Feature: The writing’s on the wall

When a Banksy artwork appeared on a Port Talbot garage last December it became global news. It also highlighted some of the problems faced by the community since the loss of their local newspaper. Journalist and academic Rachel Howells has spent almost ten years studying Port Talbot’s news black hole, and says the writing’s on the wall for local journalism as we know it.

It was a week before Christmas when Port Talbot steelworker Ian Lewis’s life became – in his own words – “a nightmare”. He had been scrolling through Facebook on his phone when he began to notice photographs of a graffiti mural on a local garage. The mural showed a boy playing in snow, which, from a different angle, was revealed to be ash falling from a bin on fire, a comment on the town’s well-documented air quality issues. There was speculation it could be the handiwork of the renowned street artist Banksy, and the garage turned out to belong to Lewis.

“Nobody knew if it was a Banksy or not. It was all a bit exciting and fun at first,” Lewis says.

In the following days, Banksy confirmed the work was his and the story went global. The mural was targeted by vandals and would-be thieves.

“I realised I needed security,” Lewis says. He dipped into his savings to pay security contractors.

Many locals thought Lewis was lucky. Banksy’s notoriety, and the almost million-pound price tag of the self-shredding canvas, Girl with a Balloon, prompted some to stop him in the street with a gently mocking: “Here comes the millionaire”.

Conversely there were plenty of townspeople who disliked the intrusion of the 2,000 daily visitors that flocked to Port Talbot in the following weeks, who took offence at the anti-industrial message of the mural, or felt strongly that the artwork ought to stay in Port Talbot rather than be sold and moved away.

Lewis became the target of abuse, both online and in person, and was inundated with calls from journalists. He was signed off work with stress and it took a toll on his family and relationships.

Meanwhile, a Banksy appearing in his hometown had piqued the interest of actor Michael Sheen.

“When Banksy confirmed it on his website, I tried to find out what was happening,” he says. “It was on private property so not eligible for financial help. So then I contacted Ian.”

Tony Colville works for Michael Sheen and was tasked with helping.

“Ian was under a huge amount of pressure,” confirms Colville. “There was so much wrong information. Misleading press releases were going out from all kinds of places, and then news reports were coming out, social media was going crazy. We were really worried about Ian. He was not coping.”

Colville does credit the BBC for its coverage.

“A reporter from BBC Wales was really the only one who properly engaged with Ian. They did some great pieces, but they are Wales-wide, they can’t keep covering the ins and outs of such a local story. And I guess it’s the same with Wales Online, they are looking for a wider audience.”

The buzz of misinformation and rumour surrounding Lewis is surely common to many ordinary people who become unwitting celebrities during an unfolding news story.

But the news ecosystem in Port Talbot is different from most other places. Academic research suggests the town is one of a growing number of places classed as ‘news black holes’, and this presents a number of additional challenges during a story like this.

I am rather familiar with Port Talbot’s news black hole. In 2009 I was one of seven NUJ members who founded the hyperlocal news service the Port Talbot Magnet, prompted by the closure of the town’s weekly newspaper, the Port Talbot Guardian. Alongside that I began a PhD at Cardiff University to examine whether there was a democratic deficit in Port Talbot following the Guardian’s closure.

My research found a steep reduction in local news provision. Since 1970, Port Talbot has lost over 90 per cent of its journalists. Only one hard-working reporter now covers the (much-expanded) patch for Reach Plc’s WalesOnline/ South Wales Evening Post, compared with 11 reporters that once reported on the town across five titles.

Since 2009, the town has also lost its council newspaper, its community radio station, and, sadly, the Port Talbot Magnet, which became a casualty of the 2016 steel crisis and its impact on the local economy.

Considering these lost journalists, it’s unsurprising that I also found a decline in the amount of news being provided, alongside falls in markers of news quality.

Local people were affected. In the absence of local journalism I found rumour, speculation and a heavy reliance on social media. Local people told me they were finding out about significant issues too late to react to them, and often not until they had physically bumped into information. Signs, protests, petitions, closed roads, and even – yes! – graffiti, had all become important news sources.

I also found damage to the usual journalistic scrutiny of the powerful. Journalists were much less likely to attend council meetings or magistrates courts, and more likely to rely on press releases or official statements.

In turn, institutions were opaque and difficult for citizens to navigate. Even seasoned campaigners reported difficulties getting their questions answered, finding accountable people to complain to, and communicating widely any accurate information they were able to uncover.

The research provides strong evidence that the basic duties of journalism – to keep people informed, represent their views and scrutinise those in power – have been compromised by the decline in local journalism.

Bethan Sayed is a regional Welsh Assembly Member covering Port Talbot, and also chairs the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee. The committee carried out an inquiry into news journalism last year, which recognised the impact of the decline in local journalism, and made recommendations that included the creation of a £200k grant to help hyperlocal start-ups in Wales.

When the Banksy arrived, she also stepped in to support Lewis and witnessed the issues first hand.

“There was a lot of misinformation. I ended up writing an article for [current affairs blog] Nation.Cymru and Tweeting. I got a lot of flak, but at times the only way we could get out accurate information was if I did it myself.”

She is keenly aware of the lack of local outlet for the kind of well-informed debate traditionally provided by local newspapers.

“Now the initial hysteria has died down there’s not really space for discussion about the future of the Banksy, the future of art in the town. Nor an ongoing focus on pollution and the issues the artwork raises. National reporters have gone away and lost interest.”

Michael Sheen agrees.

“It was obvious there was a growing sense of ownership of the Banksy in the town. If someone had been accurately reporting and reflecting opinions, the community would have had a stronger sense of what to do with it, and maybe a better say in what happened to it.”

In fact, Sheen has an ongoing interest in local journalism. He contacted me after the closure of the Port Talbot Magnet and our conversations led to him commissioning me to carry out more research – this time to look at innovative and sustainable ways of trying to solve Port Talbot’s news deficit.

“I wanted to find out what ideas for sustainable journalism exist around the UK and the world, to explore those ideas and see what I could do to try to adapt them and bring something to Port Talbot.”

The research is still underway, but some things are already clear. The sad tale of the withdrawal of local media, along with our experiences at the Port Talbot Magnet, demonstrate that we can’t go back to either funding or reporting news in the old ways.

New models gaining traction around the world are funded by subscription or memberships, but many are redefining news reporting too. The most successful are putting themselves on a more equal footing with the community, building trust and transparency into the core of their journalism and forging partnerships with local people. A new kind of journalism is emerging.

“If people feel that power is not held to account, that they don’t have a voice, or that news can’t be trusted, that leads to anger, frustration, fear.” says Sheen. “If we want any chance of having people’s voices heard on the national stage we need better representation of communities at a local level. The health of local journalism is central to that. We hope this research will point us in the right direction.”

 

An edited version of this article appeared in the May-June 2019 issue of The Journalist magazine.

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