Readers of this Website- dedicated to campaigning for better Regional News coverage for the northern two-thirds of North West England- might be interested to know that there will be articles covering the forgotten northern corners of North East England too. This is the first one devoted to pointing out the deficiencies of Regional news coverage for people living in rural Northumberland- by which I do not mean Blyth and Cramlington (about ten to fifteen miles up the coast from Tynemouth)- which are really a northwards extension of Tyneside.
Rural Northumberland extends from 15 miles north and west of Newcastle- upon- Tyne right up to the Scottish Border and (in the west and southwest) to the boundaries with Cumbria and County Durham. Northumberland is a large county which extends seventy miles (as the crow flies) from the Durham Border near Blanchland (ten miles south of Hexham) in the south to the Scottish border at its northernmost point on the Coast four miles north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and 50 miles from the North Sea Coast to its westernmost boundary with Cumbria. Rural Northumberland is home to 200,000 people, almost one tenth of the population of North East England and, with a surface area over 4,000 square kilometres is almost half the surface area of North East England (not including North Yorkshire) with an area of almost 8,600 square kilometres. However, this vast rural area- taking in picturesque towns and villages like Allendale, Corbridge, Rothbury, Otterburn, Stocksfield, Widdrington, Amble, Alwinton, Wooler, Seahouses, Bamburgh and- right on the Scottish border Cornhill on Tweed – scarcely gets any real news-coverage on BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) or on ITV Tyne Tees.
If one lives in the village of Byrness (northwest of Otterburn) or in the village of Belford, 15 miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed a flick through the Twitter feeds of both BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) or ITV Tyne Tees (or a search through the news- stories of ITV Tyne Tees on their website) the sparsity of news about Northumberland (and within 50 miles or an hour’s drive) of either of these locations both illuminating and alarming. For instance, a scan through ITV Tyne Tees news stories on Twitter for the week ending 28th June 2020 shows that out of almost fifty entries only two referred to news specifically regarding Northumberland (about the county as a whole not specifically the more rural north and west of the county).
Folk living in and around Berwick-upon-Tweed used to get ITV Border (the Scottish version transmitted from Selkirk in the Scottish Borders), but recently the area was transferred to ITV Tyne Tees. At least ITV Border covered Berwick and North Northumberland- and provided plenty of coverage of events on the Scottish side of the border- which has more relevance to folk living in the North of Northumberland than (perhaps) news about Sunderland, Middlesbrough or County Durham. Of course, ITV Border, which mainly covers Cumbria and southern Scotland may not have provided much in the way of Northumberland coverage. However the low population of the ITV Border transmission area (less than one million people altogether) meant that northern Northumberland- together with the north-east end of the Scottish Borders local to Berwick-upon-Tweed and its environs- received much more coverage than it receives now under BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) or ITV Tyne Tees.
The issues pertaining to Regional news-coverage for rural north-west and northern Northumberland- in that they get little coverage of their local areas and none about significant events just over the Border into Scotland (which might still impact on their lives), but 90% coverage about events over an hours’ drive to the south- is so similar to what folk living in North Lancashire and South Cumbria face! Viewers in more northerly parts of North West England that receive BBC North West and ITV Granada output with their Regional News (supposedly for all the North West) have 85% coverage about Manchester, Liverpool and Cheshire!
Of course, ITV Tyne Tees and BBC North East/ Cumbria have just over three million potential viewers compared to BBC North West and ITV Granada with just over seven million potential viewers in their transmission areas. It must be said, through that the BBC North East/ Cumbria transmission area- which takes in much of Cumbria and North Yorkshire as well as North East England covers a significantly larger geographical area than do the BBC North West and ITV Granada transmission areas (even though both include the Isle of Man). ITV Tyne Tees’ transmission area extends from York in the south right up to Berwick upon Tweed and is also a huge geographical area. This will greatly impact on the ability of programme producers to provide effective news-coverage for everyone.
That said, as with programme- producers for BBC North West Tonight and ITV Granada- the programme producers for BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) and ITV Tyne Tees can make some changes to improve coverage of their northern rural hinterlands. The first is a commitment that one in ten news items in the main North East news bulletins should cover significant events in an overlap zone up to an hours’ drive beyond the transmission boundary. To some extent BBC North East/ Cumbria does this by reporting on happenings in South Cumbria and southern North Yorkshire for the benefit of viewers in Cumbria and North Yorkshire respectively. However, locations up to an hours drive (or train journey) south of York take in West and South Yorkshire and also Hull, locations up to an hours drive south of Penrith (Cumbria) will not only include all the South Lakes, but also Lancaster and Preston (i.e. Lancashire). And for locations in the BBC North East/ Cumbria transmission area and in the northernmost parts of the transmission zone, a train from Carlisle can reach Glasgow in one hour, Beattock Summit, in the Scottish Southern Uplands is within an hours’ drive of Carlisle. Edinburgh is less than an hour away from Berwick-upon-Tweed by train and places like Kelso, Peebles, Dunbar, St. Abbs Head and Galashiels are within an hours’ drive of Berwick- upon-Tweed and indeed much of northern Northumberland.
For ideal overlap zones, such that it ensures that people at the northern and southern extremes of the Region get to hear about events beyond the transmission boundaries- but still significant to them- whilst not diluting the BBC North East/ Cumbria brand half of the one in ten overlap news items should cover southern North Yorkshire and South Cumbria, whilst the remainder (that is one in twenty- or 5%- of all news items) should cover an area including West and South Yorkshire, the Hull and Beverley areas, North Lancashire and all of southern Scotland up to (and including) the Forth Clyde Valley area. Judging from the current news- coverage provided by BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria), they probably cover South Cumbria a bit too much but they should shift some of that to cover southern Scotland, for the benefit of their northernmost viewers. Viewers of BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) who live near York or Malton should get coverage of the odd major situation in Leeds, Bradford, Pontefract or Hull.
However, the rural Northumberland area is undersold. A commitment to provide a minimum of one in ten of the total news items being about northern or western Northumberland on BBC Look North (and ITV Tyne Tees) would go a long way towards making sure viewers in this vast rural hinterland of North East England feel half- adequately represented. So, one out of the ten news items should cover the overlap zones beyond the transmission areas- and some of this must include southern Scotland; another one in ten news items (at a minimum) should cover North/ West Northumberland.
But this is not the ultimate ideal by far. As I have already covered in this website, all of Cumbria, Lancashire and the Isle of Man (but not including Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire) should have their own BBC North West Region, complete with opt-outs for the Isle of Man and Cumbria (see here: https://northwestisnorthwest.org/2020/06/20/the-ideal-for-regional-television-in-the-north-west-and-north-east-of-england/ ). Were this to happen, BBC Look North would only have to cover the small parts of northeast Cumbria that would not receive output via the Winter Hill and Caldbeck transmitters- and where viewers would be vehemently opposed to getting news about Lancashire rather than the North East in any way, shape or form! This includes Alston Moor and the areas around Brampton and Longtown and (with post-code mapping, possible in 2020) and some relay transmitters in place, they could receive their BBC (digital) output from the Pontop Pike transmitter, which is near Consett (County Durham)- the main transmitter for North East England.
The upshot of Cumbria, Lancashire and the Isle of Man with their own BBC North West Region is that for BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) it could just become BBC Look North (North East) with coverage focused on the North East, North Yorkshire and the tiny bit of northeast Cumbria still receiving their output. Coverage of all the rest of Cumbria could be put in the one in twenty news items that were overlap coverage of South Cumbria and southern North Yorkshire in the less- than- ideal solution described above, though the Barrow in Furness coverage could be safely omitted. The rest of the overlap coverage (one in twenty news items) could then safely exclude North Lancashire and (if all regional news- transmission south of Northallerton could be switched to the Leeds- based version of Look North through postcode mapping, etc) South Yorkshire and Hull could be excluded too. Then more of the 5% of overlap coverage not of Cumbria or southern North Yorkshire could focus more on southern Scotland to help provide better all- round news coverage for northern Northumberland and those parts of far northeast Cumbria still receiving BBC North East output.
With almost all of Cumbria part of a new BBC North West Region (focused on the northern three-quarters of the geographical North West) a revamped BBC Look North (North East) will not have to cover Cumbria to anything like the extent it does now. This then frees up more resources (and, crucially air-time) for it to commit to providing two in ten news items about Northumberland- in addition to (almost) one-in-twenty news items being about southern Scotland. This will make BBC Look North feel much more local and relevant to people living in a whole host of rural Northumberland communities- some of which I have mentioned near the beginning of this article- the issues and problems facing which are so different to those in the big cities like Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland.
Such a change to Regional News would be a happy occasion for many who live elsewhere in North East England. News- coverage about West and South Cumbria (and seeing Cumbria on the weather-map a large protrusion sticking out left and down from the North East) possibly offends the sensibilities of Geordies and Mackems who probably do not appreciate news from locations that they consider to be in North West England and completely irrelevant to their lives. This is doubly true for the good folk of northern Northumberland for whom places like Whitehaven and Millom- in West Cumbria- are three hours’ drive and over 140 miles away! Indeed North East England is North East England, as indeed the North West is the North West – and Regional Television output does need to reflect the regional affiliation of viewers and reflect their Regional Identity better!