National view? BBC is just London Calling

FIRST, the gossip (let's pretend I'm a 3am Girl, shall we?): the once-great and the not-very-good were certainly out in force at Kelvin MacKenzie's 60th birthday bash.

Mirror columnist Sue Carroll danced her clothes off (almost); wondergirl Wendy Henry danced her dogs off (geddit??); publisher John Blake's new barnet was voted Best In Show; former Today editor cum New York hotshot Marty Dunn flew in from the States with Debbie; I handed out copies of MacFrenzy's famous "what you know about journalism you could stick on the back of a postage stamp" actually written on the back of a postage stamp. No one laughed. Why would they? The Real Thing was right there in the Big Tent with them, spraying freshly minted insults like parking tickets.

Sadly, Harold Evans and Tina Brown were not among those under wet canvas in Weybridge, but their UK counterparts were: Sir Nicholas and the lovely Lady Lloyd were much in evidence, and I fell upon them, fawning.

While I was attempting to secure a place in Nick's box at Ascot or a seat with Eve and the other royals at Wimbledon, there occurred to me one of my famously dull thoughts: apart from obscurity (perish the thought, dahling!) the only courses left to a former editor are punditry or the peerage.

As we talked, Nick and I, it was like Peers and Commons coming together for the Queen's Speech (mercifully short and largely clean this year, thanks Kelvin).

The following morning, toying with a double Alka Seltzer, another thought struck: we both ply our new trades within the boom of Big Ben and no further afield than that! Let me explain my disquiet.

Press peers have good reason not to stray too far from the Palace of Westminster: attendance allowance and various watering holes about the place give them the sort of raison d'etre experienced by the workshy whose lifestyles they spent their editorships castigating. Mere members of the ‘sireage' — the Stothards and Lloyds are of that ilk — can cling to life in the capital, parlaying their monarch's grateful thanks into directorships, consultancies and ever-longer lunches.

That leaves the pundits: the Greenslades, Glovers, Hagertys, Stotts and Bankses of this parish. They work on quite nicely, thank you, and do the journalistic equivalent of ‘taking in washing' to put a crust on the humble pie. Their mouths manufacture mounds of microphone minutes for the broadcast media, their usefulness as a source of soundbites growing as the popularity of politicians plummets.

No problem so far. Radio reviews, instant reactions, the odd Question Time or panel show if you're lucky, plus the opportunity to pass judgement on the ‘sins' of successor editors, provide a nice little earner.

But all this happens, as the Washington wordsmiths might say, inside the Beltway. In British terms, if you're a pundit and you live inside the M25 — or, better yet, within the North and South Circulars — you're in luck and in pocket. If not, you're in Siberia and you starve.

Tough luck on our pals who live and work in the provinces, tougher still on the British BBC licence fee-paying public who hear only what the Chelsea tractor-driving chatterati think on any given issue. BBC comment, on television or radio, is London-centric.

Live within a reasonable cab ride of the Beeb's White City HQ? Would 50 quid and a limo here and home be OK?

Got a reasonable view either way on the Tyneside paedophile? Welsh rugby prospects? How the NHS is coping?

Great! You're a shoo-in for a shoal of shows. But while you might haggle over the fee or crib an opinion off the internet, the biggest question is the first one. Answering "no" to the geography starter almost certainly rules you out.

I have a bad name as a Rent-a-Mouth, a role I invented for myself as editor of the Daily Mirror when it became obvious that management was determined to promote bingo and ferries to France before journalism.

I became a successful self-publicist on my paper's behalf. Show me a studio, open the mic and retire to a safe distance and I'd give you a colourful couple of minutes. The reputation lingers; a phone rings, a BBC voice asks: "Have you a view on pomegranates as the new wonder food? You have? Great! Where can we pick you up?"

This is where it gets tricky. London's a cert, the Home Counties is not impossible. But "… where did you say? Oh, up there? What a shame, have a nice time."

A recent, rare exception was Jenni Murray's Radio 4 programme, The Message. I had, apparently, some interesting things to say, and the fact that I was going to my cottage in Northumberland was not going to deter her producer.

On my arrival in Berwick-on-Tweed I was met by a car, which drove me an hour across the border to a Selkirk trading estate where Radio Scotland has a manned studio, from which I made my five-minute (paid) contribution.

Was this, I asked the duty reporter, the nearest studio to Berwick? Apparently not: there are, it transpires, unmanned studios in Berwick itself, Duns (15 miles away) and Alnwick, 20 miles south. Unmanned and, by the sound of it, unused by a BBC which is threatening to halt its unpopular (among staff) proposed move north to Salford Quays if it can't blackmail more licence-fee cash from the Exchequer.

Does it matter, you yawn, sitting in your London newsroom awaiting the call to a nice little earner from the NATIONAL radio station. Yes, it bloody DOES! One example: remember the 2004 humiliation the Northeast referendum handed to John Prescott after his concerted campaign for regional English parliaments? A surprise to us all, after the punditry that predicted the North would grab a piece of political power with eager hands?

Not if you lived up here, it wasn't. Not if you'd been able to hear pundits from the Northeast scoff at the notion they were being palmed off with another bogus bureaucracy, another useless, glorified county council layer of government.

You were too busy listening to the BBC… the Bright Boys in the Capital!

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