Marcus Stead

Journalist Marcus Stead

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The Welsh media in crisis

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By MARCUS STEAD

IN ANY democracy, it is essential there is a free and independent media, that rigorously holds those we elect to account, and is widely consumed by the public. This is not the case in Wales.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is providing daily examples of the shortcomings of the Welsh media in its current form. There are daily examples of severe failings by the Welsh Government that are not adequately reported by the Welsh media, nor are large sections of the public even aware that these failings have taken place.

Imagine for a moment that Boris Johnson had spoken at a press conference and directly contradicted his own government’s advice? Or what if he had told people they were only to leave home to go to work, for once-a-day exercise, to attend a medical appointment or to care for a vulnerable person, but then admitted to bicycling to his allotment, which is essentially a hobby?

What we used to call the ‘Fleet Street’ press would be demanding his immediate resignation. Yet that is exactly what Wales’s First Minister did in mid-May. The error wasn’t widely reported, nor was there much call for him to resign. Many in Wales will be completely unaware Mark Drakeford ever said these things.

Similarly, imagine what would happen if England’s Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, issued guidance insisting people mustn’t sit down on park benches for a picnic while out exercising, but was then pictured eating chips with his wife and child a day later? That’s exactly what happened with Wales’s Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, during the VE Day bank holiday. Yes, ‘Chipgate’ was reported by BBC Wales and the Welsh print media, but there was no great clamour for his resignation.

The most-listened to radio stations in Wales are BBC Radio Two, BBC Radio Four and BBC Radio One, in that order. BBC Radio Wales’s market share fluctuates between a miserable 5-6%, down from 12.9% in 2007, and much lower than BBC Radio Ulster’s 19.4%. There are a number of local commercial radio stations in Wales, but all of them are music-based and aside from short ‘top-of-the-hour’ news bulletins, there is very little news and current affairs coverage on any of them.

The most-read newspapers in Wales are the Daily Mail and The Sun. This, in itself, is not a problem. The vast majority of people in Wales consider themselves both British and Welsh. They do not want to just read about the goings on in the Senedd or the latest squabble in Welsh regional rugby. Many in Wales want a mix of news from Westminster, celebrity gossip, the latest from reality TV shows, the columns of Richard Littlejohn and Tony Parsons, Premier League football coverage and so on.

This only becomes a problem when the likes of the Daily Mail and The Sun refer to ‘THE’ Health Secretary and report lockdown restrictions as they apply to England, and fail to make it clear that it’s a devolved matter in Wales and the rules here are different. I do not blame the ‘Fleet St’ press for this. The Daily Mail and The Sun are the best-selling papers in Wales, but Welsh sales make up just a tiny fraction of the paper’s overall readership, and this is reflected in its editorial stance.

Even now, after two months of lockdown and daily media briefings by the Welsh Government, a very large number of people in Wales still couldn’t name the First Minister, or the Health Minister, or are aware that what Boris Johnson announces on behavioural guidelines does not apply in Wales. After more than 20 years of devolution, this is a sorry state of affairs, and a lack of a dynamic, widely-consumed Welsh media is largely to blame for this.

Understanding the problem 

Let me make it abundantly clear at this stage that I do not for one second pretend to have all the answers to this conundrum. The purpose of this essay is to get a discussion going as to a viable way forward.

First of all, Wales is not immune to the problems newspapers are facing across the Western world: Very few people under the age of 45 are in the habit of buying a daily newspaper. Indeed, very few are in the habit of paying for news content at all, whether in print or digital. This is not going to change any time soon.

Setting up a Wales-wide new newspaper from scratch at this time will not work. The costs of employing journalists, selling advertising, print, distribution, and persuading shops to stock the paper would be enormous, and would require the backing of a wealthy benefactor. That is not going to happen.

Welsh newspaper circulation figures

Welsh newspaper circulation figures

Furthermore, this image clearly demonstrates that all major Wales-based newspapers are dying. With the decline seen in recent years, it seems as though the Western Mail, South Wales Echo and Daily Post have a maximum of five years left as paid-for print publications. However, their owner, Reach Plc, recently announced a 30% slump in revenues during April, which suggests the demise of these papers may happen far sooner.

It is not just the young that are failing to engage with these papers. The older generations are breaking the habit of decades, due to what they perceive as a decline in the quality of these publications (they employ far fewer journalists than in the past, and they are expected to produce far more content in a much shorter news cycle), and by realising they can obtain free, up-to-date news on their computers, phones and tablets.  As one person put it to me, “Why should I pay to read yesterday’s news?”

Many older people have discovered this during the lockdown, and, with their confidence in using technology enhanced, it seems likely many will not return to buying a daily paper when life resumes its normal pace.

The business model of Wales Online, the digital sister of the Reach Plc print publications in the Principality, is a questionable one. It appears to be based on ‘clickbait’, namely attracting visitors to the site with an eye-catching headline, and then subjecting them to advertising. Their model appears to be based on making a tiny amount of money ‘per click’, and by cluttering up the page with an excessive amount of advertisements.

This leads to three problems: Firstly, it encourages the writing of sensationalist headlines that ‘stretch the truth’ to its limits in the name of securing a click from the reader. Secondly, it encourages its reporters and editors to focus on the frivolous (Wales Online editor Paul Rowland encouraged a reader who wanted to make it in journalism to write about ’19 mouth watering street food dishes in Wales’ by way of a clickbait article).  Thirdly, a very large number of readers start reading an article, and become so frustrated and irritated by the excessive clutter of advertising and ‘surveys they need to fill in to continue reading’ that they just give up.

The traditional, basic duties of a local paper are being sacrificed in the name of ‘clickbait culture’. The coverage of Magistrates and Crown Courts, local council meetings and public meetings about controversial local developments has been drastically scaled back. This, in itself, is bad enough wherever you live in Britain. But in Wales, it has the additional problem of insufficient coverage of the Welsh Parliament and Welsh Government.

The Welsh dimension 

In my essay ‘Wales – A Country Divided’, I outlined how prominent Welsh nationalists managed to gain huge influence on BBC Wales from its inception, spearheaded by the racist and antisemitic founder of Plaid Cymru, Saunders Lewis. To this day, nepotistic Welsh nationalist and Welsh first language cliques dominate the senior positions at BBC Wales, and recruit and promote other staff from among their own kind. Veteran investigative journalist Paul Starling outlined the scale of the problem in the early-mid 2000s, while Phil Parry, who worked for BBC Wales for more than 20 years, outlined the cosy relationship between BBC Wales and Plaid Cymru for his excellent The Eye Wales website.

Until relatively recently, the Reach Plc newspapers in Wales seemed largely immune from Crachach/Welsh nationalist influence. However, it appears that in recent years, those with Welsh nationalist sympathies have manoeuvred themselves into position and have ‘taken control of the cockpit’.

One consequence of this has been that several of its best-known journalists have ‘come out’ as Welsh nationalists in the last couple of years. The Western Mail’s chief reporter Martin Shipton has written sympathetically about Plaid Cymru and the Yes Cymru movement in recent years. Carolyn Hitt, known for her articles about rugby and culture from a parochial Welsh perspective, ‘came out’ as a Welsh nationalist during a speech to the Yes Cymru AGM in a far-from-full small converted chapel in Merthyr Tydfil in January 2020. Younger journalists are either recruited for their Welsh nationalist sympathies, or are at least willing to go along with the agenda. The editorial stance could be politely described as pro-maximum devolution, and more bluntly as increasingly sympathetic to Welsh nationalism, in the mould traditionally seen at BBC Wales.

With long hours, poor pay, and an uncertain long-term future, many journalists are looking for a long-term future in public relations, communications, or as part of the Welsh Parliament gravy train, either as civil servants, press officers, advisers, members of that parliament, or employed by lobbying bodies closely linked to it. Therefore, they are unlikely to be especially critical of any aspect of the Welsh establishment in their work.

The mindset and attitudes of those working for these media organisations puts them at odds with the majority of ordinary Welsh people, namely their readers or consumers. Coming home from work to a house in Pontcanna, and weekend dinner parties with Welsh political figures, S4C producers and Eisteddfod Gorsedd members hardly gives them an understanding of the concerns and lifestyle of the teacher from Treherbert, the plumber from Pontypool or the brickie from Bangor.

The Welsh media is dominated by white, middle class, Welsh speaking people, with a bias towards South Wales and the Welsh nationalist movement. The desire to stay on the right side of ‘important people’ to further their future careers has led to a supine media and a cowed culture. They are grossly out of touch with everyday people in all sorts of ways. Here are some brief examples:

Brexit 

A very large number of people in Wales support Brexit. 52.53% of those who voted backed Leave. That’s 854,572 people. The turnout was 71.71%, massively higher than that of the 1997 referendum on devolution (where 50.30% voted Yes on a 50.22% turnout), or at any National Assembly election to date (the high water mark being 46% in the first elections in 1999).

Very few political journalists in Wales will have voted Leave. But in the subsequent four years, the tone of reporting, in both print and broadcast media, was overwhelmingly that the people of Wales had made a mistake and deserved a second referendum to ‘put the decision right’, as they saw it. Pro-Brexit voices were treated disparagingly and as eccentric or extreme. Little effort was made by the Welsh media to try and understand why such a large number of people voted Leave, nor was any attempt made to properly explore and explain the advantages of a successful Brexit.

Anti-Devolution 

As demonstrated above, fewer than one in four of the Welsh electorate voted for the creation of the Assembly in 1997. Fewer than one in five voted in favour of increasing its powers in the referendum of 2011, where turnout was an abysmal 35.63%, and few really understood what the question on the ballot paper was about (again, no thanks to the Welsh media, who made little effort to properly explain the matter).

Turnout at all five sets of Assembly elections to date has been well below 50%. A large number of people in Wales still don’t understand what powers what we now call the ‘Welsh parliament’ has. Polling by BBC Wales in 2014 found that just 48% of respondents knew that the Welsh Government is responsible for the NHS in Wales. A similar number, 42%, wrongly thought that policing is a devolved area.

North east Wales is, to a very large extent, economically and culturally aligned to Cheshire, Lancashire and Merseyside. Many in that part of Wales regard the Cardiff Bay bubble as at best a distant irrelevance, and at worst an irritating nuisance. Elsewhere in Wales, where people were never very enthusiastic about it to begin with, there are growing calls for a rethink, with abolition of the Welsh Parliament polling more strongly than Welsh independence.

There are a number of ‘sacred cows’ with the Welsh media and the Welsh establishment in general, namely issues that they regard as ‘settled’ and ‘not up for discussion’. They have sought to portray anyone who is anti-devolution as ‘extremist’, ‘eccentric’ or, most absurdly of all, ‘far right’. In reality, some of the strongest anti-devolution voices over the last 25 years have come from the left: Don Touhig, Alan Williams, Betty Bowen, Llew Smith, Carys Pugh and others.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is bringing to the forefront many of the absurdities and shortcomings of devolution. A robust, truly independent Welsh media should not be afraid of exposing these failings, nor should it consider the debate on the future of devolution to be ‘closed’.

Losing faith in Labour, but not seeing Plaid Cymru as an alternative 

In last December’s general election, the people of Wales finally said ‘enough is enough’. For years, the Labour Party, in both London and Cardiff Bay, has treated its heartland voters with contempt, dismissing them as stupid, racist and xenophobic.

The election saw the Conservatives win their highest vote share in Wales since 1900, their best ever total in the era of universal suffrage. Blinded by smug arrogance, Labour’s reaction to the political earthquake in Wales was give their once-loyal voters a good telling off, rather than to take time to listen and reflect on what went wrong.

Wales’s First Minister, the ultra-Corbynista Mark Drakeford, even said that the next national Labour leader should ‘keep the same basic message’. He just doesn’t get it.

The disconnect between the Labour Party membership and its heartland voters is now blatantly obvious. The membership base, changed beyond all recognition by the entryism of the last four years, now consists of middle class students, their lecturers, and white collar public sector workers, preoccupied with the dogma of the woke agenda, a mythical ‘Climate Emergency’ and stopping Brexit at all costs. This puts them at odds with the party’s traditional heartlands, who have routinely backed the party for a century.

In 2017, the Welsh electorate gave Jeremy Corbyn the benefit of the doubt. They took him at his word when he said that he respected the result of the previous year’s referendum and was committed to implementing Brexit. This, combined with Theresa May’s lacklustre campaign, saw Labour gain three seats, taking their total to 28 out of 40 in the Principality. What followed in the next two-and-a-half years was a complete betrayal of the trust the Welsh electorate gave to the Corbyn project.

In December 2018, Drakeford became Wales’s First Minister. Drakeford, a dry, academic man approaching retirement age, who spent his entire career before entering politics working in the public and charity sectors, hardly seemed in touch with the post-industrial Labour heartlands of the South Wales valleys or the weathered seaside towns of the North Wales coast.

A year of Drakeford’s insipid leadership in policy areas that are devolved gave the people of Wales a taster of what a Jeremy Corbyn government would be like. Under Drakeford’s socialist Government, Wales has the worst school attainment levels and A&E waiting times in Britain. Betsi Cadwaladr health board has been in special measures for more than four years, with little sign of that status being removed any time soon.

But perhaps Drakeford’s flagship cockup was his decision in June 2019 to break a key Welsh Labour manifesto pledge by scrapping plans to build a much-needed M4 relief road in the Newport area, after more than a decade of planning, during which time £114 million had been wasted.

The Welsh media, in both print and broadcast, did not report or investigate on any of these matters with the zeal they should have done.

As has already been explained, the Welsh media is dominated by people who are either Welsh nationalists or are at the very least prepared to go along with it as an editorial line to enhance their career prospects.

This, by definition, puts them at odds with the Welsh electorate. Plaid Cymru’s vote share and number of votes has declined for three general elections in a row. The party lurched to the left under the leadership of Leanne Wood, and her successor, Adam Price, has gone further than his predecessors in calling for full Welsh independence, albeit within the EU. Price has received a great deal of sympathetic coverage from both BBC Wales and Reach Plc’s publications in Wales (most notably from its most senior writers, including Martin Shipton, Carolyn Hitt and Mari Jones in North Wales).

Again, this puts the party at odds with the majority of people in Wales. Plaid Cymru has long been regarded as the party of the middle class Welsh speaker, which limits its appeal hugely beyond west and north west Wales. Among the Welsh population, there is a great deal of resentment about the way in which the Crachach, a Welsh-speaking middle class elite, often sympathetic to the aims of Plaid Cymru, have such disproportionate influence among the Welsh media, arts, civil service and higher education sectors. There is great unease about the way in which the Welsh language is used to block vast numbers of bright graduates from fulfilling their potential. As veteran journalist John Humphrys put it in July 2000: “There is some unease in some areas of south-east Wales that unless you speak Welsh you are a second-class citizen. There is positive discrimination in favour of those who can speak Welsh. There are many jobs that are barred to you if you don’t speak both English and Welsh and that does create some casualties and some resentment.” Such feelings have intensified in the 20 years since Humphrys said those words, as devolution bedded in and the influence of the Crachach increased.

In the same month, another seasoned journalist, Vincent Kane, put it even more starkly, when he said: There is an elitism built into our society which few nations anywhere in the world would tolerate. The 80% in Wales excluded from positions of influence and authority, no matter how talented they might be, simply because they don’t speak Welsh, are victims of injustice.”

Former First Minister Rhodri Morgan understood the tenets of the problem. He said: “As well as horizontal devolution – spreading power and responsibility more widely – we have to have vertical devolution as well. I have sometimes tried to sum up this dimension by describing our devolution settlement as a shift from Crachach to Gwerin, from government by a self-replicating élite to a new engagement with a far wider and more representative group of people, women and men, people from north and south Wales, Welsh speakers and not, black people as well as white, and so on.”

Morgan understood the problem, but he did not deliver the solution, as his tenure as First Minister, and the years since, have seen a growth of Crachach influence in Welsh public life.

The Welsh media will not address any of these issues because it is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Staff at Welsh media institutions are among the main beneficiaries of Welsh language elitism.

But Wood’s lurch to the left has resulted in the emergence of a deeply unpleasant electronic army on social media of fascist hunters, trans activists and EU fanatics. This even puts them at odds with the party’s much more socially conservative voter base in its rural heartlands.

Price’s vision of an independent Wales might chime with the staff at BBC Wales and in the sparsely-populated Reach Plc buildings, but it sits far less comfortably with people in wider Wales.

People in north east Wales are likely to frequently travel to Cheshire, Lancashire and Merseyside for work and recreation, and are also likely to have family and friends in those areas of England. The people of Chepstow, Newport and Cardiff think nothing of a shopping trip to Cribbs Causeway or going to Bristol to see a theatre play of an evening. Most people in Wales have only been here a short time in historic terms, and rarely have to go back more than five or six generations to see that they are at least in part descended from English ancestry. Showing one’s pride in being Welsh is fine for rugby international days, but creating an artificial barrier between Wales and England goes against the core instincts of the majority of people in Wales, who don’t consider English people ‘foreigners’, nor do they want to separate themselves from the lands and people of another part of this small island we are stuck on until the end of time. Or to put it another way, the person running a small plumbing business in Newport does not see why he should feel a greater natural affinity with someone in Porthmadog, where he has never been and may well never go to, over the people of Bristol, where he frequently works and has many friends.

The staff working in the Reach Plc offices and BBC Wales won’t understand this. They will largely live, work, marry and socialise entirely within their own echo chamber of like-minded people sympathetic to Welsh nationalism.

Western Mail front page, 12 May 2020

Western Mail front page, 12 May 2020

It is with this in mind that we should view the front page of the Western Mail, which hit a new low on 12 May this year with its frankly horrible, racist headline, ‘Stay out of Wales, English warned as rules relaxed’, juxtaposed with a picture of footballer Gareth Bale shouting, which is not a coincidence on their part.

This ‘othering’ of English people, and the overall unpleasant connotations of the headline and choice of picture, was enough to turn me against the once-proud Western Mail for good. Its circulation figures are now down to four figures, and its long-term future is bleak. It has no future, and it’s easy to see why.

Little effort is made by the Welsh media to engage with the concerns and issues affecting most people in Wales: The lack of job opportunities, poor standards in education, an NHS in crisis, Wales’s inability to hold on to its bright graduates, poor transport links, poor infrastructure, slow broadband, crime, anti-social behaviour, the lack of a skilled private sector etc.

Conclusion 

The disconnect between those who work in the Welsh media bubble and the wider population is huge. For the Welsh media to have any long-term relevance, it needs to recruit from well beyond its own echo chamber.

Beyond that, its problems are much the same as those as elsewhere in the UK: Regional news programmes on BBC Wales and ITV Wales are no longer considered as relevant as they once were. How many people in Cardiff are interested in hearing about a new school building opening in Caernarfon nowadays? Not many. Few people under 45 buy newspapers at all, and even the older generations are increasingly turning away from them.

The Wales Online website is frankly dire, with its endless clickbait articles of lists of places to eat Welsh food, Welsh ‘celebs’, rugby (especially Wales) and the weather. And people very often give up due to the excessive clutter with advertisements.

Paid-for print publications are in terminal decline. It is likely that the ongoing pandemic will hasten that decline, and even before the end of this year, at least one national newspaper is going to cease publication. The Western Mail and South Wales Echo are highly unlikely to exist as paid-for print publications five years from now.

All national newspaper websites increasingly suffer from the same problems of excessive advertising and clutter, which are not sustainable as long-term business models.

So where does that leave us? Government subsidies should be avoided as a means of propping up news services, as it compromises its editorial independence, and examples from elsewhere in the world demonstrate this. The relationship between journalists in Wales and the Welsh Government is already far too close.

A great deal of credit is due to former BBC Wales Today editor David Morris Jones, who, at the age of 80, sets the gold standard for hyperlocal journalism via his Penarth News blog, which provides daily, relevant, engaging content to the people of Penarth. This is the person to model yourself on if you want to create a hyperlocal news outlet for your town. However, it requires a great deal of time and commitment, something David has in what could only very loosely be described as his ‘retirement’, but for journalists needing to make a living from their work, it does not solve the conundrum as to how to make it pay.

The lack of a dynamic, professional Welsh media is both concerning and dangerous. The public is not aware of where power lies, nor are those with power held to account. Twitter is hardly an accurate barometer of public discourse, but First Minister Mark Drakeford’s personal account has just 14,000 followers, while the official ‘First Minister’ account has fewer than 49,000. By contrast, his Scottish counterpart Nicola Sturgeon has more than one million.

Similarly, the lack of old-fashioned local journalism in every town and city has resulted in local council meetings, the courts and planning applications not being covered in the way they once were.

I do not pretend to have the solutions, but the problems are serious, and are in need of urgent attention.

Written by Marcus Stead

June 21, 2020 at 4:29 am

Twenty Minute Topic Episode 40: Rewriting History

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By MARCUS STEAD

 

Statue of Edward Colston - Wikipedia

The statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, now toppled

“THE PAST is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” So reads the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s novel ‘The Go-Between’, published in 1953.

Last weekend saw ‘Black Lives Matter’ protesters in Bristol tear down a statue of Edward Colston, a philanthropist who supported and endowed schools, hospitals and churches, especially in Bristol and London, in an era when the state couldn’t be bothered with such things. However, much of his wealth was as a result of the slave trade, and protesters took the law into their own hands by toppling the statue and throwing it into the harbour.

Is it right to judge people’s actions in centuries past by the standards of today? Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins discuss the weekend’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests and the tearing down of statues.

Has mob rule and police inaction replaced law and order? Why were mass gatherings even tolerated at a time when we are under clear instructions to socially distance for the sake of not spreading the COVID-19 virus?

What does this all mean for the future of statues of other controversial figures, including Horatio Nelson, Sir Thomas Picton, Sir Cecil Rhodes and even Sir Winston Churchill?

While George Floyd’s funeral was taking place, ‘Black Lives Matter’ protesters gathered around the statue of Nelson Mandela in London. But as Mandela himself openly admitted, his own track record was far from perfect. Should statues of Gandhi (a racist in earlier life), Desmond Tutu (an anti-Semite), and Muhammad Ali (who held unpleasant views until he embraced moderate Sunni Islam in the mid-late 1970s) be torn down?

Do the protesters have a point, or is this just the latest attempt by the woke brigade to posture and virtue signal, even if it means endangering public health by causing a second wave of COVID-19 infections?

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

June 11, 2020 at 1:59 am

Twenty Minute Topic Episode 38: The Devolution Disaster

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By MARCUS STEAD

 

The Welsh Parliament building

IN A SPECIAL ‘double dose’ edition of Twenty Minute Topic, Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins assess the impact of devolution in Wales 20 years after its inception, and at a time when the institution has recently changed its name to the ‘Welsh Parliament’.

Greg played an important role in the ‘No’ campaign leading up to the referendum of 1997, in which the ‘Yes’ side won by the narrowest of margins.

Greg makes some shocking allegations of foul play, both during the campaign of 1997 and at crucial counts on the night.

The term ‘crachach’ is discussed extensively during the podcast. It is a term that refers to the Welsh-speaking middle class elite, often sympathetic to Welsh nationalism, nepotistic in character, that has huge influence across the Welsh arts, media, civil service and higher education sectors.

Veteran left-leaning journalist Paul Starling observed in his Welsh Daily Mirror column on 26 April 2002 that ‘our country is run by no more than 50 extended families or individuals’.

Cropped image of Rhodri Morgan at The Celebration of the Mace 5840623762 b47ba98d73 o.jpg

Rhodri Morgan, First Minister of Wales, 2000-2009

Indeed, far from being a swivel-eyed conspiracy, the crachach was thought to be very real by former First Minister Rhodri Morgan, who saw their elitist control of so many tenets of Welsh civic life as a real threat to the success of devolution. He said: ““As well as horizontal devolution – spreading power and responsibility more widely – we have to have vertical devolution as well. I have sometimes tried to sum up this dimension by describing our devolution settlement as a shift from crachach to gwerin, from government by a self-replicating élite to a new engagement with a far wider and more representative group of people, women and men, people from north and south Wales, Welsh speakers and not, black people as well as white, and so on.”

Marcus and Greg agree that Rhodri Morgan’s words were not heeded, and far from creating a more diverse and inclusive civic sector in Wales, devolution has led to a consolidation and intensification of crachach power and influence.

Leighton Andrews, a former Education Minister in Wales, also spoke out against Crachach influence in the Welsh higher education sector.

The podcast begins with a brief history of devolution, beginning with the referendum of 1979, in which the Welsh electorate categorically rejected the proposal for an Assembly. The discussion moves on to the ‘quango culture’ of the 1980s and 90s, the impact of the Welsh Language Act of 1993, through to the referendum on giving the Assembly primary law-making powers in 2011.

There is discussion on the broken promises of 2011. The people of Wales were told it was a ‘tidying up exercise’ and the ‘end game’ for devolution, but in the years since, income tax powers have been devolved, and the institution’s name has been changed to the ‘Welsh Parliament’.

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Google Podcasts Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud, and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

May 26, 2020 at 5:16 am

Coronavirus Update: 13 May 2020

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By MARCUS STEAD

 

CoronavirusTHE UK Government’s slogan ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives’ has been replaced by the altogether more woolly, ‘Stay alert, control the virus, save lives’.

In this week’s Coronavirus Update podcast, Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins assess the Government’s strategy, as we enter a new phase of the pandemic.

Marcus and Greg also look into the problems devolution is causing in preventing a UK-wide, co-ordinated response to the crisis.

Later in the podcast, they discuss whether Germany’s part-relaxation of lockdown rules is likely to lead to a second spike in COVID-19 cases, and whether the planned resumption of Bundesliga football this weekend is wise.

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

May 13, 2020 at 8:18 pm

Coffee Break with Marcus and James: April 2020

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By MARCUS STEAD

 

Coffee Break Poster April 2020MARCUS Stead and James Easton return with another Coffee Break podcast, taking a look at the lighter side of life.

Topics discussed include rude website URL names past and present, Brian Clough’s 44 days at Leeds United, Admiral retro football shirts, things you notice when watching old episodes of The Bill, home cooking experiments, darts gamesmanship, how much money you can save by taking a packed lunch and a flask of coffee to work, and the appalling way the FA has handled the pandemic situation.

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, SoundCloud and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

April 24, 2020 at 5:53 pm

Posted in Cardiff, Humour, Sport

Peter Walker: A Life Well Lived

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By MARCUS STEAD

Peter Walker MBE. CREDIT: Glamorgan Cricket

PETER Walker, who has died aged 84 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s, led a full and extraordinary life that saw him excel as a cricketer, broadcaster and media executive.

Born in Clifton, Bristol in 1936, Walker partly grew up in South Africa, and at the age of 16, he told his parents that he and his friend Roddy wanted to go on a 10-day camping trip to Louren o Marques, the capital of Portuguese East Africa during the October school holidays. But they had something far more adventurous in mind.

For the previous two years, Walker and Roddy had regularly discussed skipping school to pursue their ambitions. For Roddy, this meant travelling to Moscow to meet Stalin, for Walker, to get a trial with Glamorgan County Cricket Club.

They clubbed together to buy themselves a compass from the army and navy store in the belief it would be enough to guide them north until they reached the 6,000 miles to the Mediterranean.

So, in October 1952, Walker’s father, who previously worked in Welsh newspapers, pressed two R10 notes in his hand and waved his son goodbye on what he thought was a short ‘camping holiday’. He wouldn’t see him again for 15 months!

As they got off the train at LM, they saw the run-down Hotel Central and went into the bar, where a well-built Swedish sailor overheard them speaking perfect English, introduced himself: “My name’s Bengt, do you fancy a beer?”

Bengt told them that the ship was due to sail at noon the next day, but that their crew was short, as four of them had picked up a dose of pox from a Korean brothel. They asked him if he thought the crew would take on two people so young. Bengt said he’d call into the ship agent’s office, and they arranged to meet up for breakfast the following morning.

After a restless night, true to his word, Bengt returned to the hotel, and the answer was yes – provided they had letters from their parents to prove they had consent. Walker and Roddy duly forged the letters, which the agent then barely looked at before signing them on to the tanker, called the Soya Andrea. Roddy was a saloon boy and Walker a deck hand. As the coast disappeared into the distance, they watched on and wondered what the hell they had done.

The next few years were packed full of adventure for Walker. There were times where his daily diet consisted of a cup of coffee and a doughnut. On one occasion, he was forced to sleep on a rope in the docks of New York.

Upon arriving in Cardiff, he knocked on the door of Glamorgan’s offices in Cardiff’s High Street. Inside was the club’s fearsome captain, Wilf Wooller, and the coach, Phil Clift. “I think I can play county cricket” said the young Walker. “Well, you’d better come round to the Arms Park and have a net” came the reply.

Walker was a tall right-handed middle order batsman and a left-arm bowler who varied his pace between medium-paced seamers and slow spinners, and he quickly gained a reputation as a spectacularly good close-catcher, especially when fielding at short leg. But that really began by accident.

The year was 1957. Walker made his Glamorgan debut, and his second match was against Warwickshire at the old Arms Park, a large ground with a massive boundary. Captain Wilf Wooller, a man of charm, arrogance and extreme discipline, who was not to be argued with.

To Wooller’s annoyance, Glamorgan were bowled out for 176 on a good pitch. It was a blazing hot day and by mid-afternoon, they were fielding and game was slipping away fast. Walker had to run from third man to third man between overs, a journey of some 200 yards each way. His diagonal cross-field route took him past his profusely-sweating and annoyed captain, and, eager to please, Walker asked, “Where would you like me to field, skip?” Wooller turned a baleful eye, and in a phrase that was to change Walker’s life, said, “Oh, for Christ’s sake Peter, spit in the air and go where it lands.”

Wooller immediately lost interest in Walker’s whereabouts, and, as a junior player, he did as he was told, moved to the edge of the pitch, lifted his head and spat in the air. It landed at short square leg, a position in which he was to field for the majority of the next 16 years, where he became one of cricket’s great catchers in the years before helmets.

As a batsman, Walker made 1,000 runs in a season eleven times, often doing well when his colleagues failed. He made just 13 centuries in 17 years of first class cricket, and had an average of 26.03, reflecting soundness rather than flair in an era of unpredictable surfaces and uncovered pitches.

As a bowler, Walker was a left-arm medium pacer, in later seasons preferring left-arm spin. The high water mark of his playing career came in 1961, when he had one of the finest seasons ever seen by an allrounder, scoring 1,347 runs in 35 first-class matches, taking 101 wickets and 73 catches. Only two fielders have ever taken more in one season. He came close to reaching similar heights in 1959 and 1962.

Walker played three Tests for England against South Africa in the summer of 1960, all of which England won, where he batted well down the order and hardly bowled at all. He probably did well enough to expect further chances, but this was an era of batting riches for England and spin bowling competition from David Allen, Ray Illingworth and Fred Titmus.

Walker was part of the Glamorgan team that captured the County Championship title in 1969, and retired in 1972, when he was overlooked for the captaincy, to focus on his already-established career as a journalist and broadcaster. His early work as a journalist saw him cover the Aberfan Disaster of 1966, which had a profound effect on him.

After retiring from playing, Walker became part of BBC Two’s coverage of the Sunday League, where he eventually succeeded Frank Bough as the regular presenter. In one of his earliest appearances as anchor, the match was staged at Tewkesbury. As always, they came on air five minutes before the match start time of 2pm. Walker had mentally prepared what he thought was a marvellously descriptive piece about the area, and handed over to commentator Jim Laker just as the bowler was about to bowl the first ball. Walker said, “And now for commentary, here’s Jim Laker”, and sat back smugly, until Laker responded, “Thank you, Peter, you’ve said it all”. Laker didn’t speak another word for the next 15 minutes!

He became an established face and voice of the BBC’s Sunday League coverage for many years, and was part of the BBC’s commentary team for England matches for a period in the 1980s. After being dropped from the BBC’s network cricket coverage, he continued to work on BBC Wales’s coverage of Glamorgan matches until 1997 in the Sunday League, NatWest Trophy, Benson and Hedges Cup, and games against touring international teams.

Walker became a respected part of the team at BBC Wales, where he read the sports bulletins on evening news programme Wales Today well into the 1980s, in an era of journalistic heavyweights such as Vincent Kane and editor David Morris Jones, all a far cry from the current incarnation of the modern BBC Wales, where the ability to speak Welsh and connections to Plaid Cymru are the keys to a long career, regardless of your lack of talent.

To colleagues, Walker was kind, encouraging and supportive, and gave opportunities to a number of sports broadcasters, including former Glamorgan cricketer and Cardiff rugby player Alan Wilkins, now a well-known sports anchor across Asia. Walker’s can-do, positive approach to life helped him in his successful battle against cancer in middle age.

Among Walker’s other journalistic achievements were a series of long-form interviews with John Arlott staged at his home in the Isle of Wight following his retirement from commentary, which were produced by Adrian Metcalfe, another ex-sportsman turned TV commentator and executive who is also sadly now very ill with Alzheimer’s.

Walker was founder and managing editor of Merlin Television, which became the biggest independent production company in Wales. The company made an unsuccessful bid for the Channel 3 (ITV) franchise in Wales and the West from 1993 in a haphazard and farcical bidding system, but lost out to incumbents HTV, who underwent a brutal level of cost-cutting to hold on to the franchise.

A shrewd businessman, Walker eventually sold Merlin Television in 1996, and well before then invested heavily in property, long before it became fashionable.

Walker’s blunt, forthright, delightfully un-PC personality made him an interesting guest on TV and radio as he approached old age. During the 2000s, he became somewhat disillusioned with what he called our ‘marshmallow society’, by which he meant he felt young people were too mollycoddled from the harsher realities of life he experienced as a young man, which instilled in him a level of resilience and mental toughness he thought was lacking in the younger generation of Glamorgan cricketers.

As a season ticket holder at Sophia Gardens from the late 1990s until the mid-2000s, I saw Walker at matches quite often. But my favourite memory of seeing him in person came at Radyr Golf Club in January 2002. Just days earlier, Cardiff City had beaten Leeds Utd in a third round FA Cup tie that ended with crowd trouble. It was pure coincidence that BBC Radio 5 Live were staging ‘Any Sporting Questions?’ (effectively a sporting equivalent of ‘Any Questions?’) at the golf club just a few miles away from the ground that week. Walker appeared as a panellist and expressed forthright views on the ills of modern society, and went on to tell an anecdote involving Fred Trueman and an Indian waiter that would probably land him, and the radio station, in hot water if he repeated it nowadays! Quite what Walker would have made of today’s twentysomething permanently-offended ‘Snowflake’ generation we can but wonder.

Walker remained involved in cricket, becoming the first chief executive of the newly-formed Cricket Board of Wales. In 2009, Walker was elected President of Glamorgan CCC, but he resigned the following summer after clashes with chairman Paul Russell over the way the club was being run, the final straw being the removal of Matthew Maynard as director of cricket in favour of Colin Metson. In the live television interview on BBC Wales that day, Walker behaved with typical good grace in wishing the club well for the future, and said he looked forward to returning to the ground as a supporter.

At the end of 2010, Walker was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours for services to cricket, and he received his medal the following year, after which he largely retreated from public life as dementia began to take hold.

A week before his death on 5 April 2020, Walker suffered a stroke.

Written by Marcus Stead

April 6, 2020 at 6:52 pm

Posted in Cardiff, Review, Sport

S4C receives funding boost despite tiny audience

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By MARCUS STEAD

LITTLE-WATCHED Welsh language broadcaster S4C will receive a funding boost following an announcement from the Treasury that it will get back the VAT it pays on costs, worth £15 million per year.

S4C’s tax status was changed in 2019, requiring it to pay VAT on costs. At the time, the Departure for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) agreed to foot the bill until the rules were changed so that S4C would again be allowed to recover its VAT payments.

The channel, which has been without a chairman since Huw Jones’s departure in September, has had a decade of upheaval with regards to its funding model. Jones is likely to be succeeded by Rhodri Williams, who will be paid a generous £40,000 per year for ‘up to two days’ work per week’.

Williams, the UK Government’s preferred candidate, ran Ofcom in Wales from 2004 until 2018 and is already a member of S4C’s board.

Until 2013,  funding came a combination of a fixed annual grant from the DCMS, which stood at £90 million in 2011, an agreement with BBC Wales whereby it would provide S4C with ten hours of programming each week free of charge as part of its public service remit, estimated to be worth £19.4 million annually, as well as generating a meagre 2% of its income from advertising.

From 2013, responsibility for S4C began to transfer to the BBC, which saw the DCMS reduce its funding by 94% by 2015, with the BBC providing around £76 million of funding to S4C by this date, resulting in a cut of around 25% to S4C’s annual budget.

As part of the BBC charter renewal from 2017, it was agreed that the BBC would provide £74.5m a year funding to S4C from the licence fee until 2022.

The UK Government announced in 2018 that it would continue to provide £6.72 million annually until 2020, with the aim of S4C being funded wholly from the licence fee from 2022, meaning further savings will need to be found elsewhere at the BBC to fund the service.

In the current financial year, S4C will receive approximately £81.3 million (excluding advertising revenue), of which around £6.8 million comes from the UK Government and £74.5 million from the licence fee pot.

S4C viewing figures week ending 23 February 2020 (1)

S4C’s most-watched programmes on week ending 23 February 2020

Despite the subsidies, S4C fails to attract a sizeable audience for almost all of its programmes. On week ending 23 February, figures released by BARB (Broadcasters Audience Research Board) showed that the only S4C programme to attract more than 30,000 viewers was a single episode of soap opera Pobol y Cwm, with 30,907 viewers, which is part of the programming quota it receives for free from BBC Wales and, having started in 1974, predates S4C itself by eight years.

BARB publishes the most-viewed 15 programmes for most channels each week on its website. The 15th most-watched programme on S4C that week was the channel’s live Welsh language coverage of the Six Nations rugby match between Wales and France, which attracted 17,608 viewers, which means that around 100 hours of programming shown that week was watched by an even lower number of people.

Written by Marcus Stead

April 4, 2020 at 8:19 pm

Posted in Cardiff, Politics

Twenty Minute Topic Episode 36: Flooding Fiasco

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By MARCUS STEAD

 

Taffs Well Flood

Flooding in Taffs Well, February 2020

DURING RECENT weeks, large areas of Britain have experienced flooding, resulting in millions of pounds in damage to homes and businesses.

Marcus Stead and Greg Lance-Watkins discuss the causes of the flooding – they dismiss claims it a consequence of man-made climate change, and condemn the lazy narrative being peddled by the mainstream media.

As former TV weatherman John Kettley said on LBC radio last week, the heavy rain that led to the floods was a result of ‘weather’ not ‘climate’ and was comparable to the rainfall he experienced growing up in Yorkshire more than 60 years ago.

Instead, Marcus and Greg pin the blame for the flooding on absurd planning applications that have seen housing estates built on flood-planes, and EU regulations that prevented the dredging of rivers.

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

February 25, 2020 at 3:35 am

Twenty Minute Topic Episode 31: Tackling Homelessness

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By MARCUS STEAD

 

Greg Lance-Watkins 1

Greg Lance-Watkins

IN THIS week’s edition, Marcus Stead talks to Greg Lance-Watkins about an idea Greg has for tackling homelessness.

Greg’s idea is a remarkably simple, yet effective way of bringing dignity and safety to the homeless.

Marcus asks Greg a series of questions about potential problems and pitfalls, all of which Greg addresses convincingly.

There doesn’t appear to be any obvious downside to Greg’s proposals, so why won’t local councils go ahead and implement it?

 

The podcast is available on the Talk Podcasts website, iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts and the TuneIn app.

Written by Marcus Stead

January 19, 2020 at 5:19 am

Transport for Wales Chaos

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By MARCUS STEAD

TRANSPORT for Wales, a not-for-profit company owned by the Welsh Government, hasn’t had the best of starts in the twelve months since its branding started appearing in public.

The rollout of its new-style cards, which replace the old green bus passes, has been beset with problems since its launch in mid-2019.

There has been an active push for people to apply online, and the TFW website doesn’t make it clear whether it’s possible to apply via another means, even though elderly and disabled people (ie those entitled to the cards) are the least likely demographics to be comfortable using the internet.

The TFW website cheerfully proclaims: “The new-style cards offer the same free travel rights and benefits as the current bus passes. The new cards are designed so that they can work as part of an integrated travel network in the future.”

Seemingly unconcerned with online security and the possibility that vulnerable people may be socially isolated, TFW continues: “Residents are encouraged to apply online or ask a friend, family member or someone they trust to apply online on their behalf.”

Without a hint of irony or self-awareness, they provide a link to which users can download a paper form.

The website and app was beset with problems in the weeks after it launched, leading to lengthy delays in cards being issued.

But now Transport for Wales has created two online videos to talk people through the application process, one in English, the other in Welsh.

Both versions were uploaded on 16 October, and at the time of publication, 12,807 had watched the English language video, while just 247 had watched the Welsh language equivalent.

In other words, just 1.89% of viewers chose to watch the Welsh language version.

This comes just after the first anniversary of Transport for Wales livery appearing on trains and railway stations across Wales after Keolis/Amey succeeded Arriva as the holder of the Wales & Borders franchise.

TFW emphasised its ‘commitment to bilingualism’ by putting all railway station signage first in thick black lettering in Welsh, with the English translation in faint grey underneath, despite the last Census showing that only a small minority of the country’s population can speak Welsh, especially in its highest-populated cities.

The 2011 Census showed that 89% of the population of Cardiff and Swansea classed themselves as unable to speak Welsh, while in Newport the figure was 90%.

In addition, recorded announcements at stations, including the busiest in Cardiff Central and Cardiff Queen Street, are now in Welsh first and English second, meaning confused passengers are forced to listen to long, rambling announcements in a language they do not understand when they need to move quickly between platforms, a source of extreme irritation to many local people and visitors alike.

 

Written by Marcus Stead

November 15, 2019 at 4:25 pm

Posted in Cardiff, Politics