Viewers of Regional television in northern and West Cumbria get their Regional News- services from BBC (North East/ Cumbria), which comes from Newcastle upon Tyne and from ITV Border (English version). ITV Border, which produces a Scottish flavoured programme (from an opt-out on the Scottish side of the border) and a Cumbrian- flavoured programme is by far the most popular choice for Regional Television in northern and central Cumbria. Indeed of all TV Regions, ITV Border’s “Lookaround” has in the past been by far the most watched per capita in the country (Independent Television in Britain: Volume 4: Companies and Programmes, 1968–80 ,page 166-8)- and it remains very popular to this day.
The BBC Regional Programming has been seen as a very poor cousin to ITV Border and its flagship regional programme “Lookaround”, the Cumbrian (or, officially, “English”) version of which will typically give 40% or more of coverage of just North and West Cumbria in a half-hour programme. And whilst BBC Radio Cumbria is also very good at keeping Cumbrian listeners informed, it is not a patch on ITV Border- which produces a nice colour live- picture (today in high definition, if you have the right sort of television) and nice scenery as well as the sound. What other channel provides North Cumbrian viewers with such excellent 40% plus coverage? None!
Now BBC North East/ Cumbria, to be fair, does cover Cumbria better than the counterpart for the North West (BBC North West Tonight) received by South Cumbrian viewers- and BBC North East/ Cumbria will even overlap to cover South Cumbrian news for the benefit of the North Cumbrian viewers of BBC Look North (the news- programme produced by BBC North East/ Cumbria), which BBC North West practically never does for its South Cumbrian viewers. However, there are still serious shortfalls in regional television output from the BBC for North and West Cumbria, related to regional affiliation and the amount of news that is actually relevant to viewers there, which explain precisely why ITV Border’s “Lookaround” is streets ahead of BBC Look North produced in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Northern Cumbria has not- historically- had a happy relationship with the BBC. When the BBC first started broadcasting Regional Television in the 1950’s, viewers first received a BBC North Regional programme that covered the entire North of England taking in Manchester, Liverpool, Yorkshire and North East England as well as what was then Cumberland and northern Westmorland. In 1959 northern Cumbria received BBC Look North (“North East and Cumberland”), which did not cover what was then Cumberland and Westmorland at all well, so when ITV Border came into being in 1961 there was a ready- audience for the more localised output.
In 1986, the BBC decided that the reason what were (by then known as) northern Cumbrian viewers were not happy with Look North was because Cumbria was in the North West and thus North Cumbrian viewers objected to output that was “90% North East”- so the decision was made in October 1986 to switch North Cumbria into the BBC North West Region based in Manchester: Uproar ensued, North Cumbrian viewers wrote in their thousands that they had stronger links with Newcastle than Manchester. They objected to being effectively ignored whilst Manchester, Liverpool, Cheshire and Derbyshire received more coverage. This led to BBC North West to establish a base in Carlisle, complete with a studio, from where an opt-out from North West Regional news at lunchtime provided North Cumbrians with their own tailored lunchtime bulletins just about Cumbria (unfortunately the Cumbrian opt-out was not used for the main evening Regional Bulletins, when more Cumbrians might have watched it!). So most viewers of BBC Regional output in Carlisle and North Cumbria continued to see mostly Manchester and Liverpool news- sometimes without any coverage of Cumbria at all – and a very strong lobby saw to it that North and West Cumbria were returned to the Newcastle- based BBC Look North transmission area in September 1991.
But that left other viewers in North Cumbria unhappy as North Cumbria lost the special tailored Cumbrian news opt-out when the area was returned to the BBC Look North (Newcastle) remit. In October 1992, a woman from Wigton, about 14 miles west- southwest of Carlisle, wrote to the Cumberland News: That is the weekly newspaper that covers northern Cumbria to complain about the BBC. She made the point that when North Cumbria was under BBC North West that “We used to get more local coverage” (she defined “local” as Carlisle and the North Lakes) and added “Now the news is 95% North East”. This Wigton woman also pointed out (in her view) that “Border Television provides good local coverage…in spite of it being mainly Scottish”. A clear endorsement of what was then Border Television’s (now ITV [Border]) local news coverage and a clear thumbs- down for the BBC Look North (Newcastle) based output- with the reasons given!
A family friend who I know, who was bought up in Whitehaven and lived there for much of her life echoed those sentiments in a discussion I had with her about Regional Television in Cumbria a couple of years’ ago. ITV Border was great, she said “There was often a news item about Whitehaven, along side one about Dumfries”. Dumfries is, of course just over the border in southwest Scotland. The family friend was also scathing about BBC Look North (about the North East) and BBC North West Tonight (it felt like Manchester was in the Midlands for us).
All of this explains why ITV Border’s “Lookaround” is watched by so many more people in northern Cumbria than BBC Look North which, despite the efforts it makes towards covering Cumbria more, is still about 85% about the North East of England and North Yorkshire. People who live in Carlisle are scarcely within an hour’s drive (or an hour by train) from Newcastle and from Gateshead’s Metro Centre (though doubtless when the A69 is fully dualled travel times will be within an hour): Those areas, and (of course) Newcastle Airport have some relevance to folk living in the Carlisle area and northern Cumbria. However, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Berwick-upon-Tweed and Tynemouth are all considerably further away and have little (if any) relevance to folk living in northern Cumbria. What’s more, ITV Border covers events across the Border into southern Scotland and places like Annan, Dumfries, Moffat and Lockerbie are well within an hours’ drive of Carlisle: The rural areas around these towns in south-west Scotland have some beautiful countryside around them that Cumbrian folk might go and visit for the day, they may have family and friends – or work in the towns of Dumfriesshire. And Newcastle- based BBC Look North will NEVER cover anything over the border into Scotland for the benefit of their viewers close to the Scottish border.
A Regional news- programme supposed to serve northern Cumbria that only has 15% Cumbrian news, 85% coming from the other side of the Pennines and NOTHING about serious events just north of the transmission area is not actually very good. For those living in Carlisle, it means 85% of the news is at least an hours’ drive away. Travel 42 miles south-west to Whitehaven and the BBC Regional output is 85% at least two hours’ drive away. Moreover, towns like Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport- which clearly are on the Irish Sea Coast- are by any definition part of the North West of England and it is clearly not appropriate for them that their BBC Regional output comes from Newcastle- with 85% coverage being about the North East of England and 100 or more miles away.
If one considers that places folk can get to within an hours’ drive (or on the train) are of interest to them then Lancaster and Preston are both (just) within an hour of Carlisle: The train, if its direct, takes 58 minutes to get from Carlisle to Preston, in central Lancashire. BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) dont cover Lancaster or Preston at all: Whilst this is not an argument for Carlisle viewers to be getting BBC North West Tonight, it does perhaps suggest that northern Cumbrians might benefit from knowing about some major events anywhere between Glasgow/ Edinburgh and Preston/ Blackpool- and east as far as Newcastle. They also want much more Immediately Local news (i.e Carlisle and the North Lakes). BBC Look North’s programme producers might not neglect their Cumbrian viewers to the extent that BBC North West’s neglect theirs, but the current arrangement is far from satisfactory.
One would not wish to inflict on northern Cumbria BBC North West Tonight instead (the BBC tried that and it was unpopular locally), the current arrangement with the BBC Regional output is far from ideal. If BBC North East/ Cumbria programmers want to know why ITV Border’s “Lookaround” programme is so much more popular then they have the answers if only they ask people who live in North and West Cumbria.
The solution for North Cumbrian viewers of BBC Regional output is for them to be transferred to a new BBC North West Region covering just Lancashire, Cumbria and the Isle of Man. Opt- outs would then also provide much more localised news for Cumbria/North Lancashire and for the Isle of Man and just ten percent of the news would fall into an overlap zone covering Manchester/ Liverpool in the south and Northumberland, Newcastle and southern Scotland in the north. North Cumbrians would likely end up with local coverage every bit as good as ITV Border’s, with the added advantage of limited coverage of major incidents an hours drive to the east and two hours’ drive to the south (as well as some happenings in southern Scotland). It would also be true to geography and regional identity as it would be “North West” news reflecting the fact that northern Cumbria is in North West England, not the North East!