Sunday, 7 April 2013

Regional bias? Perish forbid! How could anyone even think it?

There are many reasons to bemoan the huge loss of broadcasting jobs in the Midlands. The best is simple economics, but a bit of fair play wouldn't hurt. The Midlands region pays more license fees, but sees less BBC spending, than any other region.  

2011/12 BBC regional spend by license fee payer
As far as the Midlands media industry is concerned, it’s not even a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. You can’t shut a door that’s been smashed to pieces and left hanging off its hinges. 

It's taken years, decades. Thousands of jobs have gone. So it was interesting to attend the freshly-formed Campaign For Regional Broadcasting Midlands' first meeting. New to me and probably you, but with a formidable array of mainly BBC Drama and TV contacts, this took place on Thursday 21st February. During the meeting, some breathtaking statistics were reeled out, which you really should know about. 

The fact is, things are bad - really bad. If we ever want to see a proper grown-up media sector in the Midlands region again, there’s a lot of ground to cover, a lot of assumptions to challenge, and a lot of attitudes to confront. Locally, a toxic combination of laziness, arrogance, bad thinking and poor decisions has sped the process along. More after the jump.  

So is this simply regional bias? Well... of course it plays a part, but other elements are part of the mix as well. While on that subject, I was considering adding some stuff from a post I'm working on, about attitudes to West Midlands musicians trying to get ahead with gigs in London. But I’m saving that one for later, tempting as it is to draw parallels. It’s a complex and sometimes highly emotive field, and not everybody I’ve talked to so far is happy to be quoted. There are, however, some lovely success stories: tales of co-operation and helpfulness. 

I wish I could say the same about relations between London media and the Midlands. Just over a week ago, I picked up a tweet from Adrian Goldberg about the BBC website carrying a rather sweet piece about the good in Birmingham in its opinion section, here. But they just couldn't resist the awful headline: Why does everyone hate Birmingham... even Jane Austen? And as Adrian said, I’m not at all sure that they hate Birmingham. That's the wrong word. 

When the BBC was tearing itself apart in the 90s through a vicious and destructive internal market - Producer Choice, woefully ushered in by John Birt - hatred between divisions competing for funding was a cold hard reality. The worst of it was an implacable hostility from London departments towards their regional counterparts. That came as a complete shock to me when I landed at Pebble Mill twenty years ago. In fairness, some - not all - of that sentiment has  gone away… but then, there's now so little left at BBC Birmingham that there really isn't much for anyone in London to hate. 

But that doesn’t mean things are right. In general, Birmingham and the West Midlands does what it has always has done: go about its business, delivering great work reliably, professionally and creatively… but not particularly ostentatiously. The trouble is, doing things well and consistently often just isn’t enough. It should be, but it's not. And it's certainly not enough to guarantee the retention of jobs and production bases.

But, if hate is the wrong word, how about ... disdain - or condescension? Now we're getting warm. That's a reality. Metropolitan condescension for the regions does exist. It always has. It's a given; it’s never going to go away. And it’s the same the world over: just ask a resident of  Lille or Strasbourg about Parisian attitudes. New Yorkers rush to heap abuse on New Jersey, which has produced, proportionately, way more than its fair share of megastars: Springsteen and Sinatra just for starters. I'll add Jon Bon Jovi if you insist. And why Jersey? Simple: it’s the first place you hit after the bridges and tunnels, and, to be fair, the bit you see coming out of New York is pretty ugly, carrying as it does much of the hideous industrial infrastructure… that New York needs to sustain itself. 

Here in the UK, the West Midlands faces that same problem: it’s the first conurbation you reach when travelling north from London. So it, too, takes more than its fair share of London condescension. Manchester, competing for its slice of regional funding, is only too happy to join the party. 

Mind you, Manchester adds flash and swagger to its proposition, and Birmingham certainly doesn’t. That may be exactly why Manchester has some appeal to metropolitan purse-string holders: they're sparkly and brash enough to be noticed, but far enough away not to be irritating. 

While we consider Birmingham and Manchester’s competitive searches for funding, bear in mind too that Manchester’s authorities have played a blinder. I’ll bet they were lobbying the BBC and the powers that be decades ago, while West Midlands councils seem to have adopted a pretty supine approach to safeguarding jobs. 

Interestingly, Manchester has had a solid local political base, with the same party (Labour) in charge for decades. Over the same period, Birmingham has flip-flopped, with overall control changing regularly. That’s not a great basis on which to build, as it can lead to perfectly good planning and strategic thinking being cast out by the new incumbents for no other reason than bone-headed and petty political spite. And the voters who put them in? They get what they vote for, I suppose.

So the West Midlands has dithered, while Greater Manchester has built on solid foundations. And over the decades, the damage has been done. Now? Here’s some figures which illustrate the problem perfectly. They are absolutely horrifying.

Midlands region BBC Licence fee contributions : 25% of the national total
BBC spending in the Midlands region:                    2.5% of the total BBC budget. 

These figures are for the BBC definition of Nations And Regions; here, Midlands means both East and West Midlands, and East Anglia: a total of 10 million people, the largest population group of all the Nations and Regions, larger than, for example, Scotland and Wales combined. 

Looking at it from a different angle, here is how BBC spending breaks down regionally per license fee payer:

  £  93
The South
£  62
Northern Ireland
£  58
The North
£  33
The Midlands
     £  16

Hmm. Something’s not quite right there, is it? The Midlands region gets the smallest spend. But it's got the largest population. So it has the most license fee payers. So it contributes the most funds to the BBC. And what does it get back? The smallest spend, and the biggest proportion of job cuts.  

Now, these are all figures for the year 2011/12, collected from the BBC’s own documentation and rigorously analysed by the team at Campaign For Regional Broadcasting Midlands. If you want to know more, go visit their site: it's bristling with information and argument. 

What now? I don’t quite know. The damage has been done. If it is to be fixed, it's down to a lot of us. Certainly, I feel that the figures above are evidence of a disgusting and shocking imbalance in funding. It's the horrible result of a whole confluence of factors and decisions. 

That's the history. We're now looking at the result. And that result is simply not right or fair, and it needs to be discussed, debated and talked up. If you see this - some do - as classic Taxation Without Representation, we should be holding our very own Boston Tea Party. I’m not talking about Sarah Palin – I mean the original Tea Party. 

I’d like to see a rebalancing of the funds, of course. I’d especially like to see a fair slice of that go back into radio, at network and especially at local level. Because radio can work creatively, cheaply and speedily, that’s where you would see the fastest results. It’s going to take years and years to rebuild the televisual craft and skills base that has been destroyed along with the infrastructure, and we need quick wins. Radio can give us that. 

But let’s not forget that while our local broadcast infrastructure has been ripped apart, creativity continues, powered by the unstoppable flow of grass-roots imagination and artistry in local writing and our stage, music, film and video sectors. While regional broadcasting continues to decline, the production of content in the regions is richer, more inspiring and more diverse than ever. When the inevitable change in thinking rolls around – this is the BBC, after all – that content will be waiting. Some of it will have found new ways to reach its public. 

However, we are never going back to any sort of fondly remembered golden age. Even if we wanted to (some do, not me), the web and new technology have put a firm stop to that notion.  

I haven't covered the regional Commercial broadcast sector in this post. That's because they're, sort of, masters of their own destiny. So, given that their fate is in their own hands, right now they should be profiting vastly from the disarray in the regional state sectors. Sadly, their own self-inflicted cuts seem to to have ruled that out. 

We - that's you, me, anyone who has a sense of fairness, or pride in our region, anyone who resents their license fee being so disproportionately spent - need to talk. To anyone who is prepared to listen. You could start by signing the online petition I've linked to below. That's going to take thirty seconds of your time, but it might be thirty seconds well spent.. 

Birmingham’s Digital Media Businesses
Campaign For Regional Broadcasting Midlands
BBC op-ed piece Why does everyone hate Birmingham? petition in support of fairer BBC spending for the regions

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Anonymous said...

Spending is disproportionately high in London, everywhere else is disproportionately low. Your focus on Manchester is petty given that the North has the lowest spend per head after the Midlands. A stronger argument would focus on media plurality and programming that reflects the entire country - that would be likely to get more people onboard (from around the country) and create change, rather than a narrow focus on a perceived entitlement for broadcasters in Birmingham.

Robin Valk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robin Valk said...

Hi Anonymous.

I think you've rather reinforced my argument. Personally, I have no problem with money spent in the North (not Manchester, btw). As you point out, it, too is way below what it might be. Re-read my comments: I suggested that a fairer rebalancing of funds distributed would be a good thing. But the fact is that the Midlands pays out more and gets less back - vastly less - than any other region. That is both wrong and unfair and does not represent the interests of any license fee payer. It's not a question of 'perceived entitlement', and shame on you for even suggesting this notion. But thank you for responding and contributing the the debate. You may of course have your reasons for remaining anonymous, but it would have been nice to have a name, and in especially this case, a location. Most bloggers, me included, don't bother with anonymous responses.

Anonymous said...

Hi Robin
This is an excellent article and highlights the inequalities really effectively. You are right to say BCC hasn't got its act together unlike Manchester. David Bailey in his recent blog in the Birmingham post highlighted the cowardly and often supine way local politicians try to manipulate budgets ineffectively and take a piecemeal approach to regional development. A vibrant media/arts/music community sets the cultural tone for a city and maintains and develops skills in this sector. The loss of the BBC will not help the city and region gain influence at national and international level. Where is the big idea for second biggest city in the country?

Robin Valk said...

Hi Anonymnous 2

Thanks for these comments. They make sense, of course. Again, I would not, ordinarily, have put your unattributable comments forward, but I suspect there are good reasons for your wishing to remain anonymous under the circumstances.

Andrew Morton said...

"Where is the big idea for second biggest city in the country?"Exactly.Manchester has done an excellent job in establishing itself as England's second city. The "West Midlands" tag, which is incomprehensible to anyone outside the country, and, I suspect, to many inside, does not help. We need to establish a Greater Birmingham concept somehow and I'm amazed that Birmingham, with its surrounding towns and cities does not accept this idea as the sine qua non of establishing a serious regional identity.

Anonymous said...

Greater Birmingham concept will alienate the West Midlands population. If you emphasise Greater Brum, remember, if people don't believe in it, they will fall away. You say West Midlands tag is incomprehensible to anyone outside the country - so what? This seems more a post to push for a Great Birmingham - is anyone is the W.Mids going to refer to Greater Birmingham? We already have Greater Birmingham, and some of those included don't look like as though it has helped. What does Greater Birmingham have to do with BBC funding? Perhaps a West Midlands/Midlands parliament might be more useful in devolving finance, media, and political power.

Robin Valk said...

I disagree, Anonymous. In passing, can I say I wish you'd had the guts to use your proper name? Look at the DATE of this post. It is now nearly two years old. That was well before the argument about 'Greater Brum' had raised its head. That councils have played a role in the decline of our broadcast sector is indisputable. But my concern is for the damage already done to the sector, and the loss of career potential for new entrants.
Please don't drag me into your argument. And please read the post again, properly, this time.