Has the BBC seen the Northern Light?
Updated: Mar 25, 2021
Yesterday the BBC announced a major shift of jobs and services out of London.
As someone who worked exclusively outside of the capital during my 34 years with the Corporation I was constantly annoyed by the unintentional London bias of the organisation and its sometimes patronising attitude to the regions.
The question is will we notice a difference?
It got exponentially worse in recent times as top posts were given swankier executive titles and pay packets. Sharper suits and impenetrable media-speak flourished such that the W1A parody was only a slight exaggeration of the truth. Despite it all, I loved and still do love the BBC. I am thrilled that the new DG is wholeheartedly pushing through with a plan that will move lots of jobs out into the Nations and Regions. It is very welcome.
"These plans will get us closer to audiences, create jobs and investment, and develop and nurture new talent" - Tim Davie Director General
Those words have, in some form or other, been delivered by several previous DG's. So, will this oft repeated promise bear fruit this time round? Looking at the scant detail in these proposals my journalistic scepticism leaves me with lots of unanswered questions.
First off the plans promise: "A new version of BBC One tailored for audiences in Yorkshire, the North West and the North East of England." What on earth does that mean? My fear is that it is just a continuity announcer with a "Northern" accent sitting in a cramped booth in Leeds covering network junctions. At best it means new programmes in which case count me in. But why did the BBC not actually say with confidence what it means?
Newsnight and the Today programme are being mandated to produce a given number of programmes from bases outside of London. But staff in the London HQ can produce an OB anywhere in the UK. It just means a big expenses bill when everyone hops on the train to swan in on some "lucky" town that gets to host that day's show. To really change a London-centric editorial mindset staff need to live, work and play outside of the M25.
It's important that the North East does see some benefit this time round.
When the BBC opened its Salford base there were some short-lived gains, but before long North East production companies had to move or open offices in Salford to be close to the decision makers.
All of us Geordies, Mackems and Smoggies know it's quicker to get to London than Salford, so the trek across the Pennines wore everyone's early good intentions down. The BBC's "big move" North didn't have as great a ripple effect in the North East as we first hoped.
Notably the sitcom "Hebburn" was actually filmed in the North West. Levelling up is not just a UK wide issue, the North needs to level up within its own boundaries.
We have enough talent in the North East, just not enough regular work is commissioned here to nurture a permanent, stable production base.
The North is to get a new soap-styled network drama series. ITV staked out Manchester and Yorkshire with Coronation Street & Emmerdale so could the North East be in with a shout? If so, let's hope it fares better than Tyne Tees' short-lived "Quayside" and the army of talented North East production crew, who are forever having to work away from home, can find work on it.
As a hack I have to welcome more journalism jobs. Leeds is to become a new news hub and more will be spread across the UK.
"100 new reporters are to be based in towns and areas that have never had a regional TV presence".
Can I respectfully remind my former employer that my first job at the BBC was as a district reporter covering Northumberland. It was mainly radio, as services were run quite separately in those days, but my stories fed into Look North and through me the BBC was truly embedded in the community.
I wasn't just covering hard news but also parish pump daily life, such as the medieval Alnwick Fair, where I ended up serving on the committee.
It was only possible because of a genuine commitment by the BBC to put its resources into reaching out into communities to hear every licence fee payer's voice.
Back then Radio Newcastle broadcast daily from studios in Sunderland and had producers and a reporter based there. Cutbacks put paid to that years ago and now the BBC is relearning the need to connect locally. It recently launched a pop up BBC Sunderland, on a shoestring. This temporary radio service has only two presenters who are on air from morning through to early afternoon.
Currently BBC Sunderland is broadcast from...... Newcastle (they kept that rather quiet - but in the midst of a pandemic and launched in a rush I can forgive them that one). In the first few days I gladly offered to do a spot about sea shanties for the fledgling service. The station is now to become permanent, but I do hope it will be properly resourced.
I was hugely disheartened yesterday when I hopped between BBC Sunderland and Newcastle to hear the different presenters playing exactly the same tunes slightly out of synch. They were both doing "Years of our Lives" - a remember-the-year feature of hit tunes and stories. In effect one station was parroting in real-time what the other was doing. How is that delivering a local service for Sunderland?
My biggest fear however is that the North (and North East in particular which is not getting any of the new jobs) will be fobbed off by this shining new glittery prize. What matters is not just that editorial staff think more "North".
If all that happens is that a few more network programme bosses want to do a story about, say, house prices and this time choose to talk to an estate agent in Sheffield rather than Hampstead then it will have failed.
There are stories that matter hugely to us, but don't meet the criteria of getting onto a network programme. Ofcom requires the BBC to produce TV programmes made in the regions for the regions. Apart from evening news and politics the BBC currently fails this test.
We need even more regional air-time. That is where the real power lies: to have our own platform and voice, shaped by our own priorities and concerns.
I am right behind the Director General, but we mustn't just doff our, no doubt, flat caps and be grateful for the move. The North must hold him to his word and actually demand even better.