1st August 2020
I have penned a letter to the Right Hon Sir Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital Culture Media and Sport- for the time has come to act and say something on behalf of 200,000 viewers in Cumbria who often don’t get coverage of their county for a week or more on both BBC North West Tonight and ITV Granada. I write, too, for a million others in the North West who travel to Cumbria on days out, who friends and family there and who drink the water that falls in Cumbria. If, dear readers of this Website, you read this- and the issues about Cumbria not being covered in North West Regional bulletins concern you then do feel free to use the letter below as a template:
FOR THE ATTENTION OF THE RIGHT HONOURABLE SIR OLIVER DOWDEN, MP AND SECRETARY OF STATE FOR DIGITAL CULTURE MEDIA AND SPORT
100 Parliament St, Westminster,
LONDON. SW1A 2BQ
REGIONAL TELEVISION IN NORTHERN NORTHWEST ENGLAND AND ALSO IN NORTHUMBERLAND
Dear Right Hon Sir Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital Culture Media and Sport
I am a middle aged man who lives in the northeast of Cumbria, in the North Pennines and I work freelance as a Book-keeper. I live today with my elderly parents, in the same farm that I was born and bred in. I have also lived and worked in Lancaster for a number of years following my studies and graduation from Lancaster University. I have, for years watched Regional News-programming and I watched BBC North West Tonight and ITV Granada Reports when I lived in Lancaster; I still watch BBC North West Tonight today on BBC I- player, basically to find out what is happening around Lancaster since I have friends who live there. The area where I live now receives programming from BBC Look North (from Newcastle) and- because of our location near the Northumberland border- we get ITV Tyne Tees.
I am writing to you, Sir to express my concern that rural areas on the edge of Regional Television transmission areas do not receive an amount of local coverage that could in any way be said to adequately serve the affected communities. In the North West of England, where I have friends who live in Cumbria and the Lancaster area, Regional News coverage on both BBC North West Tonight and ITV Granada is poor. Some days there might be an item of coverage about South Cumbria but then (like this week) Cumbria never gets a mention for a week. Lancashire has been covered quite well this week (due to the Coronavirus cases in the Blackburn area) but often recently even Lancashire only received one item of coverage out of ten- and in today’s short bulletin that was the case.
I have written to three different Heads of BBC Regional and Local Programming about their coverage of Cumbria and North Lancashire at different times in the past, and have even written to my Member of Parliament to get them to contact the BBC Heads of Regional and Local Programming for the North West of England. There was (sometimes) some limited improvement in coverage for a time, which would later revert to negligible coverage of the northern two- thirds of North West England (and sometimes no change was forthcoming). The last time I wrote to the then BBC Head of Regional and Local Programming in the North West, Mr. Aziz Rashid, in January 2019 I got a curt response “We are not changing the transmission boundaries, we are not having opt-outs…Sorry!”. This is not just me, as I have known of a number of people who live in South Cumbria and North Lancashire, who have not been happy with the small amount of coverage of the north of the Region over the years.
This is all against the back-drop of Cuts by the BBC to Regional news resources during the Coronavirus crisis. In the North West of England, the BBC has cut sub-regional bases in Lancaster and Blackpool, a move that will worsen news-gathering from more northerly parts of North West England. Regional news coverage was already poor for the North West as a whole (both ITV Granada and BBC North West) with just one large transmission area serving an area extending 130 miles north to south and from the Isle of Man in the west to the Greater Manchester/ Yorkshire border- and with a population of seven million people- before the latest cuts. At the other extreme both BBC and ITV have a special TV Region devoted solely to the Channel Islands- population less than 200,000 and covering a diameter less than 30 miles north to south and west to east (Cumbria would love that).
The North West’s Regional Programming has suffered a deficit in resources for years, which means that Program makers focus on Manchester, Liverpool, Warrington, etc. and there is often not much coverage north of the M62. The North West Region stretches from Cheshire to the Scottish Border but programmers will not cover anything north of their transmission boundaries for the benefit of communities- like those in South Lakeland- in the northernmost parts of the transmission areas. The practice of news cut-off at transmission boundaries leads to poor or nonexistent news-coverage for those parts of Cumbria. Often BBC Look North (North East) will cover news- items about South Cumbria for the benefit of their North Cumbrian viewers, yet these same news- events will never reach the viewers that really need to see them because BBC North West (and ITV Granada) won’t cover them! Reduced resources because of BBC Cuts can only make this unfairness worse, unless pressure is bought to bear on the BBC to focus on the provision of high-quality local and national news- relevant to all viewers (as per the BBC Charter).
North and West Cumbria get excellent local news- coverage on ITV Border (except for those parts of Cumbria that cannot get Border). Yet there are aspects of the BBC Regional News for North and West Cumbria that are unsatisfactory as the programming comes from the North East, for folk living in West Cumbria this could not really be considered local when 80 to 85% of news- coverage is from over 100 miles away on the other side of the Pennines. There is thus a case for West Cumbria to be put into the BBC North West area (as West Cumbria is without any doubt in North West England): However the real solution must be for Lancashire, Cumbria and the Isle of Man to have their own BBC North West Region (with some overlap in the south to Manchester/ Liverpool and overlap in the north to southern Scotland and Northumberland), so that the geographic North West is much better covered (rather than just the urban conurbations along the River Mersey)- and so that places on the fringes of the North West Region get much better localised all- round news- coverage.
Rural Northumberland is another large rural area that is often overlooked by ITV Tyne Tees and BBC Look North (Newcastle). This large area is home to over 200,000 people, most of whom live over an hour’s drive from Tyneside, Wearside and Teesside, and it covers half of the geographical area of North East England alone, yet it’s a good night if Northumberland gets one news-item out of ten or eleven in the main bulletins on BBC Look North or ITV News Tyne Tees. Northumberland- the north of the county in particular- has strong cultural links across the Border, yet neither BBC Look North nor ITV Tyne Tees will extend any coverage beyond their transmission areas northwards into the Scottish Borders: Again this is not conducive to good all-round coverage for a string of communities from Berwick-upon-Tweed and Wooler to Byrness and Otterburn in the north and north-west of Northumberland. The solution here would be opt-out programming from either BBC Look North (Newcastle) or ITV Tyne Tees provided via the transmitters at Chatton and Berwick-upon-Tweed in northern Northumberland. This opt-out could provide more localised news about Northumberland with overlap coverage into the Scottish Borders.
Sir, the provision of local relevant news is important to local communities in rural parts of northern North West and North East England: Regional News programming is the most- watched programming on the BBC and on ITV. They serve a vital Public Service to local communities and (for the elderly) a television is often the only means that they can readily get the news from the outside world. This does not mean that the BBC should be subsidised by the Government (it is important to help ensure output is impartial), but new Television Regions, opt-out regional news-services and extra resources for more localised Regional Television will cost money.
However, the BBC, in particular, must ensure that their BBC Regions correspond to regional identity (and geographical fact) whilst transmission boundaries cut in half as few vibrant communities as possible (whilst producing output relevant to as many local communities as possible): Cumbria, for instance, is served by North West Ambulance Service, the North West Regional Crime Unit, United Utilities (which serves the North West), Electricity North West, politically Cumbria in the North West Region, Cumbria’s coast is served by Liverpool Coastguard, Cumbria is also part of the Judiciary’s Northern Circuit (which also covers Manchester and Lancashire, but not the North East)…yet much of Cumbria (including St. Bees Head -the most westerly part of North West England) receives BBC Regional News from the North East! Cumbria is also a major day-trip destination for millions who live in other parts of the North West, Manchester and Lancashire get much of their domestic water-supply from the Lake District and, if there is bad weather in Cumbria, that will affect people travelling from other parts of North West England more than the North East. Regional news- programmers in North West England should therefore be made to cover all of North West England in their news- coverage (and that includes all of Cumbria).
The BBC must, therefore be encouraged to focus on news- provision and providing better Local News, at the expense of (say) East Enders five nights a week. The BBC World Service should not, for instance, be a priority as the BBC is the British Broadcasting Corporation not the International Broadcasting Corporation- but that will require changes to the BBC Charter (which currently requires the World Service). Beyond that, Sir perhaps your Department could bring pressure to bear by making the BBC cut some of the Middle Management on over £200,000 a year and pay for talent exceeding £1 million annually (Gary Lineker does not justify the huge sums spent on him). Another saving could be made by having the BBC close down between midnight and 6.am (as it used to): Night Owls have a multitude of channels (along with Netflix) to choose from these days! Regional Television needs more spending on it, not less, to bring it up to scratch in parts of northern England. The £200 million savings could be found- in addition to more savings to provide better Regional Television- through implementation of the above.
In conclusion, Sir may I point out that the BBC Charter requires the BBC to provide Regional and Local news- programming (that means television, not just local radio) that is high-quality and relevant to all viewers (i.e. in all parts of the UK, like Cumbria and rural Northumberland). There are patently significant gaps and the BBC needs to be made very aware of them.
I trust that this letter is a template that readers of this site could use, if they are frustrated about the near- absence of coverage of Cumbria or Northumberland in their respective Regional news programming. The address to write to is at the top of the highlighted letter.