One of my most disconcerting experiences at a football match occurred when I went to see West Ham play at Birmingham City in the early 1990s.
Hundreds of the most hard-nut City fans congregated next to the enclosure for away supporters. Throughout large parts of the match, they kept up a menacing chorus of “Cockney scum, get out of Brum”, which only intensified after West Ham scored an undeserved late goal to win the game. Considering I lived in Birmingham at the time, working as a reporter on the Birmingham Post newspaper, and was not Cockney anyway, it all felt rather unfair.
These days the message has mercifully been turned on its head in the media industry at least. “Cockney scum, come to Brum” would have made a suitably wry motto for BBC management’s decision to relocate its youth-orientated Radio 1 Newsbeat service to what some of us still call “the second city”.
Viewpoint diversity — one of the things that the BBC most lacks
Alas around three quarters of the service’s forty staff members have indicated that they do not wish to move outside the capital. One told the Guardian: “Managers are yet to give a single example of how moving its dedicated youth newsroom 100 miles away — without any other news department — will help the British public better understand issues relating to drugs, housing, mental health and cultural appropriation. If they don’t listen now, they won’t listen then.”
That person has a point if the move is simply measured on its likely impact on viewpoint diversity — one of the things that the BBC most lacks. For Birmingham, just like London, is a leftist citadel firmly in the grip of progressive cultural tropes. The same is true of Manchester and even to an extent of Leeds, where Channel Four is relocating many staff — again amid lots of grumbling and chuntering and a marked lack of enthusiasm among the workers involved.
If the BBC really wants to put itself back in touch with provincial England, then it would do better to start investing again in broadcast hubs in small cities and towns. Reversing its disgraceful cuts to its local radio network would be an obvious starting point.
But this is not the only reason for the dispersal programme. Part of it is a response to growing calls among the public for a fairer spread of employment opportunities across the country. As West Midlands metro mayor Andy Street puts it: “I understand some in London have tough decisions to make following the BBC’s announcement, but I won’t accept the sneering at our wonderful region. If you don’t want to come, don’t. We have incredible young and diverse talent that will be all too happy to take your place.”
It is absurd that nearly half of BBC employees are based in the capital
Director General Tim Davie and his senior management team need to hold their nerve here. Those reluctant to move are surely mainly motivated by two factors, neither of which should be allowed to banjax the policy. The first is an understandable reluctance to embrace the disruption that major change brings — moving home and being wrenched from one’s established social circle included. This is just part of life in a modern economy, welcome or not. The second cause of reticence is much less forgivable: sheer snobbery about what it means to be based in London compared to a provincial outpost. Most of that arises from ignorance.
The Guardian reported when the Newsbeat relocation was first announced that one member of staff had loftily declared: “Good luck trying to get young, exciting journalists to move to Digbeth.” In fact Digbeth, an area of Birmingham that I think of as “south central”, is full of young and exciting people. Some of them too exciting by half for my middle-aged tastes, but nonetheless rendering the area far more authentically hip than various gentrified areas of the capital that were once regarded as edgy.
Given that the BBC is supposed to represent the whole nation and that more than 80 per cent of the population does not live in London or its surrounds, it is absurd that nearly half of BBC employees are based in the capital. Plans announced by previous Director General Tony Hall should see that number drop to a third by 2027 — a more reasonable concentration that will still amply reflect the predominance of London in politics, law, finance, high culture and other important areas the BBC must cover.
Tim Davie has already tweaked the plan
Davie has already tweaked the Hall plan, branding it an “Across The UK” strategy that aims to rebuild popular consent for the licence fee in communities that feel poorly served by the corporation. He has set a target of 60 per cent of TV output to be produced outside of London by 2028. “People must feel we are closer to them,” he told the corporation’s employees when launching the initiative in the spring.
It seems clear that he is determined to deliver on this, irrespective of whether existing moaners among the Newsbeat staff do end up relocating to Birmingham or instead prefer to seek other opportunities within London’s enormous “media navvy” sector.
But we should not let the corporation off the hook by judging its progress solely on London versus non-London metrics. Moving from an era of output dominated by middle-class London liberal leftists, to one dominated by a mixture of middle-class London liberal leftists and middle-class liberal leftists from other big cities, will hardly amount to great progress.
Not until social and cultural conservatives, Leave voters, mass migration sceptics, industrial workers and many other forgotten tribes feel fairly represented, will the BBC be able to say it speaks for the whole country. And that will require much more than Newsbeat telling its audience about cultural appropriation in a Brummie accent rather than a London one.
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