30 Sept 2014

The London-centric elitism of the media

As a young journalist, I've taken the expensive step of moving down to London in order to be 'where it's happening'. For those unlucky enough to not get help from family or friends, it's usually a financially crippling process. Still, the move from north to south is all too often seen as a necessity to have access to the best opportunities. 

Whilst this is a pattern seen across most professions, the media seems one of the most obsessed with being firmly latched onto London. The map below points to all major national newspapers and broadcasters in the UK. With the exception of the BBC's MediaCity (which isn't even its main office), all of them are based in London. Only regional papers, minor offices and smaller organisations remain outside the capital. Although not mapped below, national magazines follow suit, with publications such as the Economist, Private Eye and Time Out all basing their offices in the capital.

It's clear, then, that news organisations want to be in the capital. No surprises there. They're close to the UK's institutions and decision-makers; they're a few miles away from a tenth of the country's population; and the transport links to the rest the world are much better than other cities. All of this helps them to fulfil their role in society efficiently - because the UK's cultural, economic and political centralisation has resulted in London's absolute dominance.

But at what cost does the media's love of London come?

Firstly, it does nothing to improve the country's equality and fairness. The economic disparity between London and the rest of the UK is well-documented, and another industry being almost entirely based in the capital does nothing to address this. Rather, the vicious cycle continues, as more and more talent gets sucked into London. The map below, based on data from the Office of National Statistics, shows how people move to London and the surrounding areas to enjoy the best of the UK's economic activity, leaving the North behind.

More importantly to media companies, perhaps, is the fact that being entirely focused on London means that they will fail to fully represent the wonderful diversity of the UK. London-bias is a popular accusation against the media and is often found to have a factual basis. An investigation by the New Statesman, for example, found that 49.1% of supposedly regional news was actually focused on London and the South East. 

The Scottish referendum campaign highlighted many accusations of bias in the English-based media, and this is a direct consequence of many reporters and commentators being alien to such cultures. London-based staff may not wholly identify with other societies based hundreds of miles away from the capital - they may have different cultures, have different interests or speak different languages. Cue allegations of bias.  

Then there's the quality of life of the staff. Anyone living in London can inevitably feel abused by the capital's cost of living, and journalists - who often don't make a great deal of money - would be right to be put off by, say, the exorbitant housing market. There comes a point when people want to 'grow up', start a family, get a house - London makes this extremely hard for the average employee in the media. People such as Matt Andrews, of the Guardian, talk of being brought down by London's financial oppression. 

The MediaCityUK is a perfect example of what can be achieved. The BBC's move to Manchester in 2004 helped decentralise the public service, forming a base outside of London which provided a major national news source. As the cost of living is less, staff can afford to enjoy their wages more, perhaps even get on the housing ladder. The need to spend every penny they earn on extortionate London rent is eradicated. 

In 2013, a BBC staff survey revealed that 64% of Salford employees were ‘fully engaged’ at work, significantly more than their London colleagues. Happier staff, which can be linked to their financial security, will result in greater productivity and so the media company thrives.
I suppose this is my main point. Having all of the UK's major media outlets in the capital is bad for aspiring young professionals. For those not based in London already, it either repels them into another less centralised industry (of which there are few), or forces them into spending their life's earnings to make the move down south. Even Jeremy Hunt, previous UK Culture Secretary, has denounced the media's "London-centric" attitude. 

I'd like to see more large-scale projects such as the BBC's, where media companies decide to take the risk and form larger bases outside of London - preferably in northern cities such as Newcastle, Manchester or Edinburgh. With the digital age, location is less of an issue as we're all now connected to one another via humanity's greatest invention: the internet. Of course, this does not entirely replace the need for physical interaction but there need not be this obsession with having to be in London. For the sake of representing all sections of our country, as well as the quality of life of staff, the media should take the brave move to leave, at least in part, the capital. 


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