BBC Salford. Flickr/Mike Heneghan. Some rights reserved.Imagine this scenario if you will. You have just arrived in Kettering, Tonypandy or any other often forgotten part of the UK. As an alien arriving from a foreign land, you flag down a taxi and get in. The first thing you notice is that the voices on the radio are not the same as that of your taxi driver.
These are national radio stations. Probably broadcast from somewhere important, somewhere far away. Furthermore, almost every news story refers to this mystical place where everything happens. Your driver informs you that local programmes stop after 10 am, all radio shows come from London at this time in the day.
Even activities you were sure happened in other places seem to only occur in London. It’s incredible how many TV programmes are set in London, often for no other discernible reason than the fact that most of the people that make TV live there. British people have become mostly blind to this tendency. It takes an outsider to highlight the absurdity of the current situation.
Accusations of London-centrism are usually shrugged off by Londoners as an example of provincial sour grapes. What Londoners often do not understand (or forget) is the palpable sense of invisibility felt by the rest of the country. The idea that all the important things that happen in the world happen someplace else can have a powerful impact on communities.
When your town is mentioned it is often ridiculed and made the butt of jokes on TV panel shows where the writers regard anywhere outside of the M25 as an uncivilised hellhole totally beneath the contempt of fashionable society. In these instances, it is not unreasonable to conclude that you are unrepresented, invisible and powerless.
It is one thing if you happen to live in an idyllic cottage in the Cotswolds, but quite another if your community is blighted by high levels of unemployment, illness and social deprivation as is often the case in large parts of not-London.
The Southern Tilt
As the writer Jan Morris captured so perfectly “it is as though the British Isles are tilted permanently to one corner – the south-east corner, bottom right, where London stands seething upon the Thames. Everything slithers and tumbles down there, all the talent, all the money”. The media is no exception.
The concentration of media activity in the capital matters because London and the UK are now on completely divergent tracks. From the 1980s onwards, whilst London began to boom with an upsurge in foreign capital and financialisation, the rest of the country - particularly those parts of the country at the hard-end of Thatcher’s deindustrial strategy - began to experience a very different narrative.
London has come to view the rest of the country as a parasite regards a host. London is a global city, temporally and culturally remote from the rest of the UK. If it must be geographically located, southern Britain is as good a place as anywhere else.
The Media Class
Sketching out the emerging social order during the New Labour era, the conservative commentator Peter Oborne described what he called a new ‘media class’, an elite group of (largely) public-educated, London-based professionals whose careers were spent navigating the revolving door between the worlds of politics, media, business and PR and their presence was increasingly being felt in every important area of public life.
Propaganda propagates not because of some grand conspiracy but because the people who make the news are in fact the same people who report it. They often share the same backgrounds, value systems, and in many cases postcodes.
The Overton Window was a concept originated by the sociologist Joseph Overton to describe the range of ideas and policies which are deemed to be politically possible and/or sensible at any point in time. As soon as the spectrum of acceptable opinion and cultural values has been agreed upon it can be bootstrapped ad nauseum without the need for the vulgar interference of political apparatchiks.
As Overton understood all too well, this code can be internalised to the point where members of the media class can convince themselves that they are representing the world impartially. This particular London-centric, Overton Window explains the media’s bemused take on almost every important issue of our time, be it Brexit, Scottish Independence or indeed the rise of UKIP - which was so fetishised as example of feckless provincial rebellion that the media ended up unwittingly contributing to their success.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, with social mobility on the decline and the gap between rich and poor increasing, this small elite has never been so hermetically sealed from reality. According to the government’s own statistics in 2014, 43% of newspaper columnists and 26% of BBC executives attended independent schools - compared to 7% of the public as a whole. These are just two statistics but they demonstrate the extent to which London’s elite have created a bubble where oxygen cannot reach.
This should give all of us cause for alarm. Without a common ‘public sphere’ which speaks to all our hopes, fears and concerns, it is difficult to see how in the long-term the centre can hold.
Whilst it true we are living in an age of unprecedented media saturation and availability, we are also living through a time of ever-increasing media consolidation and centralisation.
In his excellent book Flat Earth News, Nick Davies argues that the traditional view of the journalist out in the field looking for stories is outdated. Over-worked journalists expected to churn out dozens of stories a day; increasingly rely on press releases cooked up by powerful interests to help them do their job.
In the world of local journalism, where profit margins are much tighter, this tendency has reached epidemic proportions. So much of what makes it into our local and/or regional newspapers are actually national stories repackaged with a local flavour.
Unfortunately, this is not confined to print journalism. Television and radio channels have all seen reductions in the amount and quality of local programming. Ironically, it is the growth in so-called media choice which has offered the regulators the cover they need to take a lighter touch approach.
If anything the internet by nature of its global reach promotes communities of interest over locality. People can be intimately aware of the goings on of people and places halfway across the world but remain totally ignorant of important events unfolding just down their street.
It is also a fallacy to assume that the blogosphere and so-called citizen journalism will replace traditional local media. News is expensive to produce. An army of bloggers and commentators recycling the same information and commenting ad infinitum will never be a replacement for journalistic digging. Creating an even bigger echo chamber is unlikely to be useful.
Protecting and Enhancing Local Media
Local media needs to be empowered to reject the purely commercial incentives to amalgamate and centralise. Regulation and devolution could be powerful instruments in the fight for traditional media. Each time there is an attempt to corrode local coverage or control; we should resist it in the strongest possible terms.
Remember that even in the digital age, our airwaves are precious commodities and there are plenty of providers willing to take over even the most unloved piece of bandwidth.
We should be pushing for increased local content from our public service broadcasters. Since its merger into one entity in 2003, ITV has continuously neglected regional programming and the BBC is now the only serious provider of such services.
In the digital realm, things are much more promising. Scotland’s excellent Bella Caledonia and The National are shining examples of platforms that are truly provocative and interesting. There are plenty of other examples of excellent projects going on around the country. I urge readers to contribute to Ifan Morgan Jones’ efforts to set up an online, community-driven national news platform for Wales.
The rest of us need to take some responsibility too, if we are lucky enough to work in the media we need to be proactive in championing other places or where possible set up alternative media platforms which can grow to become the powerful voices in our own backyards.
The stories of our nations and regions are far too complex and multi-faceted to begin and end in one place. If we are ever to represent Britain properly we need to be more informed on life outside of citadel’s iron gates.
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