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June 30, 2008

National news? More like London Calling…

By David Banks

Four nations and a host of regions make up the United Kingdom, but when it comes to readers, viewers and listeners there are only two areas: London and The Rest.

If seven million people live in London, 52 million don’t.

Staying with the mathematics, 85 per cent of the kingdom does its shopping, viewing, reading, listening and living outside the M25.

Some 10 million of us live closer to Wick than to Watford.

Another 10 million are Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish, a diaspora united with its English neighbours only briefly – and less and less often these days – by the ‘national’news that London chooses to provide.

The rest of us, media consumers with our noses pressed against the glass wall that divides the cosmopolitan from the mere metropolitan, might as well be the hated ‘bogus asylum seekers’we read so much about.

National newspapers? The press is only notionally national these days. The rot began – hopefully entirely coincidentally – in 1964, the year in which I entered journalism and when the north’s last remaining national newspaper, The Manchester Guardian, trotted off to the Smoke.

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I worked in Manchester with some of the finest journalists of my generation on the northern Daily Express and the northern Daily Mirror. We were not exclusively northern in origin, far from it, but we and our editors – Robin Esser, Len Woodliffe, Derek Jameson – turned out at least two early editions of exclusively northern sports, news and features content before the hated LONSUB copy arrived by teleprinter: copy produced in the south to replace ‘domestic'(and therefore inferior) content for the north’s big city editions.


Alas, the bustling editorial offices in Withy Grove and Ancoats Street are no more. Copy from ‘oop there’arrives from fewer and fewer staffers in neglected northern outposts, to be dissected and decided upon by men and women from a different country called London, in different regions called Canary Wharf or Wapping or Kensington.

A great national industry has contracted to an (admittedly) still colossal cottage industry centred upon a few multi-tasking hubs in the blinkered journalism jungle that is the capital.

And so the moans grow louder.

Why did the floods that devastated Hull last year go undiscovered by the national media for so long? A national scandal of inaction to rival – in misery if not in loss of life – Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans 18 months earlier, which went unnoticed on Fleet Street’s antennae-less radar scanners.

Now you understand why Kelvin MacKenzie, that much admired but most London-centric of editors, joked recently in a not-entirely-unrelated context: ‘Have you ever been to Hull? It’s a shocker!”

How could the rest of England – particularly London and the south east – have been so astonished when John Prescott’s campaign to establish regional assemblies failed so spectacularly in its first – and last – referendum?

Fleet Street was gobsmacked. Not so the editors and staffs of those fine regional dailies The Journal and the Northern Echo, who knew from day one that Prezza’s sop to an increasingly alienated regional electorate was doomed to the overwhelming 78 per cent rejection it achieved.

Finally, a personal example: five years ago the village where I now live in north Northumberland was among a score of small borders towns and communities cut off by blizzards and left without power for more than a week before Radio Five Live eventually stumbled on the story. Even then, we didn’t rate a par in the national press.


London, with 12.5 per cent of the British population, produces 65 per cent of television programming either in-house or from capital-based production houses. If successful national dramas such as Heartbeat (Yorkshire), Doctor Who (Cardiff) and Casualty (Bristol) can be made regionally using local casts and crew, why not Newsnight or Panorama or Channel 4 News?

BBC Radio always made much of my ego-driven willingness to appear as a general guest (Five Live’s Late Night Live and Simon Mayo) or as a press pundit (Radio 4’s The Message) when I lived in London. Now my phone rings just as often with broadcast requests, but tell the researcher where I live and the results are different.

‘Ooh, all that way? Bet the weather’s nice, so relaxing. Such a pity. I think we’ll have to get someone local (sic). Maybe next time you’re in London?”

Two years ago, I communicated my concerns to the BBC. The honest reply – I won’t name the producer – went thus: ‘Many thanks, you’re quite right: despite some efforts the BBC – like other media – remains stubbornly London-centric.

‘Certainly, with our network of regional studios we should be getting voices from around the UK. There seems to be a sense that, on breakfast in particular, guests have to come in and sit on the sofa, which means a strong leaning towards those living nearby.

‘Of course, all this will change when the BBC moves to Manchester, won’t it…?”

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