As voters today go to the polls in crucial elections, here our Editor Phil Parry looks at the importance of political balance during campaigns, when one Welsh ‘news’ website displays the logo of a party on its title page.
Earlier he has described how he was helped to break into the South Wales Echo office car when he was a cub reporter, recalled his early career as a journalist, the importance of experience in the job, and making clear that the ‘calls’ to emergency services as well as court cases are central to any media operation.
He has also explored how poorly paid most journalism is when trainee reporters had to live in squalid flats, the vital role of expenses, and about one of his most important stories on the now-scrapped 53 year-old BBC Cymru Wales TV Current Affairs series he presented for 10 years, Week In Week Out (WIWO), which won an award even after it was axed, long after his career really took off.
Phil has explained too how crucial it is actually to speak to people, the virtue of speed as well as accuracy, why knowledge of ‘history’ is vital, how certain material was removed from TV Current Affairs programmes when secret cameras had to be used, and some of those he has interviewed.
The regular television Current Affairs programme I presented for 10 years on BBC Cymru Wales (BBC CW) ‘Week In, Week Out’ (before it was ditched to be replaced by the occasional BBC Wales Investigates (BWI)), was actually taken off air during election campaigns in case any controversial issues might be seen as favouring one party over another.
Political balance is enshrined in law too.
The media regulator Ofcom presents details of the Communications Act 2003 by saying: “Due weight must be given to the coverage of parties and independent candidates during the election period”.
These legal rules apply to broadcasters (and do not govern the partisan ‘reports’ which pass for news in UK newspapers), but they also set a benchmark for impartiality in all reporting.
One website in Wales, though, stands head and shoulders above the others in flouting those rules.
It carries the logo of the opposition party Plaid Cymru (PC) on its title page, its ‘stories’ consistently push the party’s agenda, while highlighting anything which is embarrassing to other parties, and its ‘Editor’ Ifan Morgan Jones has posted a picture of himself online declaring that he is voting for PC, as well as another of an election sheet giving all the candidates, showing his pen hovering over the one for PC. Yet it says it provides news for everyone.
It is the the taxpayer-funded Nation.Cymru (NC).
The website has boosted the independence movement by saying, for example, that “Support for Welsh independence has risen again”, because it was at 11 per cent whereas the previous year it was seven per cent, and in a tweet it has proclaimed: “Welsh indy movement YesCymru sees membership surge as 500 join in five days”. The Wikipedia entry for it bears an image of the flag of Yes Cymru (YC).
NC’s lack of political neutrality is also evident in the fact that it failed to cover the news that PC did not declare large amounts of money, but DID publish a piece about the UK Tory party putting it in an extremely bad light, along with another tendentious item saying “Conservative AM has accepted more free international rugby tickets than any other UK politician”.
Several readers of NC have said the site is “biased”. On the NC Facebook (FB) page, comments have appeared in the past criticising its support for PC.
One said: “It’s a biased online site for some of the people of Wales”. A further one stated: “If people are going to criticise one group they need to consider the actions of others, otherwise its called hypocrisy… we need to ensure all sides play by the rules”.
A lengthy ‘report’ about the Conservative Party said: “More than half of donations received by new Conservative MPs in Wales came from secretive fundraising clubs based in the south-east of England”.
Yet the story that NC omitted to cover, but which received huge media attention in other outlets, was that PC had been fined tens of thousands of pounds after not declaring money from public coffers.
This was The BBC report: “Plaid Cymru has been fined £29,000 for failing to report cash it received from taxpayers’ funds worth nearly £500,000. The Electoral Commission said over a two-year period Plaid had omitted 36 separate sums from quarterly reports. Plaid had failed to declare cash from the House of Commons authorities, and some cash from the Electoral Commission.”
Even with public support, it seems that officials at NC want more money to stifle this kind of news, and promote other ‘stories’.
Dr Jones tweeted on Easter Day last year to Hollywood superstar Michael Sheen that any support for a ‘new service’ would be “gratefully received and the better the service will be”, when he asked about the cost, and in another tweet Dr Jones proclaimed that they had “already reached an audience of some 2m readers digitally”. The tweets asking for money were also sent to UndebPlaidCymru which is “The official trade union section of Plaid Cymru”.
NC gets a huge grant from the Books Council of Wales (BCW) which is itself funded by the Welsh Government (WG), that will be formed from the party which wins most seats in the vote today for the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru (WP/SC).
The WG Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism (formerly a leading figure in PC), Dafydd Elis-Thomas MS, said that he was “delighted” to support the BCW to invest in the Welsh economy. “This will be a significant boost to the Books Council of Wales but also the whole publishing industry in Wales,” he said.
Dr Jones even teaches journalism at Bangor University (BU), when presumably neutrality in political reporting is stressed.
Another critic of NC told The Eye: “This crosses the line”, while a further one said: “It creates a potential conflict of interest”, with a different detractor saying online: “How can they do anything about the university when they are advertising one of the courses their own Editor teaches on?!”.
The advert on the NC website proclaimed the importance of the “Journalism and Media Studies BA” at “PRIFYSGOL BANGOR UNIVERSITY”. But Dr Jones’ CV states: “I am the BA Journalism Course Leader at the School of Creative Studies and Media at Bangor University, and lecture on the subject of practical journalism”.
NC’s obvious political leanings have prompted other, more extreme, comments on its FB page when The Eye exclusively disclosed that incendiary remarks have included ones that holiday homes should “burn to the ground”.
Extremist comments like this were posted after a link was published to an NC ‘news’ piece, which proclaimed that: “The county of Gwynedd in the north-west has seen the largest collapse in consumer spending as a result of Covid-19 in both Wales and England, according to business data”.
But one aggrieved writer hit back and said: “I am genuinely concerned by the amount of vitriol that comes out in the comments on the Nation.Cymru posts, and it makes me feel that we are uncomfortably close to the political posturing of 1930s Berlin.
“We have had property damage (mostly to key workers cars) and threats and insults made to people (again, often keyworkers going about their legitimate business) because “they’re not from round here.””
A different contentious article on NC also appeared to have the Covid-19 lockdown in its sights, and began: “If it’s ‘coronavirus holiday’ season in rural Wales, the forecast is frosty for second home owners”. It added: “From spreading the virus and skipping lockdown to unfairly claiming business relief, second home owners have had bad pandemic press”.
Yet these inflammatory statements prompted a string of other extreme observations. Apart from comments about burning holiday homes, another said: “I remember the sixties” which is a reference to a time when the paramilitary organisation Free Wales Army (FWA) was prevalent.
It is obvious though that NC attracts strong support on social media – but mainly of an overtly political nature.
Recently a supporter of the website tweeted that one critic could not gain a platform on a radio station in Wales which was about to close. He said: “One positive is the filthy bigot Marcus Stead will not have a flatform (sic) on there!”.
Today of all days, a website in Wales giving a ‘flatform’ to one political party, may be seen as a mistake when political balance is emphasised, and it claims to serve all “the people of Wales”…
Tomorrow – how the newly-elected politicians might tackle the ‘Welsh media landscape’, but are unlikely to use as an expert a ‘comedian’ who was not challenged about huge controversies in his past, during a radio podcast about the subject.
The memories of Phil’s astonishing decades long award-winning career in journalism (when neutrality in political reporting was seen as essential) as he was gripped by the rare neurological disabling condition Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in the major book ‘A GOOD STORY’ which was NOT funded by the Books Council of Wales. Order the book now!