Welsh politicians worried by the low level of public interest in their work have been told they need to make politics more interesting and relevant to people. Representatives of the media told a conference in Cardiff Bay that there was no point in shooting the messenger.
The event was arranged by the Presiding Officer of the National Assembly to find ways of addressing what’s seen as a ‘democratic deficit’ in Wales. There’s a widespread view that low turnout at Assembly elections is just one result of a lack of information reaching citizens about the political process.
A fundamental concern is the fact that most newspaper readers in Wales buy London papers which do not report on Welsh politics. Kevin Maguire of the Daily Mirror talked up the strength of the indigenous media in Wales – encouraging politicians to ‘cherish what they have’. He reported that the six Welsh daily papers have a combined circulation of 130,000. On the other hand his figure for total sales of London dailies in Wales was 240,000.
Any hopes that the London press might decide to give Wales more coverage were dashed by Peter Riddell, former Times journalist and now Director of the Institute of Government. He urged Welsh politicians to use social media to engage with voters. He believes Twitter in particular has transformed poltical communication.
The importance of reaching readers via the web was stressed by several speakers. Kevin Maguire compared the Western Mail’s daily sales of 23,000 with the 60,000 unique users visiting the Wales Online website each day, making 1.3 million a month. While print sales of the South Wales Argus are down, editor Kevin Ward reported that the total audience was up on five years ago, with 350,000 unique visitors to the website every month. The weekly Western Telegraph gets up to 50,000 unique users a month on its site, according to editor Holly Robinson.
Ward surprised many listeners by emphasising the importance of political coverage to his readers. He sends reporters to meetings of Newport City Council and other local councils in his area. He encourages politicians to engage with citizens through the paper.
The BBC’s Peter Knowles challenged politicians to show more interest themselves, if they want voters to engage with the work of the National Assembly. He described Assembly Members at First Minister’s Questions, heads down, typing on their laptops or looking at their mobile phones. If they don’t seem interested – why should the viewers be?
Jonathan Roberts, editor of the South Wales Evening Post, agreed with Kevin Ward that citizens will only engage with politics if they can see its relevance to themselves and people like them. ‘They don’t buy process. They don’t necessarily buy policy. They buy people.’
It seems what politicians in Wales need to learn is what every journalist knows – it’s about knowing your audience and telling stories through people.