The Cardiff press

One of the prime tasks of a capital city is to reflect its nation’s politics, culture and society through an indigenous, plural, independent press. Cardiff completely fails in this duty. The three newspapers published in the city (two dailies and a Sunday) all have the same owner: TrinityMirror, the UK’s biggest newspaper group, based at Canary Wharf in London. They call their Cardiff sub-branch in Park Street “Media Wales” and this English-directed operation has an absolute monopoly on Cardiff news – an absence of competition not found in any other European capital. Even in the Rome of megalomaniac Silvio Berlusconi there are 11 different papers, of all political hues, vying for readers.

TrinityMirror also owns Celtic Weekly Newspapers, which supplies the news in every Welsh county, and the Liverpool-based Daily Post, the only paper covering north Wales. As a result 75% of the dedicated Welsh press is controlled by one publisher, a stranglehold that would be illegal under competition law if Wales had any sort of autonomy.

If that were not bad enough, TrinityMirror’s Welsh papers are of such pitifully inadequate content and unremittingly mediocre quality that hardly anyone in Wales bothers with them anymore. Most newspapers buyers have figured out that, if all that’s on offer is an amateurish rehash of London-centric priorities and British attitudes, then they might just as well get them straight from the horse’s mouth and buy one of the much slicker London papers. So 90% of the newspapers read in Wales originate in ‘Fleet Street’ and, since not one of them has so much as a single Welsh correspondent and they all ignore Welsh issues, this means that Wales effectively has no press at all – a state of affairs unthinkable anywhere else on Earth.

We are in the farcical position of being flooded with the news, comment, analysis, criticism, debate and culture of everywhere-but-Wales while the already meagre Welsh material in the home-produced papers gets ever thinner as ailing TrinityMirror culls jobs in its “regional” divisions to concentrate on “multi-media platforms” and “national titles”. Note well: on Planet TrinityMirror “national” means London’s Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror and People and Glasgow’s Daily Record and Sunday Mail – and most certainly not Cardiff’s Western Mail, despite its “National Newspaper of Wales” strap-line. The company is quite clear that Wales is not to be treated as a nation, or even as a single entity, but as two regions: “South Wales” and “North Wales” – always with the all-important upper-case S and N, as if they were the proper-noun designations of distinct places with official boundaries rather than vague geographical adjectives. Divide and rule: the oldest trick in the book.

The British nationalists of TrinityMirror have been running Wales’ newspapers since 1995 and in that time have presided over a rapid decline in jobs, standards and circulation just when Wales was giving birth to an infant democracy and required more not less coverage. This lack of a credible, vernacular print media leaves a huge vacuum at the heart of Wales which seriously damages the chances of an informed, engaged society. All Cardiff’s mouthy claims to international standing will remain laughable until the city acquires the boisterous, critical voices of a varied national press – the calling-card of a true capital.

Given the complete failure of the “free market” to meet Welsh needs, and the deafening silence from all those vaunted Cardiff “entrepreneurs” and “world class” businesses who only understand quick profit, there is a case for the Assembly to publicly fund an English-language national newspaper to give the moribund Western Mail some long overdue competition.  Stringent safeguards would have to be applied to ensure independence from Pravda-like government control; but even if it ended up a rather dull newspaper of record, that would be a great advance on the press releases, advertorials, regurgitated agency feeds and lifestyle junk that comes with TrinityMirror control. In any case, the Western Mail is itself hugely subsidised from the public purse: its monopoly means the advertising budgets of public sector recruitment, legal notices and information have nowhere else to go, and without that easy income it would close tomorrow.

After damning studies of the Welsh press by the Institute of Welsh Affairs and Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, there is no doubt that this is a crisis. But so far the Assembly government, lacking the powers, the resources and the bottle, have been unable to address this crippling absence in the life of the nation. Cardiff must endure these three abominations for a while yet:

Western Mail
If the self-appointed “National Newspaper of Wales” cannot persuade the likes of me, a passionate Welshman and a devourer of all Welsh-interest topics, to buy a copy, then no wonder its circulation figures have tumbled inexorably downwards to below the 30,000 mark, a miniscule 1% of the Welsh population, the non-credible and non-viable level of a minor sub-regional paper much less a paper that claims to speak for a nation. I will not have it in the house.

The problem is not just that it is a very unsatisfying read (error-strewn, stilted, shallow, sexist, formulaic and badly-written), nor its weirdly estranged presentation of Wales itself (part Ruritanian never-never land of lords lieutenant, sheriffs, archdruids and blazered bureaucrats; part navel-gazing Celtic Korea, irrevocably split between “North” and “South”; and part rag-bag of daffodil/dragon/leek insignia). The problem goes deeper, back to the very beginnings of the paper in 1869 when it was founded by the 3rd Marquis of Bute (1847-1900) as his personal mouthpiece to promote the Tory cause. The choice of name reveals the intent: it was to be a paper for western Britain, not Wales. The Marquis saw Bristol and Cardiff (in that order, Bristol being larger and more profitable) as his sphere of influence, Wales only as the source of the coal which made him the richest man in the world.

After dropping its interest in Bristol when Bristolians showed no inclination to buy a paper produced in Wales, the Western Mail was compelled to concentrate on Wales. However, the more it claimed to speak for Wales the more its orthodox Conservatism put it at odds with a country that, to this day, has never delivered a Conservative majority in any General Election since universal suffrage. In the struggle between labour and capital that raged in the coalfields the Western Mail could always be relied on to back the bosses and the status quo. When British Home Secretary Winston Churchill (1874-1965) sent in the troops to slaughter striking miners in the Rhondda in 1910 most London papers disapproved of the brutality, but the Western Mail criticised Churchill for not going far enough!  During the 1926 General Strike its aggressively anti-miner stance led to it being ceremonially burnt in the Valleys, while a young Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960) commented: “I have always been puzzled to know why so great a country as Wales should be represented by so miserable a newspaper.”

Gomer Berry (1883-1968) and brother William (1879-1954)

Under the ownership of the Merthyr-born Berry brothers’ Allied Newspapers group from 1928, the paper came to embody a certain strand of Welsh Toryism still at large today: strait-laced, unimaginative, embarrassed by Welshness and over-compensating by acting more-English-than-the-English. Dull and fearful of modernity as it was, the paper was grudgingly respected in Cardiff as a sober broadsheet and the best source of Welsh news. It regularly sold 100,000 copies daily to its core audience of farmers, small businessmen, solicitors, vicars and civil servants but, notwithstanding the “National Newspaper of Wales” masthead introduced in 1955, barely shifted a copy north of a line from Aberystwyth to Newtown.

Controlled by Thomson Newspapers from 1959, the Mail gradually lost its way as the devolution debate developed, and its authority began to unravel under the contradictory pulls of its position: its heart was in Tory unionism but its head knew that Welsh nationalism would be most advantageous to circulation figures. The result was an insipid equivocation, bringing a passionless, flat style that pervades the whole paper to this day.

Having half-heartedly backed a ‘yes’ vote in the 1979 devolution referendum (while the Echo in the same building campaigned fiercely for the ‘no’ lobby), the Western Mail lost all confidence and sense of purpose when the vote was lost, backtracking on its commitment to Welsh actualisation. A disastrous decision was made to increase news from Britain, which could be obtained from a host of London papers, and reduce news from Wales, which could be obtained nowhere else. The solitary reason to buy the paper was removed. Editors came and went, there were redesigns and relaunches galore, but the circulation and advertising revenue just kept on falling, leading to cutbacks in reporters, pages and quality and further falls in circulation.

When the even more remote and profit-motivated TrinityMirror took over in 1995 the paper then lurched downmarket – the only direction TrinityMirror knows. It was turned tabloid in 2004 and became an increasingly lightweight and low-brow mix of ‘human interest’ pap, piss-poor columnists and toe-curling tokenistic ‘Welshness’, shoe-horned into every item as if Wales were some foreign body. It hasn’t had a ‘scoop’ of any description for longer than anyone can remember and has lost all its decent writers, all reader loyalty and all sense of its constituency in a suicidal abandonment of its only distinguishing feature: its commitment to this amazing, fascinating land of Wales. Incredibly, the “National Newspaper of Wales” has no dedicated reporter at the National Assembly of Wales and its sports pages give more column inches to Manchester United than the entire Welsh football pyramid! No wonder it is now dubbed “Llais y Sais” (the English voice). Run by Cardiffian Alan Edmunds, who also heads the Media Wales umbrella operation for his masters in London, the paper is dead in the water, sustained only by advertising revenue from public-sector Wales.

There is no longer any point to the Western Mail. How Cardiff puts it out of its misery in the years ahead and replaces it with a true National Newspaper of Wales befitting a true capital city will be one hell of a story. And it will go unreported.

South Wales Echo
The Echo is Cardiff’s local ‘evening’ paper (although it is now produced as a morning daily, a self-defeating move that only took readers from the Western Mail) with a circulation of 40,000, a far cry from its heyday in the early 1960s when sales reached 150,000. There are few more dispiriting experiences in the city than a flick through this thoroughly shoddy propaganda sheet which functions as cheerleader for big business, estate agents and property speculators. There is no journalism, reportage, analysis or even any real news; just an uncritical recycling of PR missives, corporate blurbs, developers’ brochures, shopping surveys and the verbatim dirge of council spokesmen. Every single Cardiff story of consequence passes the  Echo by, but it has the gall to latch onto grassroots campaigns after the event, shed a few crocodile tears and posture as the people’s friend. Fear-mongering crime stories, reeled in without effort from courts and police contacts and larded with headlines so lurid they get their own internet tribute (http://cardiffterrifiesme.blogspot.com), sit awkwardly next to because-we-care pieces about charity fun-runs that wouldn’t be out of place in a parish newsletter.  The resulting schizoid mix of Cardiff as a lawless Bronx and Cardiff as a big-hearted paradise manages to get the city wrong on all counts.

Page after page after page is devoted to Cardiff City FC in exhaustive micro-detail, with acres of newsprint given over to every bombastic and trite utterance from club officials and players, quoted without context or comment. In the letters page a handful of far-right British nationalists are given free rein to pour forth anti-Welsh rhetoric and throughout the paper the tone is that of a bellowing bar-room bore, with particular spitefulness reserved for anything specifically Welsh. Cardiff is presented as a city-state, bigger than Wales, to which it owes nothing and doesn’t really belong, and on the road to a greatness which is forever around the next corner. The Echo has next to no able writers, just a few Media Studies interns from England being shunted around the TrinityMirror stable, while the undoubted journalistic skills of veteran ‘star’ columnist Dan O’Neill are frequently frittered away on rabble-rousing diatribes against the Welsh language.

The whole manipulative package doesn’t even satisfactorily cover major Cardiff stories like the notorious miscarriages of justice perpetrated by the police – Cardiffians had to wait for Fleet Street to investigate to read about them – and achieves the difficult feat of making Cardiff look philistine, racist, pea-brained and boring; none of which is true. The appalling fact Cardiffians must confront is that the city’s biggest-selling newspaper is the only one in all the world’s capitals to disapprove of its own nation. The Echo‘s founder, David Duncan (1811-1888), a high-minded Scottish Liberal, proud Celt and devout Presbyterian, would be horrified by what his paper has become.

From their large St Mary Street offices, stretching down Golate to Westgate Street, the Duncan papers (in addition to the South Wales Echo, founded 1884, he owned the weekly Cardiff Times, founded 1857, and the morning daily the South Wales Daily News, founded 1872) were the voices of Cardiff Liberalism. They waged a fierce circulation war against the Tory papers the Western Mail and the Evening Express located at the other end of St Mary Street, a healthy rivalry that gave Cardiff an abundance of news and views and a politically engaged population. The Echo positioned itself as a radical opponent of Bute power in Cardiff and a friend of the working class, throwing its weight behind Cardiff dockers during their 1912 strike and including regular Welsh-language columns – quite inconceivable in today’s paper. This Golden Age for Cardiff journalism came to an end with the concentration of ownership after WW1. The London-based Allied Newspapers chain took over the entire Cardiff press, amalgamated the businesses and closed down everything except the Western Mail and the South Wales Echo. The Echo was converted into a Tory paper and Cardiff was deprived of its left-of-centre voice and its press diversity, a situation that has not altered to this day.

Through changes of ownership (1943: Kemsley Newspapers; 1959: Thomson Newspapers; 1995: TrinityMirror), the move in 1960 from the old Duncan building (demolished 1963) to Thomson House in Havelock Street, the switch to tabloid format in 1994 and the latest move to Park Street in 2009, the paper has sunk lower and lower. In the 70s and 80s, under the editorship of Cantonian Geoff Rich (1931-2007), it was turned into a coarse, unreliable demagogue. Rich’s poisonous campaigns for a ‘no’ vote in the 1979 devolution referendum, against the miners’ strike in 1984 and in favour of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation in 1987 were classic examples of Stanley Baldwin’s (1867-1947) famous description of the yellow press: “Power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”  Rich did huge damage to the city he loudly professed to love, got rich, landed an OBE and ensured that no-one would ever take the South Wales Echo seriously again.

For over 125 years the paper-sellers cry of “Echo-o!” has echoed through the streets of Cardiff. But the paper has long outlived its usefulness.  It should either be killed off or seized from TrinityMirror’s clutches and reborn as the brave, thoughtful, inquisitive defender of the underdog Cardiff so badly needs.

Cold-blooded, scaly, and dead: Geoff Rich

Wales on Sunday
Launched in 1989 during the Thomson reign over Cardiff’s press, the first ever English-language Sunday paper in Wales sells just 35,000 copies a week. The inaugural edition shifted 105,000 but that initial enthusiasm soon waned and sales figures have been heading only one way ever since. The reason for this is simple: it’s crap.

From the outset it was hamstrung by a crippling lack of confidence in what it was trying to achieve, adopting the unprecedented format of a serious broadsheet wrapped in a tabloid. Broadsheet readers wouldn’t give the screaming red-top headlines a second glance in the newsagents; tabloid readers were alienated when they stumbled upon big words and heavy-duty think pieces. Not willing to do the hard work of building a readership, or to make the necessary long-term investment in journalism and design, WoS soon dropped the commitment to provide authoritative all-Wales news and commentary and went entirely tabloid in 1991. The plunge downmarket accelerated after TrinityMirror took over and now it’s a tawdry rag containing little worth reading, obediently following the agendas and news values of the London tabloids, but without any of their verve, ideas or skill. A Martian looking at it would have the Welsh down as a very limited people, into crash-diets, Cardiff City FC, celebrity gossip, tit shots and used cars. Put together on a shoestring by a tiny team of overworked and usually English hacks, WoS likes to pose as a campaigning newspaper and a crusader for Welsh interests; their high point in a quarter of a century of “investigative journalism” being a push for smoke alarms to be fitted in Port Talbot council houses. It ain’t no Washington Post.

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If it’s true that people get the press they deserve, then we Welsh must be very inadequate. But it is not true: people get the press that is imposed on them by monopolistic, greedy and power-hungry proprietors, hell bent on defending the interests of their class and silencing dissenting voices. Because Wales has no autonomy, legal standing or sovereignty it is helpless to resist these forces. Until the day that changes, Welsh people of intelligence and humanity will continue to ignore Cardiff’s unholy trinity.