Huge fires have consumed northern moors for a week. Why the silence from London’s media?

Forward-thinking media outlets are already moving north – and with blanket coverage, Westminster’s priorities will have to change. 

NS

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I hesitate to write about the “London media bubble” for several reasons.

Firstly, it’s an age-old debate and one that has been around for as long as I’ve been in journalism.

Secondly, at a time when political rhetoric is busy racing to the bottom, anything that ramps up the country's existing divisions even further probably needs to be handled with care. 

And thirdly, because I don’t want to reinforce the chippy northerner stereotype.

But beyond the well-rehearsed complaints that everyone outside the M25 is overlooked by news organisations, there's also a more positive story to be told about how media culture in this country, blown by the prevailing political and economic headwinds, could be starting to shift.

It’s certainly not where it needs to be yet, of course. An obvious case in point is that of a few weeks ago – when northerners were being hit by abject chaos across the region’s rail network and London-based outlets were very slow on the uptake.

While the mess on Thameslink got ample airtime on BBC Radio 4’s agenda setting Today programme, for example, the complete meltdown here didn’t initially get a look-in. And Today were far from the only offenders.

(It’s important to note, too, that the chaos did not start in May. Northern Rail – a massive operator that is meant to connect the biggest northern cities and beyond – has in fact been continuously missing key targets since June 2016, with a particular slump in performance last autumn causing misery long before the timetable changes. But, unlike the problems on Southern, it’s unlikely you’ll have heard about it unless you consume regional news.)

Similarly, London-based media were slow when the giant Saddleworth Moor blaze kicked in last week, with many here pointing out that were an inferno to be raging on the edge of the capital, it would have been the top of every website and bulletin. 

Even after they did cotton on and gave it the attention it deserved, the coverage quickly petered out, unlike the fire. 

By Saturday lunchtime not only was Saddleworth Moor still alight but a further two giant fires had started near Bolton, meaning not one but three infernos were now ablaze on the outskirts of Greater Manchester. 

Yet London-based outlets seemed to have already moved on. Once again I could see little coverage on it other than local news – and little about it on the BBC’s site, which was now leading with something about Oyster Cards.

But there is a huge caveat to all of this. I say “London-based” media rather than “national” media for a reason.

There are signs that where organisations have taken an active step to branch out into the regions, news priorities fundamentally change.

Salford-based Radio 5 Live, for example, has been great on both the rail chaos and the fires, as has BBC Breakfast, which is also based here.

Even the news headlines on BBC 6 Music – part of which is again at MediaCity – are notably less focused on London.

Really, this should come as no surprise. If journalists coming into work in the morning are struggling to catch a train and can’t see the sky because of the catastrophic blaze raging 20 miles away, they’re going to clock that these things are fairly major news events.

Other forward-thinking outlets are heading in the same direction, too.

The Huffington Post has just hired correspondents to report from Manchester and Birmingham in a move aimed at uncovering stories in those places of national significance, of which there are clearly many.

And Channel 4 – admittedly reluctantly – is also moving out of London.

The consequent shift in news priorities is important for one key reason: politicians in Westminster feel far more pressure to take action on problems if they are getting blanket coverage. 

As I write this, I’m hearing the Govia Thameslink contract could be stripped by government within weeks: yet it is just as important to act on the equally terrible Northern contract – and without sustained media coverage, Whitehall does not feel the same need to act.

Aside from the movement of national outlets north there are, also, benefits to the digital age for regional news organisations like the Manchester Evening News or the Yorkshire Post. In an era when anyone anywhere can read our journalism, there is no real reason why we can’t effectively be the national papers for the communities we know so well.

And contrary to the narrative – often espoused by national journalists whose own organisations are in fact struggling more – local news is not dead.

Its business models have gone through the same convulsions as anywhere else in the industry, yes. It has been a tough decade.

But the sniffy attitude I often encounter in the capital towards local and regional news is short-sighted. Not only are we more trusted, but we’re often the only people covering fascinating stories of national significance, often innovating faster, handling the stories better and on occasion reaching larger online audiences than some Fleet Street titles.

So from where I’m sitting, there are a great many reasons to be cheerful as a northern journalist.

London's bubble is overheating. Young graduates are increasingly choosing to stay in other cities rather than head to an extortionately expensive capital. Brexit has proved the need for national media to get out into the 85 per cent or so of the country that doesn’t live in London. Devolution has given us more of our own political platform.

And, aside from all of that, it’s great here.

All of which is why, when national journalists ask me “why haven’t you moved to London yet?”, there’s really only one response.

Why haven’t they moved to Manchester?

Jen Williams is the social affairs and political editor of the Manchester Evening News. Follow her @JenWilliamsMEN.