A northerly exodus that's just for show
The BBC wants to change. But how much difference will it really make to move chunks of it to Manchester?
Sunday 12 December 2004
According to its architect, the plan to move BBC children's TV, sport and Radio Five Live to Manchester is about "reconnecting" the corporation with areas of Britain that feel alienated from it. Mark Thompson, the director-general, believes the £600m relocation known in BBC-speak as the "Out of London vision" will "change our tone of voice as an organisation". He believes relocation will "open doors to new talent and new perspectives".
Professor Justin Lewis of Cardiff University's School of Journalism has studied the question of London-centric coverage on BBC national stations. "In news programmes you would expect London to get more coverage than other parts of the country. It is where Parliament is. But London is not just over-represented, it is massively over-represented. The BBC is very clearly oriented around Britain's capital city."
The eccentricity in Mark Thompson's plan is that Five Live is less guilty of this metropolitan bias than any other national BBC news channel. In the months before the station was born in March 1994 there were not many among the Sony Award-winning launch team who needed to be reminded that Britain exists beyond the M25.
Launch controller Jenny Abramsky had a slogan to describe the tone she wanted her new baby to achieve. The station must sound as if coming from "an airship floating over Britain".
Chris Birkett, a former Five Live editor and now executive producer of Sky News, says: "When we launched Five Live the intention was to pull in staff from all over the country. We appointed dozens from local stations to jobs in London and appointed dedicated regional journalists throughout the country... I still hear stories on Five Live that would not get air time anywhere else. "
Another BBC editor remembers that "the brief was to be different from Radio 4. It was made very plain what that meant. Not stuffy, not metropolitan. They made damn sure that presenters did not refer to Newcastle as 'up there'. The philosophy was that Five Live was broadcasting from the whole country to the whole country. It worked and it still does."
Other BBC sources point out that Television Centre contains a more cosmopolitan mix of staff than any regional BBC headquarters. One producer explains: "It is nonsense to think that by moving out of London you achieve greater diversity. There are people from every corner of the UK working in news and sport in Television Centre. If you go to Belfast or Glasgow that is actually less true than it is here. The issue is not where you are. It is what you talk about and what your assumptions are."
Justin Lewis says: "That is because there is a talent drain to London. London is the only place that you get a sufficiently broad mix of talent so all the best talent gravitates to London."
This, no doubt, contributes to the BBC's tendency to assume that viewers and listeners throughout Britain support the England football team. Lewis says: "It does infuriate people in Wales and Scotland that when England plays it is the home team. When Scotland and Wales play it is treated as a regional feature."
"When you work in London you are working in a large market where many career opportunities are available to you," says Chris Birkett. "That is a hard situation to replicate. Many people will think very hard about moving."
Mark Thompson's commitment to devolution appears rooted in a belief in creating a second critical mass in British broadcasting. Sceptics suggest his objective may be less idealistic. "You can pay people less in Manchester," says Justin Lewis. "It is the reason call centres are in India."
Presenter, Radio 2
I think the BBC is less London-centric than, say, Channel 4, and a lot of other media organisations. But in general the move is a good thing. It is after all the British Broadcasting Corporation. What I hope comes out of it a reverse brain drain. Why should people with talent have to go to London? Who knows, maybe in 10 years' time the "Today" programme will be based in Newcastle.
BBC sports commentator
From the point of view of BBC sport I can't see how it's going to make any difference. And the timing is surprising, what with Wembley reopening in 2006, and the possibility of a London Olympics. The point about Five Live and sport is that reporters are already all over the place. I've never felt that the BBC's sports coverage is somehow metropolitan.
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