As the North of England's arts and culture is gutted, the London-centric press looks away

Newcastle is to cut 100% of its art funding, but the southern-dominated media can't report it.

At the end of 2011, I signed on at Newcastle City Jobcentre Plus. Because of unusually high service demand, I was given a monthly seven-minute appointment on the fourth floor, halfway up an imposing building that teemed with the freshly down-and-out. Newcastle was grey, perpetually raining, and terminally pessimistic. Down on the second floor, two of my middle-aged relatives, recently made redundant, were signing on too.

For the next six months, I regularly stood in a long queue of fellow twentysomethings, all bemoaning the system that was demonstrably failing us with a poignant sense of camaraderie. That Christmas, I went round every shop in the city centre and dropped off my CV when they began to advertise holiday vacancies; out of 27 stores, not one even called me in for an interview. This stung not just because I’d just graduated from UCL and therefore considered myself academically overqualified, but because I’d spent my university years working part-time in retail. My CV had been constructed around a Jobcentre template for the sector and I didn’t mind the unspoken criteria (often actually voiced if you got to speak to the manager) of being easily laid off in January; I just wanted enough money to return to London, which I’d been driven out of, post-graduation, by skyrocketing rent.

This story was familiar to most of those twentysomethings in the self-styled Queue of Little Hope. Like me, they were northerners who had defected to the south and been left gobsmacked by the relative levels of opportunity there. Those of us who wanted careers in the media knew that the requisite networking, the schmooze-and-boozing, the right-place-right-timing, had to be done in the big city. Unemployment in the North East was high, and wages were low. A girl that I met in the Jobcentre line, who eventually found herself employment with an advertising agency, then reluctantly picked up sex work to supplement her wage. The full-time job she’d been shunted into left her with £15 per week after bills and rent – and strip clubs were stepping up their recruitment drives in the wake of so many disillusioned, penniless female "NEETs" (young people not in education, employment or training) returning home.

Recession tales like this are now, unfortunately, fairly commonplace. But Newcastle has made the headlines in the last few weeks for one very conspicuous decision: to cut 100 per cent of its own arts funding. This sticks out as a particular example of cruelty in a city which had only recently benefited from what many lauded as a cultural regeneration (in 2011, the Turner Prize was hosted by the Baltic Gallery on the local quayside.) Councillor Nick Forbes has already defended the contentious figures behind his reasoning for them in this magazine, and conspiracies about how his own ambitions affected his decisions have been rife. But all of this reporting and speculation has been done in a tone symptomatic of how the London-dominated media speaks about the north: with little actual outrage, and a lot of head-shaking and resigned passivity in its place.

Newcastle will be a "test city" for withdrawal of all arts funding, journalists have suggested; the capital of the North East, razed of its accessible culture and its previously abundant community projects, will be a physical scar on the face of austerity Britain. A commenter on one such article accused Forbes of "martyring a city to prove a political point" – and there’s no doubt that the gravity, the total and profound finality, of 100 per cent as a quantity has attracted attention. It speaks loudly and clearly of the reality of coalition government cuts across the UK, and their often disproportionate effect on the north. When it comes to proposing real action, though, the protests are left to individual institutions in Newcastle itself, bar a few Geordie celebrities who have attempted to generate national interest in a petition they created themselves.

A comprehensive breakdown of Newcastle, presented in statistics and wildly depressing pie-charts on the local council’s website, seems like the numerical manifestation of the old adage "it’s grim up north." Just under a third of Geordie children live in poverty, with 26 per cent qualifying for free school meals. The city’s own internal inequalities are stark: the difference in male life expectancy between the relatively affluent area of South Gosforth compared to the relatively deprived area of Byker is a staggering 12.6 years. In other words, this is no place for southerners’ apathy. It is the place and the time for those with the clear media advantage to stand up for their counterparts. Some publications have been kind enough to pick Newcastle up of late, dust it off, and wonder loudly whether the city will show us all how terrible our national economic situation really is. But the overall impression remains that these particular cuts are an unfortunate but interesting social experiment to keep a sympathetic eye on, rather than a cause worth championing. The apparently politically conscious and fairly diverse cross-section of Londoners I now rub shoulders with were mostly unaware of the North East’s arts situation when I asked them this week.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly that reporters themselves are very rarely from or living in Newcastle. Northerners have always been rare in the national press, and if publications have deigned to have an actual Geordie write a piece on the latest crisis, it has almost always been as a one-off piece rather than by a regular contributor. The Guardian has a blog entitled The Northerner, as if to hammer home how out-of-place that species is in a national newspaper. And the "call to arms" type of reporting that might have dominated front pages if such cuts had been made in London are replaced by vague conceptualising, amused celebrity-chasing, and comment pieces on whether Forbes really is really enacting a self-serving strategy. Meanwhile, High Heaton Library – where my mother became the first of her family to complete an A Level assignment, down the road from my grandparents’ cramped and overcrowded council house – prepares to close its doors.

In Newcastle, where the educational output is well below the national average, accessibility to the arts is vital. It bleeds into every area of life for children who, for the most part, don’t benefit from drama clubs, LAMDA courses, and extracurricular debating societies in their oversubscribed state schools packed with children from low income backgrounds. Down the road, Newcastle University now boasts one of the most academically prestigious - along with one of the most privately educated cohorts - of all higher education institutions across the UK. The wealthy area of Jesmond is now dominated by student housing that has become too expensive for most other residents to afford. In no other British city is such a discrepancy in socio-cultural opportunity more obvious.

Outside the galleries in Newcastle now, sad flyers that plead "NOT 100%" are fluttering in a cold February breeze. The fourth floor of the Jobcentre still boasts a lengthy queue. The north of England has always seemed strangely far away from the south, much further in the collective mind than it ever could be geographically – and it has never seemed so far removed. Will libraries in Heaton and Byker close? Probably. The council continues to hold its final consultations, but the local mood is changing. And sadly, it feels like it will be a very long time until the concerns or the achievements of the North East find their way into the national news again.

Photograph: Getty Images
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder