Local media “a pale shadow”

Remember last year’s spasm of “outrage” when The Guardian published an article about the north east, which questioned whether the economic picture was a rosy as the boosterists suggest? The article could have been used as a means to stimulate discussion, but instead it was used as a predictable springboard for the local media and spokespersons to attack the messenger.

The nadir was reached when one “business leader”, in an abuse of the English language, accused The Guardian of “violating” the region.

A self-confident and culturally assured region would have reacted quite differently – with insouciance rather than confected horror.

In a recent post, Alistair Bonnett drew attention to the forgotten Northumbrian Enlightenment of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. The towering figure of this period, he noted, was Thomas Spence, the radical thinker and writer. But Spence emerged from an artistic and political milieu that included Thomas Bewick and James Murray among others.

It’s worth reflecting on the relationships between ideas and progress in the north east. The flowering of the Northumbrian Enlightenment accompanied the beginnings of the rapid and unprecedented processes that transformed the region into one of the first industrial economies in the world.

In the later nineteenth century, businessman, journalist and politician, Joseph Cowen was a beacon for progressive causes around the world and strong voice for working people in the corridors of power. He corresponded with Karl Marx and his friends included Mazzini, Louis Blanc and Bakunin. Garibaldi, Orsini and Kossuth visited him at his home in Blaydon. Cowen founded the Newcastle Daily Chronicle in 1858, the forerunner of today’s paper – though it is doubtful that he would recognise it now.

Newcastle Daily Chronicle, reproduced under GNU Free Documentation Licence

Newcastle Daily Chronicle, reproduced under GNU Free Documentation Licence

The region was characterised by a vibrant collective intellectual life centred on institutions such as the Mining Institute and the Lit Phil, where key figures such as Robert Spence Watson supported progressive international causes, but with a strong sense of their Northumbrian heritage and identity.

Out of this brew emerged the institutions that would later form Newcastle University. This highbrow tradition mingled with traditions of self-improvement among the region’s working class leaders such as Tommy Hepburn of the miner’s union and, later Peter Lee, who became the leader of Durham County Council when the nascent Labour Party took control in 1919.

In short, economic progress (and social conflict) occurred alongside debate and learning which drew on international influences and a sense of regional history and identity.

How does this compare with the present period? Where is the space today for this debate to occur?

We have universities but despite their talk of “engagement” they are mainly tied to national and international structures of power. The local print and broadcast media is a pale shadow of what existed only a few decades ago, despite the welcome arrival of Northern Correspondent.

Local media and political and business elites have yet to prove they can debate issues rather than shout about them.

History tells us, unless we rediscover our ability to deal with ideas in an open and constructive way, progress will elude us.

John Tomaney is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning in the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies, Newcastle University.

Do you agree with his assessment of north east local media? Tell us in the comments section below – by clicking on the little plus sign.

(Views expressed on our website and in our magazines and emails are not necessarily endorsed by Northern Correspondent.)

5 thoughts on “Local media “a pale shadow”

  1. John Tomaney makes a number of important points. When he asks: ‘Where is the space today for this debate to occur?’ I can’t help comparing the lively public regional media in other parts of Europe to the thin gruel we get in the North East. In a region with a population bigger than many European countries the public media provision we get (aka the BBC) is similar to what you would find in small US town. Therefore the public can’t engage in the democratic process, or anything much. I have a sensible suggestion: 30% of the license fee should go to regional public media. This isn’t an anti-BBC thing (I love the BBC!) but it’s clear we are never going to get the regional public media we deserve under the present BBC monopoly.

  2. A very interesting comment piece, and Alastair raises an interesting point about the BBC specifically.

    The local media perpetuate (and seem content with doing so) a cartoonised vision of the region, where everyone is a party-loving Geordie and no one thinks about things too much. Content to seek comment from vox pops rather than people who are informed about the subject at hand. The Chronicle in its current form is little better than a mindless distraction – utterly incapable of anything approaching investigative journalism. There is little in the local media which prompts further discussion or debate – they focus on local criminals but not local poverty or education standards; they engage in PR for local companies without a mention of the wider social, financial, or environmental contexts. Stories last a single day and then are forgotten, of little consequence to those who aren’t directly involved in the stories.

    The response to the Guardian’s criticism is the perfect example – an uninformed, hysterical response is an easy narrative both to establish and then to maintain. When the Chronicle’s sole measure of success is circulation, and local politicians seem to seek retweets over action, the result is an inevitable mess.

    A public space for open debate and constructive criticism would go a long way to helping people reengage with politics on a local and national level. Perhaps the Lit & Phil could try to reclaim that space itself? It is often referred to as a ‘hidden gem’ of the city and yet there’s absolutely no reason it should be hidden at all. The region has lost confidence in its voice and its significance.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree and, as an ‘honourable’ Geordie since 1996, count me in. Current structures are rigid and can even prevent exchange, nurture and support, let alone change, progress and movement.

    Northern Correspondent has made such an important start. I, for one, can’t wait to see a colourful civic society rising up and flourishing again – ready to learn from, and also debate, our past and purpose – to create and shape our future and destiny.

  4. I agree with the article and all of the comments. When local BBC use the superficial printed media for their local news agenda; when NUFC say that their surveys show that the independent football media ie fanzines and blogs are the “most credible” opinion, then it shows that our professional media is largely wasted. However “the arts” industry that has grown upon us at SageBalticEtc bears responsibility for it’s inability to use the resource it has been given to help all of the people of this region. The inability of our media to confront waste, incompetence, self-interest and irrelevance in these places (exactly as their unqualified support for “local” enterprises described in previous comments) shows parochialism rather than patriotism; immaturity rather than analysis and compares unfavourably to Soviet press stories about tractor production in Minsk. Newcastle upon Tyne is the greatest and most civilised city in the world – andI can prove that – so our civic and regional experience is relevant and compelling. It would be fitting to have institutions and leaders know how good we could be so they wouldn’t see us as a stepping stone on their route to “Fleet Street”, the South Bank or PSG! Then maybe the excellence of society and economy that is our birthright would be a clearer aspiration for more of our people. Northern Correspondent is a welcome positive development and a reminder to all in public, business, sporting, cultural and community life in the North-East to raise our game. We do this or we perish. In a way, todays savage environment of municipal penury, national indifference and technological change give us an opportunity to do this now for ourselves and our people. That’s the agenda!

  5. Interesting points from Prof Tomaney. My problem with the region is its tendency to ‘shoot and ask questions later’ when it comes to criticism of its institutions or its ambition. You can see that in coverage of the collapse of Northern Rock – portrayed largely as somebody else’s fault – or The Guardian article – painted as a nasty hatchet job by sneaky Southerners who don’t understand the region. Often there’s a ‘them and us’ element to our regional debate, with ‘them’ being anyone south of York. If it wasn’t for NC, IPPR North and a few other brave souls the region’s intellectual life would be even more bankrupt, with our public image dominated by a consistently failing football club and MTV reality programmes. There is more to this region, but to find it we need to be more honest about our faults, look for greater political and cultural diversity, and break free of a cosy culture of compromise and consensus that holds us all back.

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