It’s time to break up Britain’s London-centric media

Media City, Salford, Greater Manchester. Image: Getty.

To say that people living around the UK think there is something of a London-centric bias in the British media would be an understatement. Although the capital represents 13 per cent of the UK population, all of the country’s national English-language newspapers and broadcasters are based there – a level of concentration that is hard to justify on either economic or cultural grounds. The Conversation

The most obvious solution is to relocate a greater proportion of UK-wide media outside the capital. Following the BBC’s decision to relocate some of its operations to Media City in Salford, it might soon be Channel 4’s turn to venture out of the capital. The government will soon launch a consultation on the channel’s future which – inter alia – will explore whether some or all of its operations should be based outside London.

Think outside the M25

The lack of regional diversity in the UK media was acknowledged by the 2003 Communications Act, which required that a proportion of programmes by the UK’s main broadcasters (excluding Sky) be made outside the M25 (a 117-mile motorway which runs in a ring around Greater London). But the ambitions here were modest – so, for example, BBC channels were asked to produce 25 per cent of their programming hours and 30 per cent of their spending outside London. For Channel 4 and Five, those figures were 30 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.

But the Act still assumed the great majority of programming would be made in London – and, according to PACT, the body that represents the UK’s 500 independent media companies, this remains true. Around three-fifths of the UK’s independent media producers are based in London – four times the number in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.

The BBC’s move to Salford was designed to address this. The move inevitably met with some resistance – London metropolitanism among parts of the creative establishment runs deep. Reports that the Guardian is considering a return to its Manchester roots have also been greeted with scepticism, even within the paper’s own ranks – former editor, Peter Preston concluding that as far as the UK media goes, London is “where it’s at”.

Radio Five Live at Media City, Salford. Image: James Cridland/creative commons.

There are, of course, moments when this is true. But for most people, most of the time, London is not where it’s at. The BBC’s move of some of its operation to a northern hub recognises this. But even this is only a modest move on the road towards regional diversity.

Forever England?

The case to move more media out of London is compelling, and Channel 4 – with its reputation for freshness and originality – is an obvious candidate. An early frontrunner for host city is Birmingham, which has already offered the broadcaster a prime city centre location (although Karen Bradley – the minister for Culture, Media and Sport – represents nearby Staffordshire, a potential conflict of interest that might give rise to accusations of pork-barrel politics).


Hot on Birmingham’s heels is Manchester. Andy Burnham, Labour’s mayoral candidate for Greater Manchester, is busily making the case, arguing that the media infrastructure in Salford’s Media City makes “Greater Manchester the only viable alternative outside of London”. The other city being talked about is Leeds, currently considered more of a long shot.

And all of this raises the question – why should we always assume that a UK broadcaster has to be based in England? The cultural bias of our broadcasters is not only London-centric, but England-centric.

Cardiff University has conducted four reviews for the BBC Trust looking at the UK broadcasters’ coverage of UK politics. Despite the fact that a great deal of power and responsibility has now been devolved to the four nations, political coverage continues to be largely Westminster-based. Most stories about topics of devolved responsibility – in areas such as health and education – tend to ignore this, and focus only on England.

As former BBC Trustee and Chair of the Editorial Standards Committee Richard Ayre put it, devolution “represents a growing challenge to UK-wide broadcasters”. But it is a challenge that it will be harder to meet if we assume that UK media must always be based in England. Imagine if Channel 4 moved to Edinburgh – which is after all – home to the UK’s premier cultural festival? This would be devo-max with a difference. It would send a powerful message that the UK union actually meant something – and that the Scottish capital has as much right to be at the centre of things as an English city.

BBC drama studios at Roath Lock in Cardiff. Image: Chris Sampson/Flickr/creative commons.

A more plausible contender, perhaps, is Cardiff – the UK’s youngest capital city. The success of the BBC’s drama studios in Cardiff Bay – the base of production for Sherlock, Dr Who and Casualty, among others – has helped create one of the most impressive media infrastructures outside London, with a healthy supply chain of graduates from the City’s three universities (20 per cent of Cardiff’s population are students) including one of the world’s leading media schools.

As a resident of the Welsh capital – and as an employee of the aforesaid media school – I have to declare a bias. But how many other cities have hosted a NATO summit, the Champions League final and the Rugby World Cup, while developing a cultural reputation for being edgy and innovative? In many ways, this City of the Unexpected would make a perfect home for Channel 4. Oh – and its only two hours by train to central London.

Justin Lewis is professor of communication at Cardiff University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.