politics seem to find it hard to know where or how to begin. Simple questions such as “what is the National Assembly”, “what does it do and how does it work?” can produce uncertain and complex answers even from those in the centre of the Welsh political sphere.

But the devolutionary clock is ticking and the National Assembly needs to find its voice quickly. Wales faces a referendum within the next four years, where the public will be asked to decide whether it should be given greater law-making powers. If this referendum is to produce the ‘yes’ vote that many are craving, it is essential that The National Assembly for Wales makes its case in clear and powerful terms, letting the public know what it has done already, and has the potential to do in the future.

For the moment there’s no shortage of muttering, posturing and wrangling over the finer points of the latest Government of Wales Act. But if you tried to pin someone down to tell you what exactly is going on in Welsh politics, you’d be hard pushed to get a straightforward answer. Despite the ambition and enthusiasm driving Welsh politics forward, it’s a complicated, convoluted and at times irritatingly pedantic affair. It certainly doesn’t lend itself to easy explanation.

Wales currently finds itself in a devolutionary half-way house. It hasn’t got the status of Scotland’s Parliament, but it’s definitely something more than the ‘glorified county council’ as dubbed by its detractors.In areas such as education and health, its remits are wide ranging. However it’s a system in transition meaning that when it comes to defining what the National Assembly is and what it does, there are few established definites to work with.

Nevertheless, the National Assembly now has a very positive effect on those living in Wales, or hoping to do business there. The message should be ‘ignore it at your peril’, yet as Wales is granted ever more areas of independent control, the opportunities for discussing Welsh political events have not increased at the same rate. Even though the figures suggest that support for greater Welsh independence is growing throughout the country, it is all too easy for the Welsh to remain ignorant of what is going on down in Cardiff Bay. The complexity of the subject matter only goes so far in explaining this media deficit. Another likely explanation may come from the fact that over 80% of news and print media in Wales comes from London, and with even the BBC facing accusations of an English bias, getting a place for a story with a specifically Welsh angle is hard work.

Things were brought to a head recently, when Plaid Cymru MP Adam Price threatened not to pay his TV licence fee, as his interests as a Welsh citizen were not being properly represented. He’s not alone in feeling short-changed, as many feel that those in charge of publishing newspapers and reporting the news have been slow to recognise the changing political face of the UK.

However, on the issues of health and education, one story on the Six o’clock News will not be enough to cover the varying details affecting London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff. An inquiry is currently underway within the BBC to uncover the extent of this England bias, and it is coming under increasing pressure to make news programmes more inclusive of other parts of the UK outside the South East.

Betsan Powys, Chief Political Correspondent for BBC Wales, believes that with a little creative thinking there’s no reason why national news couldn’t be more inclusive of the UK’s constituent parts. Using the example of private finance initiatives, she feels that a devolution angle can be fed into other news stories. “PFIs haven’t been used to the same extent in Wales as they have in England,” she explains “but that doesn’t mean that stories on them have to exclude Welsh interests. There’s no reason why you couldn’t do a report from a hospital in Cardiff or Aberyswyth showing how the health service here is operating without PFI. Here you kill two birds with one stone, you highlight the differences between the devolved nations of the UK – you actually remind people that the political map is shifting – and you get a story from outside London.”

National print and broadcasters have perhaps a greater responsibility to explain the processes of devolution than they realise, as it’s not as if Wales can compete with its own selection of home grown national media. The only Welsh national newspaper, The Western Mail, has a circulation below 40,000, and while the paper seems generally in favour of further devolved power, any political stories will have to fight for space with the antics of Wales’s rugby players.

So the search is on for different routes of communication. External communications at the National Assembly has capitalised on the physical space of the Assembly buildings, and on a daily basis welcomes school groups in the same space as visiting foreign dignitaries. On a face to face level it does well in engaging with its publics, but getting messages out to those who can’t get down to Cardiff Bay still poses a problem.

CIPR member Anna Miller, who works with the Assembly’s media relations team believes that the way to engage people with Welsh politics is to explain what the Assembly does for them on a local level, making each story relevant, from Bangor in the North, to Swansea in the South. “We mustn’t underestimate the scale of what has to be achieved here,” she says, “but despite the challenge, there is real potential to engage with people. The things that the Assembly deals with in areas such as health, education or the Welsh language affect people’s everyday life.”

She believes that while links to the national press and media are important they are so limited it is far better to put effort into getting stories reported on a more regional level, as the combined readership of local papers gives these stories a good reach, bypassing the national press and still making an impact.

And here there is evidence to suggest that the way the National Assembly functions lends itself to reporting at a local level. As Miller explains, “some of the most well covered stories of the past year have come from the Assembly’s Petitions Committee, where anyone who can get 10 signatures together has the potential to present their petition for consideration. Whether the petition has been about the closure of a local swimming pool, or revision to the Assembly’s current policies on child protection, stories generated here have real local interest and demonstrate the accessibility which is one of the Assembly’s greatest strengths.”

Engagement and accessibility will be top of the agenda in the coming months as an ‘All Wales Convention’ tours through the country, gauging public opinion on greater independence and hoping to spark a wider national debate. As a new version of democracy opens up in Wales, the importance of this debate and the role it will play in explaining what devolution means cannot be underestimated. Yes, this is a period of transition, and as such the full state of play has yet to be defined and as you would expect, the process of political devolution is an unwieldy beast to explain. However, there is a danger that if the people of Wales are not engaged at this point of the process, then their interest and patience may be lost by the time a vote comes for greater powers. In the Assembly Chamber there’s ambition and optimism aplenty, but it may come to nothing unless it is communicated to the world outside its glass walls.

Photo credit: Welsh Assembly

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