The BBC and the North

With the movement of key resources to MediaCityUK in Salford, the BBC looks to be expanding its frontiers of national representation. But as programming oscillates between depoliticised nostalgia and an admiring celebration of ‘northern’ authenticity, this shift has done little to combat the institution’s continued southern bias.

Alexander Beaumont
30 August 2012

The relationship between the BBC and the North has been in the news a great deal recently. This shouldn’t be a surprise: the organisation’s decision in 2006 to move a significant number of jobs to Salford has been coming to fruition after the first phase of the £650m MediaCity:UK complex was completed on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal last year. A number of BBC departments have now relocated there from London, including BBC Children’s, Radio 5 Live, BBC Learning, BBC Sport and parts of the Future Media and Technology team.

The controversy surrounding the move can hardly have escaped anyone’s notice, and has coalesced around the issue of persuading media personalities to move north. Many of these figures readily agreed to relocate, but there were some notable exceptions, on whom the press were keen to focus attention. Such stories have set the generally negative tone for reporting on the expansion of the BBC’s northern operations, producing plenty of ammunition for those news outlets - the Daily Mail, Express and Telegraph - that routinely criticise the organisation. In particular, the location of MediaCity in a neighbourhood - Ordsall - that places amongst the worst 7% in the country where indices of multiple deprivation are concerned, has regularly been exploited to imply that the North in general is ugly, dangerous and, above all, provincial.

This slippage between a particular but fairly anonymous place (the focus is on Salford, not Manchester) and a large region for which it is intended to function as a metonym has a long history when it comes to the relationship between the North and the Metropole. It’s noticeable in the industrial northern cities of Dickens and Gaskell, as well as literature of the post-war period and in many of the films associated with the British New Wave. But its significance to the history of the BBC is in some ways more interesting, due to the latter’s status as the UK’s national broadcaster. The BBC’s treatment of the North has functioned as a barometer of the state of the nation throughout the organisation’s history, thus it shouldn't be a surprise that this region in particular is now at the heart of a debate about the degree to which the broadcaster is representative of the country as a whole. There have been numerous attempts to address this issue, both institutionally and at the level of content - the magazine programme Nationwide (1969-83) being an example of the latter. However, such attempts often function as defensive manoeuvres whose purpose is to shore up misleading concepts of national life which obscure deeper, more complex social realities. The current bout of restructuring is no different.

As far as the BBC’s representation of the North is concerned, the key text from the last thirty years is undoubtedly Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff (1980-82), which dramatises the difficulties of a group of unemployed tarmac layers from Liverpool. Perpetuating earlier constructions of the North as a site of the ordinary, Bleasdale's drama focused on the mundane challenges confronting a group of "normal" - read northern, working class - people in order to critique the social conditions of the early 1980s. It was certainly hard-hitting, and no one could overlook the programme’s political sentiments.

However, Troy Kennedy Martin's eco-drama Edge of Darkness (1985) perhaps represents a more interesting text from the same period, since in its early episodes it positions the North - specifically Yorkshire, due to its association with the Miners’ Strike - as a site of explicitly political confrontation, where the contest between Thatcherism and the forces of industrial labour had taken on its most antagonistic form. Ten years later, a sense of the North as the primary locale of Britain's post-war story was foregrounded in Peter Flannery's Our Friends in the North (1996), which told the stories of four friends from Newcastle as the political landscape of the UK changed dramatically between 1964 and 1995. But one of the notable tendencies of both these programmes was the gradual abandonment of the North as a site of meaningful political contest; indeed, in the final installment of Flannery's drama we saw a winsome and nostalgic reunion of the characters which was completely devoid of the urgency of earlier episodes.

With only one or two exceptions, this depoliticised - and sometimes quite patronising - tone of nostalgia has dominated BBC programming set in the North over the last decade or so, being noticeable in The Royle Family (1998-2000) and Clocking Off (2000-2003). But while the politics may have disappeared, the North continues to be constructed in these programmes as a reservoir of authenticity, even in the fantastical but markedly nostalgic Life on Mars (2006-7). In many ways Jimmy McGovern's The Street (2006-09) represents the apotheosis of this approach, at least as far as recent television is concerned. Its title sequence begins in the regenerated core of Manchester with a focus on specific developments such as The Printworks, before embarking on a retreat beyond the residential blocks of the inner city, past the civic architecture of the 1930s and the infrastructure of the Victorian period, to an urban landscape characterised by older nodes of sociality such as the church and the street. As Dave Russell has argued, “the northern terraced street has become a powerful symbol of decency, compassion and survival” (Russell 91), and the point of the sequence seems to be that, in order to confront genuine issues affecting ordinary people, it’s necessary to turn our backs on the economic logics that have seen Britain's cities - including northern cities - transformed into gleaming retail complexes.

The problem here is that this attitude obscures how, under the guise of becoming more representative, the BBC is actually colluding with such logics. Manchester has certainly benefited from hosting a large construction project at a time of economic crisis. However, it is far from certain that the relocation will help to remedy the structural issues confronting the North more widely, or even that it will lead to a considerable difference in the BBC’s social makeup. The Guardian’s “MediaCity on Monday” blog has shown that while, numerically speaking, candidates from Greater Manchester filled most of the positions advertised in the competitive jobs pool, there were huge disparities in the success rates between applicants from the capital and elsewhere. While Manchester saw a success rate of 1%, London massively outstripped this with 2.29%, and west London in particular saw 4.4% of all applicants succeed.

By contrast, the success rate for northern applicants was just 0.85% and in Salford itself just 24 of 3172 applicants were successful - eight of them being teenage “ambassadors” whose job is to guide guests around the BBC site, for which they receive wages of between £3.64 and £4.92 per hour. The Salford Star described this as a scandal, though the more pressing question is why so few of these positions were offered to local residents in the first place. We might also ask whether the jobs are likely to equip youngsters with skills that will help develop their careers, or whether the local population is being exploited as a cheap and disposable labour resource.

Of course, there are many explanations for the figures above, but it seems indisputable that higher average life chances in the southeast play a large role. The simple fact remains that, in the context of the continued decline of the UK’s industrial base (which disproportionately affects the North) and the steady deskilling of its working class, the impact of the BBC as an economic driver of regeneration in northern England - even a small part of it - was always likely to be limited.

Much of the strategy thus seems to revolve around moving people north, rather than developing the human capital available there. A plan has been mooted to host staff inductions in Salford, presumably in the hope that London-based workers will soak up something resembling “genuine” British culture. The identification of the North with an authentic vision of national life thus continues; however, this process recalls a similar strategy from the New Labour period that involved expanding northern universities in order to produce “knowledge economies” in ex-industrial cities. The consequence has been a disproportionate  influx of undergraduates from the South - where demand for higher education outstrips supply - who kick around for three years, spending money in shops, bars and clubs before disappearing to London, where the best jobs are. The two main Manchester universities are the most popular in the country, but the city often struggles to hold on to outstanding graduates. Of course, the presence of the BBC could help it retain more (and there are plans for synergies with northern universities), but this is hardly a meaningful solution for the North’s economic woes: those Mancunians without the skills, qualifications or contacts to reach this level of success can expect little more than a minimum wage job servicing the student population and the handful of BBC employees based in their city.

Of course, it’s unfair to expect the BBC to fix such acute issues - the consequence of global economic processes combined with misguided, neglectful and malicious policy decisions at Westminster. But the nostalgic tone of recent BBC programming about the North nonetheless serves to obscure how the organisation itself is complicit in the elision of urgent sociopolitical issues affecting the region, which are being brought to light as a consequence of the broadcaster’s move. However much Auntie might like to project a sense of national community, the current round of restructuring is exposing some uncomfortable truths about spatial inequality in the UK, which the condescending treatment of the North as a reservoir of the authentic and the everyday doesn’t quite hide.

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