The London newspaper bias: half of "national" news is about the south east

After surveying the regional bias of eight national newspapers over the course of two weeks, we found that 49.1 per cent of supposedly regionally-based news is focused on London and the south east.

When Helen Pidd took over as the Guardian’s only “Northern Editor” in January of this year, she quickly conceded that the job is “far too much for one person to do”. You don’t say. Alongside politics, business, law, sport and more, the printed press is just another industry indulging in a sycophantic obsession with the south east.

What’s more, I can prove it.

For ten weekdays in two consecutive weeks at the end of July, I monitored the regional bias of ‘national’ newspaper coverage. Looking at the eight most renowned national daily papers (The Mail, Independent, Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Sun, Mirror, and Express), I noted down which region each article covered. The results are depressingly predictable.

Even excluding stories covering Westminster, 49.1 per cent of articles which were based on a particular region, centred on London and the south east. This region only possesses 26.6 per cent of the national population.

With the exception of the north west (which actually received slightly too much coverage in proportion to population) and the west and south west (which received marginally less), all other regions were noticeably under-represented.

As a Brummie, I can only bemoan the fact that despite possessing 16 per cent of the UK population, only 11.3 per cent of articles were based on the midlands. The north east received only 2.9 per cent (with 4.1 per cent of the population), the east 4.7 per cent (9.3 per cent of the population), Yorkshire 5.5 per cent (8.4 per cent of the population) and Wales 3.6 per cent (with 4.9 per cent of the population).

Image by Hector Crespo

The nationalistic tendencies of Scotland and Northern Ireland will also surely be aided by the lack of coverage they receive in the so-called ‘national’ press. Despite possessing 8.4 per cent of the UK population, only 2.6 per cent of articles with a regional focus were based on Scotland. Northern Ireland was covered by a mere 0.3 per cent of these articles, while it makes up 2.9 per cent of the UK population.

Although both of these regions have their own strong local press outlets, it’s farcical to label our main newspapers ‘national’ newspapers given these numbers. Plus, why should we assume that the rest of the UK has no interest in the affairs of other regions?

The bias becomes even more apparent when looking at articles with more than 300 words. A staggering 58.6 per cent of these articles were centred on London and the south east. Apparently there aren’t only more stories there, there is also more to say about them.

Perhaps surprisingly, the main offenders were towards the centre and the left of the political spectrum.  An astonishing 70.1 per cent of the Independent’s regionally based articles were centred on the south east. Helen Pidd’s Guardian was an easy second, but can hardly be proud of its 59 per cent. The Mirror boasts the least south east centric approach, yet still, a disproportionate 38.2 per cent of its regionally based coverage centred on the area surrounding the M25.

Of course, the natural counter to such an obvious bias is to argue that newspapers are only reporting where more news occurs. Surely London and the south east have more important institutions, more famous people, more significant events? Surely all the newspapers are doing are reflecting a broader structural concentration of newsworthy stories in the south east?

Well, no. In fact, although there is a lamentable skew of so many industries towards the south east, the newspapers themselves are still biased.

In addition to listing only regional focused articles, I also tallied those national stories which used an example from a particular region - like, for instance, the very national heat-wave we have been treated to this summer. Of these articles, an astonishing 60.1 per cent listed London and the south east as their first example. Despite the fact that the article wasn’t exclusively about the south east, and despite the fact that an example from anywhere else in the UK would have sufficed, newspapers demonstrated an instinctive tendency to prioritise the south east.

Our national newspapers are not only covering a depressingly south east centric nation, they are also depressingly south east centric themselves.

 

Excluding Westminster news, a staggering 49.1 per cent of regionally based stories centered on London and the south east. Picture:Getty Images.
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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.