Your task: selling the real Liverpool
From the Beatles to the Kop, plenty of preconceptions exist about the 2008 European City of Culture. How are the re-branders going to tackle them? By Jonathan Brown
Monday 27 November 2006
The Today programme's recent description of Liverpool as a "faded seaport on the west coast of England" was greeted with more than the usual grumbles about London media bias among those selling the renaissance of the city. It was treated as a call to arms to reverse the city's negative image.
Ask the average journalist their thoughts on the jewel of the Mersey and the usual glib cliches will trip off the tongue. The perception is of a crime-ridden, economic basket case, populated by a mawkish people with a chip on their collective shoulder.
Think of Boris Johnson forced to prostrate himself for making unflattering comments about the city. Think of those demands for Liverpool-born Anne Robinson to apologise for cracking a joke about thieving Scousers on a television game show. This is a city whose relationship with tragedy - economic, human and political - over the last three decades has created a pervasive mythology stretching from the Toxteth riots through Derek Hatton to Hillsborough, Jamie Bulger, Ken Bigley and Anthony Walker. The British national media, from both the left and the right, has written off the country's second most famous town as a shell-suited, hub-cap-nicking "self-pity city".
In keeping with Liverpool's maritime heritage, turning around perceptions is a bit like putting an ocean liner into reverse, concedes Jonathan Brown (unrelated to the author of this piece). But Brown, a former deputy editor of the Liverpool Echo who became a public relations consultant and is now, through his company Factory Communications, engaged in a charm offensive on behalf of the city, claims that there is a good news story to tell.
"The image of Liverpool which many people hold is one which was largely formed during the city's darkest days and, to an extent, continues to be perpetuated by the London-based media. Frankly, it's an image that is out of date,' he said.
Paradoxically, the competitive nature of Merseyside's own local media can add to perceptions about high levels of crime, he says. "In London, for example, you don't have one paper that pulls it all together and the nationals aren't interested," says Brown, (though the London Evening Standard's news desk might beg to differ).
Always looking for the positive, Brown claims that the reporting of violent incidents in the city is actually a sign that things could be a lot worse. "You should be glad that people are shocked that these things happen. It should never be routine that someone gets shot. It is a healthy sign - this is not New York. Newspapers need to sell and that is what their readers want. You have to accept that reality."
Although Alastair Machray, editor of the Liverpool Echo, is in no doubt that his adopted city gets a rough ride from the rest of the country, he rejects accusations that his paper is part of the problem, serving up a relentlessly negative diet of news. Recently he devoted four pages to aerial photographs of the city centre development under the headline - A City Reborn.
"The rest of Britain would like nothing better for Liverpool to return to its basket-case state of 15 years ago. For too long they could ignore their own shortcomings, crime issues and political turmoil. But they can't do that any more."
Machray has been around long enough to know that knocking copy is the newspaper industry's diet of choice but he thinks that the combination of bad news and Liverpool still generates a special frisson of excitement in the London media.
"Negative stories always get followed up by the nationals and all newspapers are guilty of focusing on the negative. But the policy of newspapers generally seems to be that if something bad happens it makes it a better story if it happens in Liverpool, rather than in Leeds or Colchester. That is bewildering, it is primitive."
As part of his PR blitz, Brown is now offering London-based journalists to come up to Liverpool and see it for themselves. He'll even throw in a helicopter ride over the city, which to be fair does alter one's perspective of the old port, in every sense. The sheer scale of building development, under the guidance of a regeneration company called Liverpool Vision, is undeniably impressive. Some 42-acres of prime real estate are in the process of being transformed into a £900m retail district by the Duke of Westminster's company Grosvenor Estates. Just a stone's throw away, a 9,500 capacity arena is rising fast on the banks of the Mersey. Unlike Wembley, it is on time and on budget and will host the opening ceremony when Liverpool assumes the mantle of European Capital of Culture in 2008.
By then cruise liners will begin docking at a new facility at the Pier Head, with 100,000 well-heeled visitors clambering down the gang plank by 2010. There will be a new canal, giving narrow boats a link across the Pennines to Leeds, while plans for a £65m new Museum of Liverpool have been approved, alongside a makeover for historic Lime Street station. Meanwhile, a rash of trendy hotels, bars, restaurants and galleries are sprouting up across the city centre.
There has been plenty of negative publicity to firefight on the way, not least the rapid departures of the city's chief executive and council leader. A high-profile tram project was shelved. Will Alsop's iconic Cloud building was cancelled and the world heritage status of the city's Three Graces, the Liver, Cunard and Port of Liverpool buildings was temporarily under review because of fears over the impact of the development.
The flagship Capital of Culture celebrations have been beset with high profile resignations and some doubts remain over the ability of the city to deliver a truly world class programme of events to mark the year.
And then, of course, there is the plight of the people of Liverpool. Warren Bradley, leader of Liverpool City Council, acknowledges that pockets of deep poverty are entrenched in the residential "doughnut" around the city centre. In Anfield and Everton, for example, where millionaire footballers take to the pitch each Saturday afternoon, four out of ten people are living on benefits.
And like other politicians before him, Mr Bradley finds himself forced to defend the psychological character of the city.
He says that Liverpool's famous community spirit and passion have been compounded by two decades of underachievement, and are misinterpreted by the national media as excessive mawkishness. The result is something of a siege mentality. "It is a very religious city, people feel it personally when you get the Bulgers and the Ken Bigleys. That is good," argues Bradley, no mean PR man himself. "It is a sad indictment of other cities that they don't react like that. It is good to care about your neighbours."
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