TO THE WELSH GOVERNMENT, CREATIVE WALES AND THE BOOKS COUNCIL OF WALES
TO SAVE WELSH MAGAZINES & WEBSITES
Without exception, since the dawn of devolution a quarter of a century ago, every review of the Welsh cultural or political landscape has mentioned the paucity of Welsh media. For many historic reasons often restated, it has proved stubbornly difficult to sustain an economically viable independent media sector within this small nation.
For decades, a minuscule amount of funding – only ever a tiny proportion of the full amount spent on culture – has gone a very long way. It has helped build cultural connections within a fragmented public sphere, provide platforms for vital dialogue and pave the way for the political and perceptual development of the nation. It has helped foster publications and periodicals in both national languages that have commanded attention and considerable respect far beyond Wales.
Despite its financial limitations, the small subsidised Welsh magazine and periodical sector has developed into a model of good practice. Publications are their own unique and dynamic micro-businesses, progressive in outlook and upholding the highest ethical values from the grassroots up. They strive to be sufficiently structurally independent from undue, top-down influence from a sponsor, funder or the state in order to be a crucial voice speaking truth-to-power. They attract loyal and committed teams of staff, freelancers and contributors, happy to go the extra mile in pursuit of excellence.
In recent years however, that extra mile has become untenably long. Successively worsening grant levels and often more stringent funding conditions have become normalised, creating a precedent which has led to a race to the bottom in working conditions for magazine and website employees, and low contributor fees. This not only affects those currently in operation, but also any potential new entrants into the sphere.
Four years ago, the Welsh Government published Fair Work Wales. A detailed commitment to decent employment conditions, it defined their characteristics:
Fair reward; employee voice and collective representation; security and flexibility; opportunity for access, growth and progression; safe, healthy and inclusive working environment; legal rights respected and given substantive
Furthermore, it recommended that
Public money should be provided only to organisations fulfilling, or working
towards fulfilling our definition and characteristics of fair work (organisations
meeting the Fair Work Wales standard).
It is hard to see that the current working conditions for many of these Welsh micro-businesses fulfil the ambitions of their ultimate funding source, not due to any fault of their own but explicitly due to successive cuts to the funding made available since 2008. In the case of one example, Planet: The Welsh Internationalist, the hugely respected periodical founded in 1970, its core funding is now less than half of what it was in the pre-devolution era, not even factoring in inflation. In other cases, existing publications have often experienced standstill funding for years, despite fast rising costs, and newer entrants have not received viable grant levels at the outset. The funding reductions bear no relation to need nor performance, and are largely a legacy of a pre-Brexit misinterpretation of EC state aid regulations from within Welsh Government. This endured despite the Head of Office at the European Commission Office in Wales and his colleague at the Directorate General for Competition in Brussels concluding that such magazines would have been exempt from these regulations to begin with.
In her editorial in the November 2022 edition of Planet arguing for better funding conditions for all magazines and websites, editor and Planet board director Emily Trahair detailed how, despite being paid to work only 27 hours a week, she was in fact working between 40 and 70 hours, “and occasionally well over 80 … necessitated by the grant franchises and cuts”. In the last decade, grant conditions have stipulated that publications raise over a certain amount of additional income in order to receive this (reduced) core funding: publishers don’t lack expertise in how to address this, rather the problem is the unpaid hours needed to implement these activities, at huge cost to staff wellbeing.
The situation she outlined is similar to that experienced by many other funded publications. She wrote that not only have all Planet staff received the same wage per hour (£12) since 2012, but that without a huge grant boost it would be impossible to fully provide pensions or statutory sick pay, or in most cases working hours suitable for a parent, carer or someone recovering from an illness. With rising costs, it’s now more difficult than ever for publications to balance their budgets at all. While efforts by BCW to lobby Welsh Government for improved funding are to be very much welcomed, as was emergency funding in 2023 to partially address the cost-of-living crisis in the short term, all bodies responsible for grant provision need to recognise that the current settlement is not sustainable.
Things must change rapidly. Increased core funding is essential. To do so is the stated policy of the current Senedd administration. The December 2021 Co-operation Agreement between the Labour government and Plaid Cymru says it clear:
As an initial intervention, we will provide additional investment to develop existing and new enterprises seeking to improve Welsh journalism and to support Welsh-based media to tackle the information deficit.
Not only would sustainable core funding help tackle the information deficit, and enable publications to reach more than a fraction of their potential readership, it would also enable ethical working conditions, make the sector far more open to entrants from non-traditional backgrounds and fulfil many more of the noble ambitions of the Fair Work Wales strategy.
Throughout this century, much emphasis has of course moved into the digital arena. The plethora of Welsh news, culture and current affairs sites online is testament to a new national confidence and self-expression, one for which print media has unquestionably acted as a seedbed. It is important that public funding goes into online and multimedia publications, for this is how we so often consume our news and opinion, but the value of print media is becoming increasingly clear and urgent.
Long-form print endures. It is of a standard to have lasting value: readers keep copies of our political and cultural magazines for posterity. They are a crucial resource in education, libraries and archives in Wales and worldwide, telling the ongoing stories of an evolving nation. Writers know the value of this intimately. Even more importantly, there is an experiential factor. We read print differently. The words are often written with greater care, and read that way too. Fifteen years ago, book publishers were in freefall panic that their business model was fast disappearing. The opposite has happened; the number of independent bookshops is at its highest in history. People need print and digital. Indeed, the complementarity and distinct qualities of print and digital media are all reflected in how most Welsh print publications also provide digital editions and online content.
It often takes decades to build up projects of serious cultural value, but they can be lost in no time. We in Wales aspire to do things differently, to do things better than the austerity-driven Westminster model. This must mean something, and in the instance of funding for magazines, periodicals and websites, it must mean that we unashamedly proclaim their value, so very much greater than the sum of public money seeded within them. If we fail to challenge the miserable orthodoxy, intellectually as well as materially, we will have failed the nation.