LONDON-based news reports are contributing to confusion about different lockdown rules in devolved nations, experts have warned.

More than two decades after the creation of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, researchers at Cardiff University say some English outlets with UK-wide audiences are still failing to underline crucial cross-border policy differences.

Police in Wales have encountered English day-trippers entirely unaware they were breaking the law by driving into the principality, while authorities in the Highlands have repeatedly had to re-iterate the region remains closed to tourism.

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A team at Cardiff University has linked such confusion to reporting and government messaging coming out of London.

The researchers, led by journalism professor Stephen Cushion, have been monitoring a panel of 200 people on their perception and knowledge of news about the coronavirus pandemic.

They found half of this group mistakenly believed the Westminster Government was in charge of lockdown across the UK.

In a paper published by the London School of Economics, they found London-centric reporting was at least partly to blame for this misunderstanding.

They concluded: “Many people remain confused by what social distancing measures they should be following in different parts of the UK.

“While we found TV news bulletins accurately communicated the distinction between England and the other nations, many newspapers prominently made reference to the UK or England-only, or did not specify the geographical relevance of the lockdown measures.”

Mr Cushion has long been commissioned by the BBC Trust and broadcast regulator Ofcom to look at how devolution issues are covered on radio and television.

He told The Herald that confusion over pandemic policy came as part of a long story of how English outlets report on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Mr Cushion said: “Despite more than 20 years of devolution, many people across the UK remain confused about the different powers political bodies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland hold.

“News media in each nation helps people understand these differences, but many people across the four nations continue to watch, read or listen to UK network media or consume largely English-produced newspapers.”

He added: “Our research of UK-wide broadcast news since 2007 has shown coverage does not always clearly communicate that key areas of policy making, such as health and education, are devolved, and regularly explain different policy choices in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

Mr Cushion believes network broadcasters could do more than just explain that UK Government measures only apply in England – they should spell out the positions in devolved nations too.

He said: “I have found that ‘in England’ is referenced more often in the introduction to news stories. And since the nations have taken different lockdown measures during the pandemic, in my view broadcasters have more carefully communicated when policy decisions apply to England only.

“This is not always the case with English-produced national newspapers, certainly in headlines where lockdown measures are reported without always mentioning their relevance to only England.”

Mr Cushion believes English audiences would benefit from more coverage of policies and politics in other parts of the UK.

“I don’t think people are uninterested in devolved politics,” he said. “Often, coverage between the nations is driven by partisan differences, but if people were more regularly exposed to the different policy choices across the four nations, such as why university tuition fees vary across the nations, it might open up a more rational and evidence-based discussion about areas of public policy decision making.

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“Often, political decisions are presented as being necessary, whereas they are clearly political choices. 

So by comparing and contrasting political decision-making across the four nations, it can open up opportunities for people to learn about why different policy choices are taken across the UK.”

In Scotland, politics professor James Mitchell agreed that Wales had a bigger issue, but he pinned more of the blame for confusion on statements made by the 
UK Government.

Mr Mitchell said: “This is much more of a problem in Wales than in Scotland or Northern Ireland, given the far greater penetration of London-based media in Wales.

“Sections of the media have uncritically taken their lead from UK Government, where the fault primarily lies, which has been cavalier in its public information.

“This may not be the greatest failing of the UK Government on Covid but adds to the impression that Boris Johnson’s Government has abandoned the ‘respect 
agenda’ trumpeted by previous Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.”

The Cardiff University research is being carried out by Mr Cushion with colleagues Nikki Soo, Maria Kyriakidou and Marina Morani.

The team has also discovered its panel was largely unaware of media reports showing the UK had the world’s highest rates of excess deaths during the pandemic.