The Real Merthyr

Merthyr Tydfil is most often in the news for the wrong reasons.

But statistics about poor health and high unemployment don’t tell the whole story.

In this programme, Merthyr-born reporter Hannah Thomas goes behind the headlines to try to find the true heart of her home town.

One point made, in particular, about the stats that leaves the town on the wrong end of too many league tables is that the size and economic make up of the borough skews the figures.

Because Merthyr is such a tiny unitary authority with many deprived wards and no affluent areas its average is always much lower than anywhere else. In other words it has no wealthy streets to balance things out.

The programme has received an incredible response.

Watch Wales This Week: ‘The Real Merthyr’ here.

999 Frontline

NHS workers across Wales report around 7,000 incidents of violence and aggression every year.
Nurses, doctors, paramedics and other healthcare staff are spat and sworn at, punched, attacked and verbally abused.
And these are just the cases they report.
When I asked an A&E nurse recently how many incidents go unreported she suggested “a huge amount, absolutely huge”.
“Certainly verbal abuse and lots of anti-social behaviour like that. People will urinate up against the walls outside (and) up against equipment. You will give people a bowl because they’re going to be sick. They are quite capable of using that bowl but they’ll vomit on the floor. They’ll choose to spit at you. All of that I would say has gone unreported.”
* ITV Wales current affairs series Wales This Week is featuring a special programme on violence against hospital staff. ‘999 Frontline’ is on ITV Wales, at 7.30pm tonight (Thursday, January 28).

** The programme is available to view here.

Farewell, Studs Terkel

On Friday, the world said goodbye to Studs Terkel.
Studs might not have been so well known on this side of the Atlantic but in the United States they are paying tribute to a “true American hero”.
Studs was a performer, a journalist, an oral historian and a “rabble-rouser”.
McCarthy tried to have him testify against leftist friends; he refused and never compromised on his principles. He was sacked from one job, quickly found another and never stopped working until his death at the age of 96.
Oh, yes, and he picked up a Pulitzer Prize along the way.
While much of his work centred on his beloved Chicago, he was very much for “ordinary” people everywhere, not just in the US.
He recorded the stories of hundreds of people over the years, and was a writer of great compassion and humanity.
He may be gone but his work remains – and will always be worth seeking out for the voice it gave to so many.
“Who built the pyramids?” he once asked. “It wasn’t the goddam pharaohs . . . it was the anonymous slaves.”

Celebrating personal growth

Who couldn’t enjoy Western Mail’s ‘Fast Growth 50’, its magazine round-up of the most successful companies in Wales?
Certainly not Professor Dylan Jones-Evans, academic, Western Mail business guru, creator of the ‘Fast Growth 50’ programme and, yes, blogger.
A full-page of the 34-page magazine is devoted to a celebration of this “passionate champion who is ahead of his time”.
He’s a man of many talents, there is no denying. After all, who was the editor of ‘Fast Growth 50’?
Why, none other than Professor Dylan Jones-Evans!

Big Issue Cymru

Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones is to investigate whether The Big Issue – which recently located much of its Wales operation to Scotland – is receiving funding from the Welsh Language Board.
Responding to a letter from Leanne Wood AM outlining her concerns about the company’s decision to make its Wales editor redundant, Mr Jones said he shared her concern about the future of Welsh language content in the magazine.
“I am also concerned with the intention to move Big Issue Cymru jobs to Glasgow,” he said. “It is important to safeguard Welsh language content in the magazine. I will therefore ask the Welsh Language Board to investigate this issue further and will get back to you on this matter.
“I understand that Big Issue Cymru has applied in the past to the Welsh Language Board to fund the Welsh language content in the magazine but there has been no contact recently.”

Everyone a loser in ITV Wales cut-backs

ITV is to be allowed to slash its Welsh programming by more than half in a new blow to the media in Wales.
The proposals come under the second phase of Ofcom’s review into public service broadcasting, launched as the industry prepares for the digital switchover.
One media expert today described Ofcom’s decision as a “lose-lose” situation for ITV staff and for viewers in Wales, while a politician called it a “giant leap backwards for devolution in the UK”.
ITV Wales’ peak-time news output would remain unchanged, but the minimum volume of non-news programmes in Wales will be slashed from the current four hours a week, to just an hour-and-a-half after January.
The proposals will allow the quota for ITV1 programmes produced outside London to be reduced from 50 per cent to 35 per cent.
Ofcom’s Wales director Rhodri Williams said the proposals provided a “sustainable settlement” despite “the extensive economic pressures faced by ITV”.
Few others agree.
Wales’ Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones today expressed “huge concern” at the report.
“It is strongly in the interest of viewers in Wales to retain public service programming from ITV at a realistic level rather than risk losing such delivery altogether,” he said.
“It is a matter of huge concern to me that cutting the services offered by ITV Wales will deprive Welsh citizens from receiving a diverse range of programmes which reflect their everyday lives.
“Welsh audiences, loyal to ITV Wales, could also be deprived from gaining access to information about the democratic institutions which serve them – this, in turn, could affect their level of participation in those political processes.”
Mr Jones wants to meet with UK government ministers to discuss the assembly government’s concerns.
Peter Black AM, culture and media spokesperson for the Welsh Liberal Democrats, described the decision as “outrageous” and “a giant leap backwards for devolution in the UK”.
“The bottom line for ITV is that they have a public service obligation,” he said. “Quite how much service you can provide in 90 minutes, we will have to see. ITV Wales were pitching their new schedule – which already cut the amount of made in Wales current affairs programming – at around three hours a week. That was already a backward step for the people of Wales. Ninety minutes is a giant leap backwards for devolution in the UK.
“Devolution allows the nations of the UK to do more and more things in a way that is different. While TV is the main source of information people have about the politics of where they live, there can be little justification for cutting the legs from under the ITV Wales operation. There is a real danger of Wales being left with a single broadcasting monopoly.
“The BBC does a great job of reporting Wales to its own people and the world beyond. But without competition, who will keep the BBC on its mettle? Where will the alternative voice come from?
“Plurality of voice matters – Ofcom’s decision shows a regulator unwilling to regulate. It has failed democracy, and it has failed the people of Wales.”
Media professor Tom O’Malley, of the University of Wales, agreed that today’s news revealed a “failure of regulation and a failure of Ofcom”.
Speaking on the BBC, he said: “What’s going to happen is that there will be less programmes about Wales, talking to people in Wales about Wales, it will weaken ITV news in Wales, there will be less plurality of perspectives on it and of course the people who work in ITV in Wales will suffer as well.
“So this is lose-lose all round.”
He called on the Government to force Ofcom to change its attitude to public service broadcasting.

Big Issue Cymru – to be written in Scotland

The Welsh edition of The Big Issue is moving production to its Scottish office.
Two out of its three editorial staff – including its editor Rachel Howells – are being made redundant. The editor of The Big Issue Scotland is to become the editor of both titles.
The decision is a blow to the homeless people who sell the magazine, to the media in Wales and to readers.
Plaid Cymru AM Leanne Wood has written to Welsh Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones and the Welsh Language Board “to see what pressure they can put on the owners to ensure we don’t lose Big Issue Cymru”.
“The Big Issue Cymru provides news from Wales that you don’t find in many other publications,” she says. “Many people buy it because of its local stories. Big Issue Cymru has played an important role as a campaigning magazine promoting people who don’t have their voices heard. The loss of the Welsh language column is also something which will be felt by a lot of people.
“All of these factors combined could result in fewer people buying the Big Issue in Wales. This is bound to impact on the vendors who are homeless people.”
I have to declare an interest in this. I’ve had a column in Big Issue Cymru for almost four years and will be sad to see Rachel leave.
I haven’t heard from the new regime so don’t know what they plan for the rest of the magazine or how much of it will have any Wales-led content at all.
As Leanne Wood says Big Issue Cymru has often looked at issues which don’t get discussed elsewhere, including ironically the on-going downgrading of our media in Wales.

Sorry, the hardest word?

Barbara Wilding, Chief Constable of South Wales Police, has responded to the Wales This Week programme on Michael O’Brien by publishing a statement on the force’s website.
In the statement she refers to the civil action which the force settled out of court with Michael O’Brien and his co-accused Ellis Sherwood in 2006.
O’Brien and Sherwood had started proceedings to sue the force for malicious prosecution back in 2001.
Mrs Wilding states that the force made the settlement – and paid the accompanying damages – “without any admission of liability”.
She then says that they “chose to accept the payments on that basis rather than going to trial” and that both they and their legal advisers “were fully aware that this made an apology inappropriate”.
The force’s unwillingness to apologise to O’Brien, Sherwood and the third member of the Cardiff Newsagent Three, Darren Hall, has been a major motivating factor behind O’Brien’s continuing campaign.
It is something he describes in detail in his new autobiography, The Death Of Justice. It would help him move on after an 11-year jail sentence which he did not deserve.
In Monday’s programme on ITV Wales, O’Brien’s lawyer claimed that he clearly deserved an apology from South Wales Police, and most observers with knowledge of the murder investigation into Phillip Saunders’ death in 1987 and of evidence put before the Court of Appeal in December 1999 would surely have to agree.
Today, Ms Ofer has responded to the South Wales Police statement. In a letter to the press (see Western Mail) she states that O’Brien “did not reach an out-of-court settlement willingly”.
He was forced into a financial situation which meant he had no choice but to settle out of court.
“He was desperate for the case to go to trial, but once the police paid £300,000 into court he was forced to settle against his will as his legal aid would be stopped as a result,” she explains.
“Legal rules mean that if he had gone to trial and won and been awarded £300,000, all of the legal costs of both sides would come out of his damages. He therefore had no choice but to accept a settlement.”
She adds: “South Wales Police were quoted as saying that an apology would be inappropriate. This is completely incorrect. Apologies are made by police forces as part and parcel of settlement on some occasions and one was requested in this case.
“South Wales Police chose to make a payment into court a month before trial because they realised that there was a real risk that they would lose at trial.
“Had they simply wished to save money they could have made a payment five years earlier, instead of spending these years and a huge sum of money on legal costs fighting the case all the way to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords.”

The Death of Justice: Michael O’Brien’s autobiography

Michael O’Brien spent 11 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit.
In December 1999, after judges quashed his conviction, he asked me to write a piece about his two-week appeal.
That request turned into a plan to write a complete book of Mike’s life.
It is an incredible story.
Mike’s arrest and life sentence for the murder of Cardiff newsagent Phillip Saunders is just the start.
Locked up in some of Britain’s toughest jails, with inmates like Charlie Bronson, Mike had to learn how to act tough to survive.
He did not ask friends and relatives for ordinary presents like many others: he wanted law books.
He knew that to overturn his conviction he had to educate himself and organize his own campaign.
He had a lot to overcome. There was personal tragedy: the death of his baby daughter while he was on remand and his step-father while he was in jail.
And there were the legal obstacles. His conviction was based largely on the confession of one of his co-accused Darren Hall and the evidence of a policeman who claimed to have overheard a conversation between Michael and the third member of the so-called Cardiff Newsagent Three, Ellis Sherwood.
Michael’s cell-block campaign urged MPs and journalists to take an interest in the Newsagent Three case.
And after Darren Hall retracted his confession, the case caught the eye of the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
They referred the case to the Court of Appeal and just before Christmas 1999, Michael O’Brien, Ellis Sherwood and Darren Hall were able to declare themselves innocent men.
But it wasn’t the end for Michael. He has continued to champion other people’s causes as well as seeking what he believes is further justice for himself.
And, of course, there was the book. Now, complete, The Death Of Justice comes out on Monday, September 1, with a launch at Borders in The Hayes in Cardiff at 10am.
Crucially, it describes not only that decade in jail, but the ten years since: ten years in which Michael has struggled to come to terms with what has gone before.
Part of that has been the sense that in some people’s minds there is no smoke without fire, that the stench of that murder conviction hangs over Michael despite the Court of Appeal ruling.
He takes frankly about that on ITV at 8pm on Monday in a special edition of Wales This Week. For many years he has wanted to take a polygraph to put the doubts to an end.
On the programme he finally gets the chance to take the lie detector test.

The Open University and St Athan

The Open University is apparently facing pressure from its own staff over its part in Metrix Consortium, the developers behind the St Athan military training academy.
I’ve spoken to OU about these concerns and about whether it is considering pulling out of the consortium – the full report is in the Big Issue Cymru (April 21).
Thanks to Luther ap Blissett for flagging this up.

Hold The Front Page has reported journalists’ concerns about provisions in the Counter-Terrorism Bill which could affect media investigation and reporting.
These include new offences of eliciting, publishing or communicating information about members of the armed forces, new search and seizure powers and new ministerial controls over inquests.
The Newspaper Society has written to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.
:: Photographer or terrorist?

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