Credit: Image via Wikimedia Commons

Devolution of powers from Westminster to Holyrood (Scotland), Cardiff (Wales) and Stormont (Northern Ireland) has been in place for more than 20 years. However, many journalists still struggle to cover stories about devolved nations accurately and the covid-19 pandemic brought this into sharper focus. With each country having different covid regulations, there has often been mixed messaging in the media leading to confusion among the public.

Many people across the four nations of the UK rely heavily on either UK-wide or English-produced media – particularly in Wales which has very few Welsh-based titles. Research from LSE has shown that newspapers failed to accurately report on the difference in covid rules between England and other nations, while TV bulletins did a better job. This was sometimes down to unclear messaging from governments but also to unclear reporting. The research recommends making explicit references to devolved powers (instead of just saying "in England"), so news audiences can realise there are differences.

More seriously, researchers from Cardiff found that misinformation around devolution can contribute to a democratic deficit. If citizens in each nation are not aware of which government is doing what, they cannot judge their governments accurately or hold them to account properly.

That said, people often have multiple identities. Rather than making assumptions, a fresh report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) says that journalists need to consider how to reflect these horizontal loyalties across regions and nations.

There is no shortage of bad examples and the best place to find them is Twitter account @ThatsDevolved.

Journalists face a lot of issues when reporting on devolved nations. Peter Sherlock, from the BBC Shared Data Unit, said that each nation often collects slightly different data and there is no common approach to storing it, which makes it hard to make UK-wide comparisons. In some cases, the data does not exist or is not accessible in a similar format.

To help reporters understand devolution, The National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) updates its training programmes every year, with input from representatives of each nation, said the head of qualifications Lyn Jones. There are also separate syllabuses for learners in devolved nations on topics such as media law and court reporting.

"The NCTJ represents journalists across the four nations. So, it's important that they do get a grounding and an understanding of the different ways that the governments work," says Jones.

So what can journalists do to report better on devolved issues?

The Civil Service published this handy guide for employees on what is devolved and reserved (to Westminster) in each country. It is just as useful for journalists and media professionals.

Dos for reporting on devolved nations

   •   Do your research – learn what is devolved and what is not, and what impact this has on the topic you are reporting on

   •   Talk to journalists or sources who are based in the devolved nations, as they will often have the right knowledge

   •   Learn where to go for data and information that you need from devolved administrations

   •   Paint the full picture of what is going on – do not just focus on England

   •   Be accurate – it is essential that you are correctly signposting which government is responsible for what

   •   Explicitly refer to devolved nations, rather than implicitly excluding them (for example, just saying that something is happening in England)

   •   Be open to change and learning – rules and policies change constantly, especially with various independence movements in Scotland and Wales, and Irish unity pressure in Northern Ireland

Don’ts for reporting on devolved nations

   •   Never say "the UK" when you mean just England. Often, a lot of laws will only apply to England (sometimes Wales too) rather than the UK as a whole.

   •   Do not assume it is not your job to do this – we all need to play our part

   •   Do not simplify complex issues, for example, Scottish independence or Irish unity

   •   Do not generalise – be specific and use concrete examples

   •   Do not talk over voices of those in devolved nations who may know more than you

Better reporting on devolved nations does not just benefit the citizens in those nations, but those in England too. Increased awareness of the way the country is run can benefit democracy, as well as make English people more aware that covid rules may be different if they visit Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

More resources about devolution in each nation

Northern Ireland

Devolution settlement: Northern Ireland


Devolved and Reserved Matters



Who decides for Wales

Reserved powers model

What powers does the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) have?

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