Northern journalists are missing out on jobs and opportunities available to their capital colleagues. How can we bridge the media divide that is distorting our national discourse?
As a northern journalist, I feel distinctively disadvantaged in my career prospects because I don’t live in London or the south.
A trawl through openings for reporters dishearteningly shows that if you don’t live within reaching distance of the capital or are willing to relocate there, you shouldn’t even bother attempting to pursue the opportunities, as they are virtually all located in London.
Despite accounting for just 13.4% of the UK’s population, all the national English-language newspapers are largely based in London.
The City’s Fleet Street, home of most of the nationals until the 1980s when many relocated – mainly to East London – is still used as a generic term for the UK’s national press.
It’s the same with the broadcasters, as all the major television networks are headquartered in London, including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, CNN International, and Sky UK.
With London-dominated headquarters and offices, it’s not surprising much of the news and content we consume in print, online and on TV is tilted towards the capital and its vicinity.
Gay Pride Londoners are never wanting for press attention. The powerful protests against systemic racism, police brutality, violence against women and more that took place up and down the country in 2021, were routinely reported from London.
Business, trade and financial markets news is equally as capital-central, with the likes of the Financial Times (FT) – which is headquartered in London – sculpting many of its reports with a London-driven narrative – such as how Brexit has hurt London and the financial centre. What about its impact on cities like Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle? Instead, FT articles about Manchester tend to be focused on football, and the activities of Manchester United and Manchester City.
Even Politco’s London Playbook – a major source of news for journalists – is, as its name suggests, focused on by its own admittance “politics and policymaking in the UK capital.” The Playbook is centred on the latest news, analysis and comment from the day’s proceedings at Westminster – actions which impact the whole of the United Kingdom and everyone in it. Couldn’t it therefore be renamed the UK Playbook and be penned by editors that are located outside of London?
For a Manchester-based journalist like myself, the southern-centric media is very disheartening, and ultimately begs the question – how is the country going to possibly ‘level up’ when the press expects its employees to be within spitting distance to the M25 and fails to represent every part of the country?
In other words, with a media that is so blatantly London-dominant, how are we ever going to achieve the north-south balance the country desperately needs, and is promised?
The north-south divide in England – the economic, cultural and social difference between the affluent south and the comparatively impoverished north – is a widely discussed topic.
In recent times, the issue has gained more traction, with the concept of ‘levelling up’ being one of Boris Johnson’s flagship domestic catchphrases, tossed around with gusto and dynamism for more than two years – the lodestar of the current administration’s assurances.
We are promised that the twice-delayed levelling-up white paper, which will map out a vision to achieve, what the communities secretary refers to “an ambition for every part of England to have a local leader with equivalent powers to London by the end of the decade,” will be published sometime in January.
It will however take more than town mayors and a local government shake-up to rebalance the economy and heal the gaping rift between the north and the south.
To ‘level up’, the news and other media content needs to be ‘less London.’ And surely, to achieve a more balanced media agenda that speaks for the whole of the country, openings for journalists and other media professionals should not be confined to the south?
Instead of alienating northern journalists and editors by restricting opportunities to the south, media institutions should prioritise meeting the ‘levelling up’ program promised by politicians by actively recruiting a more geographical diverse skillset that would be able to speak to the whole of the country.
The BBC has long been accused of being a London-centric media institution, with critics arguing that “its metropolitan viewpoint has meant it has failed to fully represent alternative views.”
OfCom’s latest annual report on the Broadcasting Corporation, said that the BBC must work harder to become more transparent and appeal to poorer areas of the country if it is to deliver its promise of impartiality.
Kevin Bakhurst, director of broadcasting and online content for OfCom, said: “The BBC remains highly valued by the public and made a clear, positive contribution during the pandemic.
“But the last year has also seen its reputation hit by historical failings, with some viewers and listeners doubting its impartiality, and others feeling excluded. The BBC must dare to be different, extending its appeal to viewers and listeners of all backgrounds, classes, cultures, ages or locations.”
When stepping up as Director General in September 2020, Tim Davie said that the BBC must represent “every part of this country.”
In a bid to move the focus from London, in March 2021, the broadcaster said it would move more of its news television and radio operations to regions and countries of the UK to “better reflect its audiences,” resulting in the relocation of 400 jobs from London.
Under the plan to emphatically scale back its London operations, Newsnight is being presented from different bases in the UK, and Radio 4’s Today programme will be co-presented from outside London for at least 100 episodes a year.
The plan will extend from 2022 to 2027 and would result in an additional £700 million of spending outside London.
Sadly, as my job search proves, the BBC’s attempts to decentralise by distributing operations and jobs wore widely around the country, is not echoed by other media institutions.
The Guardian, which started its life as the Manchester Guardian when it was founded in Manchester in 1821 as a weekly paper, dropped ‘Manchester’ from its title in 1855 when it upgraded from a weekly to a daily title. In 1964, the paper’s editor and editorial staff moved to London.
In the Guardian’s words, the newspaper moved to “improved office in London in 1976” to “help consolidate its position.”
In May 2021, the Guardian turned 200. To mark the occasion and to honour its Manchester roots, a commemorative plaque was placed at the site of its former offices on Cross Street. Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham unveiled the plaque in celebration of “the joint history of the Guardian and Manchester.”
The paper also planned a series of Manchester-focused events to mark its Mancunian heritage.
Despite its northern legacy, Guardian jobs outside London rarely crop up, thereby alienating journalists there are not located in the capital.
By employing more northern reporters, the Guardian’s coverage on Manchester and other northern cities might not be restricted to its 200th birthday as a gesture to mark its Mancunian heritage.
As a result, the paper – and its readers – might benefit from having a more balanced coverage of news and events from around the whole of the UK.
It’s not like being present in a ‘bricks and mortar’ office is a requisite of contemporary workforces. If the Covid-19 pandemic has achieved one thing, it’s seen the move to more flexible models of working.
Allowing staff to work from home became mandatory during the government-enforced lockdown. The multiple benefits for both employer and employee of remote working shifted attitudes about how working can be configured differently.
Such was the shift in working arrangements in recent times, that in March 2021, one of the UK’s leading news publishers said it was calling time on the traditional newspaper office.
Reach, owner of the Daily Mirror, the Daily Express, the Daily Star, and hundreds of regional titles around the UK and Ireland, told three-quarters of its staff that it was closing offices in dozens of mid-sized towns, and that they would be permanently working from home.
The publisher maintained hub offices in major cities, including its headquarters in London. Subsequently, journalists working on the group’s local titles in the South East and East Anglia, have had to head to the HQ in the capital as their nearest permanent office.
Despite publishers like Reach maintaining a remote working structure, journalist roles still tend to be location-based with a huge number allocated to London.
In the early nineteenth century, Manchester was a major hub for newspaper production, dating back to the origins of the press in Withy Grove and Deansgate.
Today, the city’s famous Printworks serves as an entertainment complex. Much of the demise of printing in northern cities like Manchester is attributable to technological change and the end of manual typesetting in particular.
Deeper forces were at work though of which the media shift to London was part. The undermining of local government of the 1980s reduced the sense of civic pride which had been so important to the lives of the great northern cities.
Moving to London to ‘get on’ became the norm among young northerners. In subsequent decades the idea that we have to be in London to achieve professionally has persisted.
Consequently, we have continued a downward spiral by which a London-centric media focuses on capital-slanted news, views and events, especially Westminster events, making London seem all important and thereby attracting still more media attention.
Given the London and Westminster-centric bias of the British media, it’s not surprising that politics seems increasingly irrelevant to those living in the north – a far cry from the government’s pledge to ‘level up’.
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is an online news reporter and editor from Manchester.