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.
Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?