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20 January 2013

Geography Lesson

Two events this past week have shown just how London-centric our supposedly national media remain. One is snow. The other's a bike race. The first might be understandable, for reasons I'll discuss.

The second is unforgivable.

If there's one thing we can be certain about in reporting across all non-social media it's that there's a clear north-south divide in weather stories. If a snowflake hits the home counties, it's big news. If a community in Yorkshire is cut off for days, well it's just their stupid fault for living in the north.

When, on one memorable occasion a couple of years back, freezing rain turned to sheet ice and kids in Holmfirth were literally crawling to school on their hands and knees to avoid falling over in the street guess what was leading the snow report on the BBC News website?

No go on, guess.

It was a picture of a red London bus, photogenically flecked with a few bits of snow, driving past a similarly winter-enhanced Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben to you and me). The Holmfirth story was relegated to the local 'Bradford and West Yorkshire' pages.

We all know why, and it's not a conspiracy. Journalists are human, despite everything they have to put up with from bad coffee and duff IT systems to Lord Justice Leveson.

If their journey to work is disrupted by the weather, or their kids are off school, they are aware of it and it becomes a story in their eyes. I'm often blind to weather events in Scotland or Northern Ireland for the same reason. I've still to get over the trauma of a train guard in Aberdeen telling me there were problems 'down south' on the route to Leeds.

The difference is that a supposedly national, publicly funded news service should regard the whole country as its TSA. It doesn't when it comes to weather. To be fair, there have been improvements. A few hours in this time there was a snazzy interactive page on the Beeb website with clickable links to snow reports from around the country, which is as it should be.

But the fact remains that a modest snowfall in the SE corner of the UK merits a 'news special' broadcast to the whole of England on flagship channel BBC1, as happened last week, and that's ridiculous. 

I'm well aware of the argument that a heavy (sic) snowfall is a rare event in the south, and that makes it news. But all communities feel the cold. All communities suffer transport disruption when it snows.

All viewers are equal. But some viewers are more equal than others.

Which brings me on to bikes.

There was a major sporting announcement last week. After months of lobbying it was revealed that the big launch event of the Tour de France - Le Grand Départ - is coming to Leeds in 2014.

Yorkshire beat off competition from Florence, Berlin, Barcelona, Edinburgh and Venice to stage Le Grand Départ itself in the centre of Leeds, from where riders will set out on two stages taking in amazing scenery, several world heritage sites, and most importantly a route carefully devised to offer technical challenges to the riders and their machines which will thrill cycling enthusiasts around the world.

Yorkshire has won this for Britain. Britain should be proud.

So how was it reported?

"The 2014 Tour de France will feature a stage that visits the London 2012 Olympic Park and end on the Mall ... after two stages in Yorkshire" says the opening line on BBC Sport website - all the more galling for the fact BBC Sport is now based in Salford, so one might have hoped their writers might have left their blinkers behind on the Metropolitan Line when they relocated to MediaCity.

Meanwhile the Telegraph's Brendan Gallagher (@gallagherbren) seeks to get the priorities right with this breathless announcement:
The race is visiting Britain for a ‘Yorkshire’ grand départ next summer and Telegraph Sport understands that Stage Three, on Monday July 7, will start in Cambridge and head south to London before making a circuit of the Olympic Park in east London and ultimately finishing on the Mall in central London, with Buckingham Palace as a backdrop.
Note the quotation marks around 'Yorkshire' ... as in 'novelty', or 'not quite the real thing'.

I was scathing of the BBC's role last year at the Olympics, in which it sought to act simultaneously as both impartial reporter and cheerleader-in-chief for a highly commercialised sporting jamboree, the legacy of which is the regeneration of a corner of the capital, underwritten with £11 billion of taxpayer support. And a climbing frame.

So if the Beeb is a truly national broadcaster I would hope to see Auntie pull on the same ra-ra skirt to drum up enthusiasm for Le Grand Départ in Leeds from early on in 2014, not just on the day on the BBC News channel or (big smile to camera) on 'the news where you are' (freeze, wait, get on with the important stuff to the audience in London or watching on HD) but prominently on national radio, TV and online services.

I'd rather hope we see a similar hyped, choreographed 70-day countdown, maybe with  Penny Farthing rides through Hampshire or Raleigh Chopper derbies in -er- Derby, all given minute-by-minute over-excited promotion across all local radio stations in the same way that the risible 'torch relay' was meant to make me feel included in London's multi-billion pound Olympic celebrations. It didn't.

But we won't, will we?



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