BBC Press Conference
BBC Wales Headquarters building. Source: Armonjones (via Wikimedia Commons)
Culture and Identity

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

Let me be clear on one thing: broadcast press conferences from the Welsh Government are a positive, writes political commentator and newly joined Conservative, Daran Hill. Especially in the context where Welsh COVID policy has deviated from English policy, as it has done about twenty per cent of the time, then making sure this is explained and scrutinised is absolutely vital.

But that is not to say that the press conferences and how they have been handled from a process perspective has all been positive. Far too often, the Welsh Government has shown a preference for making major announcements on policy to the press rather than to the Senedd. And, quite frankly, this has got worse the longer it has gone on and the more comfortable they have felt in their journalists first, Senedd second approach.

Thus we get an Education Minister waiting until the Senedd finishes to announce via press release a hugely controversial ‘policy’ on facemasks in schools. We get a Health Minister preferring to tell the BBC about a new policy on face masks in shops rather than timing it a day differently to tell elected politicians first.

And last week the First Minister fitted in the announcements of the details of the changes to the Covid regulations to the convenience of a recorded bulletin straight after the Prime Minister. The viewing figures show he was right to do that broadcast. The fury and frustration by members of the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru that he had chosen to do so just to camera and not to the Senedd shows they were right to be angry too. After all, if the governments of Scotland and the UK can make such statements to Parliament first, why can’t the government of Wales?

I have a rather cynical take on all of this. The Welsh Government is choosing to prioritise the media because they know it is boosting their profile as well as their reach. That they have been able to do so in a completely politically unbalanced way for six months is probably the biggest upside to Drakeford and Co from the whole COVID crisis. It has made Mark Drakeford a household name in substantially more households than he was mentioned in before.

And the broadcasters also did a comprehensive job of telling us the First Minister likes cheese and lived in a hut. They were much less inclined to tell us when that hut wasn’t actually a hut at all. I know plenty on the left who are quietly happy – and some are openly jubilant – that they have now got both BBC Wales and the Western Mail reporting them more ‘fairly’ than ever before.

Other disagree. Byron Davies hit the nail on the head in Gwydir the other week. One of the things that have leapt out to me during my transition into the arms of the Welsh Conservatives is quite how high their collective eyebrow is raised when it comes to much of the mainstream media in Wales. It’s a bit like a Welsh version of the Corbynista sneer at the tabloids.

The problem with the press conference is that it has a hard-wired bias. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, you should care. And if you’re seriously political and interested in anything other than a perpetual Labour government in Wales then you should care even more.

Because the bottom line when it comes to the Welsh Government press conferences is this: it is absolutely no coincidence that the First Minister’s personal ratings have risen during the last six months while both Adam Price and Paul Davies have flatlined. Welsh Labour Government ministers have been placed centre stage on an almost daily basis while the other party leaders have been given next to no platform whatsoever.

I’ve watched Welsh broadcasting now for a very long time indeed, and I can never ever remember a time where one political party was given so much advantage over others. There is probably a very good case to argue that the lack of alternative political voices to Labour is actually a breach of the BBC’s own charter in respect of political broadcasting.

Let me conclude with a final example. Once more last week, Sir Keir Starmer was given a BBC network broadcast slot on Wednesday to respond to the Prime Minister the night before. Yet again, no such offer was made to either of the leaders of the main opposition parties in the Senedd. Drakeford One, Davies and/or Price Nil. Again.

When I complained about this on Twitter, the head of BBC Wales was good enough to respond to me: “We are introducing other political leaders to our Government briefing programmes from Oct 6th. Last night we also interviewed Andrew RT Davies and Adam Price immediately after the FM broadcast.”

So it is happening finally. Next week the BBC begins to interview opposition politicians as part of its package of recordings on Welsh Government press briefings. Hallelujah.

This presumably explains why Plaid has started pushing recently for the Welsh Government to hold its press conferences on a daily basis, knowing it can now leverage some overdue airtime too.

Political pluralism finally makes a comeback. But BBC Wales’ decision is also a de facto recognition that in not doing so for nearly six months they have been unbalanced in their broadcasting. After all, if there is no problem, why fix it?

Daran Hill is a professional political consultant, occasional commentator and devolution revolutionary.