Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Move to Manchester

Back in 1999 I was the Chairman of the BBC North Regional Advisory Council and, as such, represented the BBC North region on the BBC English National Forum, reporting directly to the BBC Governor with responsibility for the English Regions, Ranjit Sondhi.   Ranjit had mentioned to me in conversation that he and the other Governors were aware that the BBC appeared to be serving its London audience quite well, but that the rest of England failed to be responding to the same extent.  As a previously London-based employee of the BBC, now living in the North of England, I knew what he was talking about, so I suggested that I look into it.

Over a couple of months I researched and wrote a report "Poor Perception of BBC Services in the North of England", examining how the 'non-Home Counties' English audience regarded BBC services.  I found it fascinating.  I was given a lot of anecdotal evidence which, when combined, revealed an antipathy to the way the BBC presented itself.  Everything the BBC did, from assuming that estuary English was an accepted norm to the disgrace of its newsroom handing over to its 'North of England correspondent' (which it still does - one correspondent for 16.9 million people?), left audiences living over 100 miles from London feeling that the BBC was content stewing in its metropolitan juices and, whether they liked it or not, that was the way things were expected to stay.

(A year ago, and to illustrate this to Richard Deverell, the BBC executive responsible for coordinating the move to Manchester, I gave as an example of the BBC's London parochialism their tendancy, when showing what a bus stop looked like, to use one with the London Transport logo and the numbers 72 and 220 on it.  "Good heavens" he said, "I used to get the 72 to work..."  Of course he did: that's the bus stop in Wood Lane outside BBC Television Centre.  I suggested to him that it was probably what everyone in the BBC imagined bus stops to look like because none of them were aware of the world beyond White City).

The BBC was London. ITV wasn't because, even as the network de-federalised itself to become London-administered, the mainstay of its output remained diversely situated - and, also, a high proportion of its air-time (the ads) was local. The same applied to Channel 4.  Satellite television was perceived as having no geographical remit.

My report was circulated among the Governors and brought to the attention of both Andy Griffee, the Head of English Regions, and Pat Loughrey, Head of Nations and Regions.  I was invited to present the report to the two of them and was glad to find them so galvanised to respond to its findings.  Pat Loughrey instigated the BBC Northern Task Force which, with a budget of £24.5m, set about solving the problem of setting the BBC once again at the heart of its provincial audience.

And they completely missed the point.

My report revealed that people wanted local and regional production, which represented local and regional voices, interests and sentiments. Everyone now sniggers at the notion of 'Nationwide' ("Here in Norwich, we can do even better than that!") but, oneupmanship apart, it was seeing local colour make up the mosaic of the country that everyone wanted.  Something relevant to a family in Devon is relevant to a family in Cumbria.  What has happened now is that the BBC has dumped a whole load of departments into one location in Manchester - exactly the same as when it dumped Science Features into Kensington House back in 1970, or News and Current Affairs into Lime Grove a decade earlier.  Worse, and for some totally incomprehensible reason, it has decided to move London-based staff away from the capital to do this.  In possibly one of the BBC's worst-ever examples of metrocentric patronisation, it assumes two things: a) that only London staff can create BBC programmes (i.e. the rest of England lacks talent), and b) that it has solved its problem of provincial representation.

It hasn't.  Where are the local voices, the regional issues and the sentiment?  Still out there, one presumes.  They certainly won't be travelling up from W12.

During my research, I spoke to the widow of the drama producer Alfred Bradley who, in our conversation, said "One day, when Alfred was doing a radio play in Leeds..." and I thought that, in that one simple phrase, there was possibly no better way of encapsulating the whole, sad, missed, point.   Media can be produced anywhere these days.  It can be, and should be.  Greg Dyke was Director General at the implementation of the Northern Task Force and, although he stated that the days of the great regional studio centres were gone, he was vehement about modern technical kit and the advantages it would offer local talent and production.  He saw new technology as the catalyst for a resurgence in local and regional production - by any- and everyone, from any- and everywhere.  

Many other towns across the North also provided specific material for my research, yet all except Manchester fail to register on the new BBC radar.  The whole point of the research has been missed. BBC has created another of its distant, self-centred monoliths.  It has totally forgotten what the initial impetus was for its move up north.

Expect little change...

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