The history of journalism and broadcasting in Wales
Aberystwyth professor Aled Gruffydd Jones looks at the history of journalism in Wales as part of the Histories of Wales series. You can listen to him present the next episode in the series on Sunday, 4.30pm on BBC Radio Wales.
Journalism has been very much in the spotlight this past year. The sudden closure of the News of the World, part of the furniture of British newspapers since 1843, and the Leveson Inquiry that followed, have drawn public attention to the way in which the press operates. And much of that has been seriously bad news. But it has highlighted the strengths of our news media as well as its all too evident weaknesses. It was, after all, other journalists, hot on the trail of a good news story, that brought the phone-hacking scandal to public attention in the first place. All this has prompted us as a society to ask ourselves these questions: what is journalism for, and where is it going?
Studio One at BBC Wales Swansea, 1952
This programme tries to answer those questions by looking back at our past. In many ways, Wales has for centuries been very open to external influences, and to flows of information from our powerful neighbour to the east. But in a number of important respects, the history of the press in Wales has followed its own highly distinctive course. For one thing it was always in two languages. For another, it was fragmented not only by political allegiance, but by powerful religious and social forces as well. Over a period of some two hundred years, Wales developed a culture of communication that diverged in some very significant respects from the rest of Britain. That, I think, can tell us a lot about how Wales itself has grown as a nation and how its identity has evolved into the young nation-in-the-making we have today.
What is so striking about that history is how hugely prolific our presses were. Around 500 titles were produced and circulated in the 19th century alone, some admittedly tiny in the numbers that were read, but others reached far larger populations, including those like the Western Mail that formed the basis of our current news diet. The coming of radio and television from the 1920s and the 1950s further intensified and popularised a peculiarly Welsh take on its own internal condition, its relationship with the rest of the UK and, increasingly, reached out beyond our island to the European continent and the rest of the world.
In that respect, the Welsh press, of both languages, gives us insights into not only the events that took place here over time, but also the extent of the network of Welsh interests and involvement across the globe. It was, in effect, a kind of nerve-centre for a world-wide system of communication that linked Welsh people and migrant communities in the Americas, Australasia and the old British Empire.
If there is an irony in all this, it is that as Wales has become more self confident, more sure of itself as a polity, and more effective in the political expression of its collective ambitions, the press that was for so long both its virtual anchor and its public presence has become weaker and less effective.
We have a problem here. Newspaper circulations are collapsing, advertising revenue is migrating to other platforms, and digital forms of communication have yet to demonstrate their financial sustainability. At the same time, as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger alluded in his interview for this programme, this is the most exciting time for a generation to be a journalist. We are on the cusp of a major global transformation in the way in which news and information is produced and disseminated. Will we in Wales also ride that wave in a way that allows the communications media of the future to continue to serve our interests and strengthen our democratic institutions? That is the scale of the challenge we now face.