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10 February 2017

Viewers in the North? How Awful for You

Imagine the scene. It's January, 2010. Children are crawling on their hands and knees to get to school, because the roads and pavements are too icy to stand upright.

This has come about because of a rare weather phenomenon where lying snow and ice has begun to melt, then frozen suddenly as temperatures drop sharply. You'd think it would be a huge story for journalists - pictures! Human interest! Once in a lifetime event! Did I say pictures?

But it hardly got a mention outside West Yorkshire, because it happened in Holmfirth. Not Holborn. For a while the BBC News website marked the unseasonal weather with a picturesque shot of a snow-flecked red London bus passing by the tower of Big Ben.

This is a classic example of regional discrimination, in its own way as bad as sex or race discrimination, and the basis of a piece I've just written for an ebook on diversity from the Broadcast Journalism Training Council, of which I'm a Journalism and Accreditation board member.

Often a story which happens "in the regions" is perceived as less important than one which affects the capital. This comes about less, in the main, from metropolitan conceit than from something more human.

Journalism is an art as well as a craft. Beyond objective news criteria we apply values to stories on the "ooh gosh" scale of pure, visceral gut feeling. It's what (for now) differentiates the living journalist from an algorithm. That gut feeling is informed by my daily lived experience. The price I pay for milk, the ethnic origin of people I mix with, the frequency of public transport, the films showing in the cinema are all unconsciously internalised as the norm. Even when they’re at odds with the lived experience of a majority of my audience.

I have an idea of what "the elsewhere" is like, of course - I've never been to Inverness, but I've been to Scotland so I apply my internal Scottish template to a story there and I probably won't be far wrong. The problem arises when places become stereotypes. Like my home patch of Bradford.

I remember the day I took a phone call in the newsroom at Pennine Radio from a TV film crew. "Hello, I'm looking for poverty". So how could I help? "Can't find any. Where should I go?" Resisting the first reply that came to mind I asked if he was looking for visuals - stray dogs, bricks in the road, that kind of thing? "That's right - been driving for hours all round Bradford - can't find shots anywhere". They'd chosen their location because Bradford, to them, was synonymous with deprivation. Likewise a documentary chose to illustrate the prosperity of the South East with pictures filmed inside a very ordinary Arndale Centre - the twin of which exists in, you've guessed it, Bradford.

This isn't just a "London versus the North" issue. Far from it.

My own station was based in Bradford, but covered the neighbouring towns of Huddersfield and Halifax. The same issues applied - we were more likely to do a vox pop yards from the studio in Bradford because it was easier than driving half an hour to Halifax to do it. Guests from the Alhambra Theatre or City Hall were convenient, those from the Huddersfield Choral Society or Calderdale Council required more effort. It was Drury Lane and the Westminster bubble in microcosm.

The message from all this is that it's important to be genuinely inclusive of people and stories throughout the editorial area we serve, whether that be local, regional or national. That takes effort. Effort to avoid stereotypes, lazy assumptions and tokenism (it's almost worse to include news of little merit to meet some quota of "stories from the sticks"). Effort to apply the same tests we routinely use when deciding if a story is racist or sexist.

A bit like the effort the kids and teachers had to apply to get to school that winter's day in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire.

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