Auf Weidersehen Locally Produced News ?

Auf Weidersehen, Pet was a landmark of my childhood. First broadcast in the depths of the Thatcher recession, when I was in secondary school. The North East had lost a hundred thousand jobs in manufacturing. And along came this show with Geordie bricklayers like Dennis, Neville and Oz. It was a programme about hard working British tradesmen working abroad in horrible conditions to provide for their families. But perspective is a funny thing. Add in a bit of xenophobia, and the right-wing narrative today would be about immigrants taking the jobs of the locals.

It was also about the accents. It wasn’t the first TV programme to feature Geordie dialect, we’d had The Likely Lads. But growing up, it was the first time I can remember a programme where no one spoke with RP – received pronunciation. We heard Geordie, Brummie and Scouse voices. Even Wayne, the London joiner, had a working class accent instead of BBC English.

Regional programming celebrates the diversity of British culture. Regional News is a component of devolved democracy. The Covid crisis has shown the importance of local government. Where central government has responded with indecision and U-turns, local government has delivered. Where central government has given £ billions in contracts to inept private firms with no experience, professional local government workers have fixed problems.

poSo why then has the BBC decided to cut 450 jobs from regional news and current affairs? Inside Out is scheduled to be axed. Editorial control will be moved from Newcastle to Birmingham. Worse, journalists will be replaced by “content producers”. Investigative journalism is a key antidote to social media speculation and political spin.

The news team will see 8 correspondents cut to 3. They’ll now film their own stories, possibly on their phones. I’ve been interviewed enough times to see the skill needed to get the sound and lighting right, and frame a shot. To able to interview someone and ask probing questions requires concentration. Not something you can do while holding your phone with a selfie stick.

The new ‘local’ programmes will be covering huge areas with fewer staff. Audiences will be less well informed about stories relevant to the North East & Cumbria. We’ll see and hear fewer programmes about our lives on TV & radio

.Local journalism, whether print, online or TV, is an essential component of local democracy. Local communities need information about what is happening in their areas. They need to know about the policies and decisions of their local representatives. They need a trusted vehicle for expressing their views. How else can we level up? Taking back control should not mean centralising. It should mean decentralising, with more local news content.

Soon after becoming Mayor, I started this weekly column in The Journal and The Chronicle. Without strong local papers, there are few opportunities to speak directly to the residents of the North of Tyne – the people who elected me. It has played a big role in raising awareness of the new Combined Authority, the jobs we’ve created, and the difference we’re making to people’s lives.

A month or so ago, Reach plc, which owns the Chronicle, The Journal and the Sunday Sun, announced 550 redundancies. At least 14 jobs will go in the Newcastle team. We’ll see more generic stories copied and pasted from elsewhere, instead of articles about our region. I wrote to the national CEO objecting. I received a very polite reply, saying it’s happening, our shareholders’ interests must be protected. Yet the journalists on The Chronicle and The Journal point out that Reach made £150 million profit last year.

News has always been biased. I’m a Labour elected Mayor in a country where 80% of the press is owned by a handful of non-taxpaying billionaires, who support the Conservative Party. If we value our democracy we must stand up for an independent press with local content. And we need the BBC – which we pay for – to stand up to government interference. Do we want to get to a situation where the only source of news is Facebook, controlled by another billionaire who avoids paying UK tax?