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02 April 2018

Regional Blindness

I'm just back from a week spent in Cornwall.

It's a part of the British Isles I've never visited before. I was in the habit of heading down the M1 and turning left for France, but since the Brexit fallout means my Pound is only worth 7 Francs or so today in real money (instead of the 9 or 10 that mean decent food and accommodation is affordable) we decided to turn right instead and head for the West Country.

We had a great time, thanks for asking. The Eden Project, couple of fabulous National Trust places, and some cracking little seaside villages that give Robin Hood's Bay a run for its money. But as I explored around Bodmin, St Austell and the wonderfully-named Lostwithiel I realised this is a part of England .. my own country .. I know next to nothing about.

Why's that? Regional blindness. It's the reason why more .. much more .. network TV and radio production needs to be moved (at gunpoint if necessary) out of the comforting embrace of the M25.

BBC and ITV regional news programmes like Look North and Calendar are regularly among the most viewed in my own 'home' region of Yorkshire. They're certainly the most popular news strands on TV. The genuine affection shown for presenters when they participate in charity stunts or host awards events shows how they touch region-wide audiences, even in this age of infinite digital distraction.

So I have a reasonable perception of my own region, even those bits of it like Castleford I never visit. (I'm perilously close to entering my seventh decade, and I've never knowingly been to Castleford). It's referenced, not every day but regularly, in the news I hear, see and read online. It's on my radar.

I also have a perception of bits of the country I've never been to. Islington, Brixton, Shoreditch and Brick Lane are all names that bring up instant images and associations. All in or around London. I have an appreciation of these communities brought to me when they are regularly referenced in national media coverage, in text as well as in broadcast.

I have no similar appreciation of Bodmin, save possibly a vague association with Sherlock Holmes (and that dates from the nineteenth century. And it's fiction). St Austell I had certainly heard of, but could not begin to locate on a map without GPS to help. And Lostwithiel I had genuinely had no knowledge of at all until we arrived in it. A town in my own country, completely alien to me, because I never see or hear anything about it.

Bear with me.

If it's reasonable to suppose that BBC Points West and ITV West Country do at least as good a job as their northern counterparts in Leeds, then regional audiences in Bodmin or St Austell will be as well informed about their own region as I am about mine. I can also assume they are just as ignorant about Halifax or Harrogate or Pudsey as I was about their neck of the woods.

However, just like me, they are constantly fed a diet of images, words and sounds from within the M25 illuminating that golden space.

Developing the argument further, audiences within London and environs get the best regional news of all - local stories, like snow or train strikes, are elevated to the importance of national news because those who determine what the national news is are inconvenienced by them on their way to work.

BBC Radio 4 Today is the best local radio there is for London and the South East. Even on sunny days it's more convenient to illustrate stories by reference to Bloomsbury or Brixton than by travelling further afield.

The metropolitan audience is superserved by the national broadcasters, and furthermore has no perception at all of what's happening beyond the M25. They're equally ignorant of Bradford and Bodmin.

The self-perpetuating loop is closed.

The answer to this? Relocate national newsrooms across England. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are already better served because of their "nations" status - and bolshy devolved governments of various stripes).  Channel Four news from Birmingham would be a start. Bradford would be better, but probably too much of a stretch for a first toe in the water. News at Ten from Norwich. Sky Breakfast from Truro.

The BBC has already decided "The North" and "Manchester" are synonyms. The Salford operation was a long overdue first move for the Corporation, but now we need the World at One from Wakefield and PM from Preston. Newsnight from Newcastle goes without saying.

There was a mantra in the Beeb a few years back that "the BBC should look and sound like the people who watch and listen to the BBC". Great strides have been made in ethnic diversity, but regional accents are still far too much of a rarity. Social diversity is the next objective, and moving much more production to the regions would help so much in achieving that breakthrough.

It's not even a lack of infrastructure. The Beeb has fantastic radio and TV facilities the length and breadth of England. They're just not used to anything like their capacity.

Some of us can even remember when the nightly Nationwide magazine programme got some use out of this network by showcasing regional stories nationally, albeit with wobbly sets and too many beige cardigans. They did that in an age of 16mm film and sticky tape. Imagine what a similar programme could achieve now, if there were just the will to make it.

So we need to set a target, here and now. Let's go Nationwide. Seventy percent of BBC news output made outside London within five years. If there's the will, it can be done.

It would even go a long way towards healing all the post-Brexit wounds the London commentators are so keen to commentate upon, if they're informed by on the ground experience in Dudley and Doncaster, instead of limiting their scope of perception to Dulwich.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Richard

    I thought there might be a partial model for what you are suggesting as there used to be something called Newsnight Scotland, which was a Scottish opt-out from Newsnight replacing the last 20 minutes of the programme broadcast to the rest of the UK. However, in looking it up I discovered that it was cancelled in 2014, replaced by a longer programme covering the Independence Referendum, and then replaced by a programme that only airs only once a week.

    I've said it before, and I'll say it again. The internet opens up all sorts of possibilities for this kind of thing to be done online. I don't know why it is not happening.