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25 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:01pm

Campaigning journalism is a vital weapon in the war against inequality

The Power Up the North campaign was the regional media’s finest hour.

By James Mitchinson

Two hundred and sixty-six years ago in 1754 The Yorkshire Post – then the Leeds Intelligencer – was founded on a promise that had at its core, to use political parlance de rigueur, “levelling up”:

“Whatever may be propos’d for the support of virtue and religion amongst us, for the improvement of trade and manufactures of this part of the country, for the encouragement of industry, the better maintenance or employment of the poor; in short, whatever may usefully instruct or innocently amuse the reader will be suitable matter of intelligence for this paper; And whatever is propos’d to this end in a way not likely to give occasion of offence, will be gratefully receiv’d and faithfully and impartially communicated to the public, by, candid reader, Your most obedient humble servant: the publisher.”

Just eight years after the Battle of Culloden – British Government against Jacobite rebels – and during the reign of King George II, these were the sentiments of that visionary publisher Griffith Wright the Elder, who understood that a force for good, for the all-round betterment of the people it served, was necessary, to use his words, in this part of the country. The North of England needed a voice.

And so it is genuinely remarkable that The Yorkshire Post has prevailed for over a quarter of a millennium. But ponder if you will for a moment precisely what it takes for a business to be able to record the reigns of ten monarchs and 74 prime ministers while dedicatedly following the same North Star as that which guided it on day one. Yes, it takes extraordinary resilience and a clarity of purpose, but for the founding oath to be as relevant now as it was before the Spinning Jenny was even invented takes something else: a docile, obedient, compliant acceptance of the status quo. 

It should be cause for national ignominy that we find ourselves living in a 21st-century Britain that has progressed not a jot in that time. Are we really content with being a nation that forces families to quietly plod along, against all the odds, with nothing to aim for, nothing to hope for? As the son of a coal miner from a shattered former mining community, I could not acquiesce to as much in good conscience.  

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So in answer to the question “what role can the media play in shaping policy and effecting change” I say this: the exact same role it has played since its inception. Now, however, we must do it collectively and in complete collaboration with the communities we have proudly stood alongside for generations. 

For too long we have allowed ourselves to be pitted against one another. Our histories, cultures and identities have been weaponised against us. Cynically engineered ways of distracting the regions from perpetual, systemic, institutional neglect have led to parts of this place we call home drawing comparisons with collapsed Communist East Germany at the point of Reunification. 

But in 2019 “Power Up The North” changed everything. On behalf of our readers some 40 news brands in the North of England, jointly led by The Yorkshire Post and Manchester Evening News, channelled the anger, frustration and desperation of the 15.3m people who live in the North. We demanded change. We called out the neglect and refused to be placated. We demanded the full weight of government behind a bespoke industrial strategy; an overhaul of road and rail networks; the prioritisation of Northern Powerhouse Rail; increased devolution; more investment for the North’s schools, colleges and universities; a clear programme for building social housing; acceleration of digital infrastructure; and a commitment for the government’s shared prosperity fund – intended to replace EU structural funding – be fully devolved.

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Before all of this we called for the government to make a clear statement of intent and elevate the Northern Powerhouse Minister to the cabinet, giving the North a voice in the most important decision-making chamber in the land. Almost immediately, that was done.

Had we not listened to the cries for help by our readers and turned them into meaningful, campaigning journalism, I am utterly convinced that this Prime Minister and his government would not be whistling “level up” tunes.

I believe “Power Up The North” was the regional media’s finest hour; our own Culloden. On this occasion the Jacobites emerged victorious from the skirmish with government. Our battle for acknowledgement was won, but the war for ending regional inequalities has barely begun.

James Mitchinson is editor of The Yorkshire Post.