BACK TO BASICS: DOES REGIONAL TELEVISION SERVE NORTH CUMBRIA AS IT SHOULD?

March 2021

Dear Readers

In a recent post, I posed the question:  What Purpose is Regional Television supposed to serve in relation to communities across the English North West? I then explained that Regional Television is supposed to provide news that is much closer to (and relevant to) local communities, to cover the issues relevant to those communities and for news- casters to be able to relate to their viewers (and the issues that impact them) in the most sympathetic and appropriate manner and related to the issues. I then looked at whether BBC North West Tonight and ITV1 Granada Reports actually fulfil these requirements for all the communities of North West England and the Isle of Man that are within their transmission areas, and I concluded that whilst both the main North West Regional Television news- programmes fulfil these requirements in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire, this is not so true further north although BBC North West Tonight does cover Lancashire rather better than does ITV Granada Reports. By the time one gets as far north as the Cumbrian border with Lancashire neither BBC North West Tonight nor ITV1 Granada Reports cover the local communities with coverage that is local, relevant or reflects the pressing concerns of those communities:   This article can be found here at:    https://northwestisnorthwest.org/2021/01/09/back-to-basics-what-purpose-is-regional-television-supposed-to-serve/.

Travelling sixty miles further north from the Lancashire/ Cumbria border we reach the City of Carlisle and the surrounding rural communities of North Cumbria where, as would be expected, the two main Regional News services received are very different in their geographical coverage compared to what is received just an hour’s drive to the south. Furthermore, for viewers in this area of Carlisle and North Cumbria they receive remarkably different geographical area news- coverage   depending on whether they watch BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) or whether they watch ITV1 Border (England) Lookaround news- programme.  So, it has to be asked, do either or both of these Regional News services represent communities in and around Carlisle, and across North Cumbria up to the Scottish Border? And if they don’t, what should be done about it?

I define North Cumbria, as most people locally would define it- the Carlisle area and the rural hinterland extending up to the Scottish Border and east to the boundary with Northumberland, also including Alston Moor in the North Pennines further to the east. To the south, this definition of North Cumbria takes in the northern Eden Valley as far south as Penrith and Greystoke, whilst to the west this definition takes in Wigton, Aspatria, Silloth and Maryport. I do not consider Workington, Keswick, or Whitehaven to be “North Cumbria” as they are clearly more “West Cumbria”, places further south in what was once northern Westmorland- places like Shap, Appleby and Kirkby Stephen are much more central and eastern Cumbria. Even within this more refined definition of North Cumbria, this is still a large area which is home to over 150,000 inhabitants.      

Now the Regional and Local television news should, as I discussed in the article referred to above, provide effective coverage that is local and relevant to the communities they are meant to serve: To that end if the Regional News is just a smaller version of National News and Sports coverage, with most coverage for viewers likely only to be as relevant as National News; if the news is not about what happens in the places they live, go to work and visit on day- trips in the summer (as folk will again do when the country is free from nationwide legislation forcing folk to stay home to tame a pandemic!) then a Regional News programme is fairly pointless! But to get an idea whether what is on offer for North Cumbrian communities has salience for them, we need to consider where Carlisle and the surrounding areas of North Cumbria are in relation to other parts of northern England and southern Scotland.

NORTH CUMBRIA WITHIN THE WIDER GEOGRAPHICAL SETTING

The nearest big city to Carlisle and North Cumbria is Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the regional capital of North East England, Newcastle-upon-Tyne is 57 miles to the east of Carlisle and (with a clear run along the A689, then A69 with little traffic) it is possible to reach Newcastle in an hour, though in practice it will take an hour to reach the western suburbs of Newcastle-upon-Tyne from the middle of Carlisle. On the train, it will often take a bit longer since the Carlisle to Newcastle railway- line is not electrified and the trains usually stop along the way at little towns like Brampton, Haltwhistle and Hexham en- route. That said, Gateshead Metro Centre is an hour from Carlisle by train with a clear run. 

Carlisle is also on the electrified West Coast Main Line so train travel north and south is much faster: It is possible to reach Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city in an hour from the middle of Carlisle, even though Glasgow is over 95 miles to the north-west of Carlisle. Edinburgh, the Scottish Capital City is just under 100 miles north of Carlisle, yet Edinburgh can be reached in one hour and fifteen minutes on the train. From the extreme north of Cumbria, on the outskirts of Gretna more of southern Scotland will be reachable within an hour by car and the south-eastern suburbs of Glasgow will be an hour away via the M74 (with good conditions and light traffic).  

Travelling south, Preston in central Lancashire is the nearest big city to Carlisle, some 86 miles via the M6. However, on the West Coast Main Line one can reach Preston from Carlisle in an hour on the fastest trains that don’t stop in between. From Penrith, Preston is just an hour away via the M6; from Penrith it is just about possible to reach Blackpool via the M6 and M55 in one hour. However, from Maryport, or from Bewcastle right up on the Scottish Border nowhere in Lancashire is reachable by car or by train within an hour.

Further south, the major conurbations of Manchester, Liverpool, Warrington and Salford are near (or over) two hours from Carlisle by car,  just under two hours by train to Manchester or Liverpool. However, it takes less than an hour and a half to reach Warrington from Carlisle on a train with few stops (travel times by train or by car to these places will be 15 minutes less from Penrith, which is 18 miles south of Carlisle). From Silloth/ Maryport or the extreme north-east of Cumbria add another 20 to 30 minutes to travel times from Carlisle- so travel from Bewcastle or Maryport to Manchester will take about two and a half hours by car.   

With regards travelling to major conurbations in North East England from Carlisle, the fastest travel time by train to Sunderland is nearly two hours, whilst by car it’s an hour and a half to travel the 72 miles to Sunderland. The fastest way to get from Carlisle to Middlesbrough is via the M6 to Penrith, then the A66- which is 95 miles and which, with a clear road will take one hour and 48 minutes: When the A66 is finally upgraded to full dual carriageway from Penrith eastwards, the journey from Carlisle to Middlesbrough will take in an hour and a half with good conditions and little traffic. Carlisle to Tynemouth (east of Newcastle), a distance of just 68 miles takes almost an hour and a half by car in good conditions. Travel times from Penrith and Silloth/ Maryport to Tyneside or Sunderland will be 15 minutes to half an hour greater than from Carlisle. It is quicker to get to Middlesbrough from Penrith but will take up to 30 minutes longer from Silloth/ Maryport (compared to travel from Carlisle).

These travel times and distances from Carlisle have a bearing on the appropriateness, or otherwise of Regional Television News services that are received in Carlisle and the surrounding area of North Cumbria: Even in the 21st Century, with relatively cheap fast transport links there is an upper limit of what might be considered local to communities across North Cumbria. Places that are both over fifty miles away and take more than an hour to get to by car or by train are no more “Local” to a community than somewhere at the other end of the country: Travel over significant distance involves considerable expense  (particularly on a fast train when tickets are purchased at short notice). Long- distance driving on busy trunk roads and motorways is stressful for drivers and – for drivers short of competence-  potentially dangerous!

For those who cannot drive and who live in rural areas- and North Cumbria outside of Carlisle is very rural- lack of Public transport and the cost of taxis as an alternative- means considerable expense and time in just getting to Carlisle so as to get a train to elsewhere: For instance, the small community of Bewcastle right up near the Scottish Border in the extreme north of Cumbria is just 19 miles from Carlisle, but the windy roads (once one is off the A689 at Brampton) means that it takes over half an hour to get to/ from Carlisle by car. For those living in Bewcastle with no car, a bus (if it’s running) will take almost an hour to get into the middle of Carlisle.   For these reasons, getting anywhere over fifty miles away and over one hour’s travel time away (particularly for North Cumbrians) is most certainly not local as it would involve considerable expense and (likely) also involve an overnight stay or two in a hotel away from home. Thus, by extension from the above travel times, with the exception of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Gateshead Metro Centre, none of the main centres of population in North East England can be considered “local” to Carlisle and North Cumbria. Likewise, nowhere south of Preston can be considered in any way to be “Local” to Carlisle and North Cumbria. To the north, whilst much of southern Scotland (with the exception of western Galloway and the northeast end of the Scottish Borders) is within an hour’s drive by car or by train, the main cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh are right on the border of what could be considered in any way local to Carlisle and only the most northern parts of North Cumbria.

Within the outer definition of “Local” being fifty miles or an hour’s travel time away from a community, there is an inner zone of “Local Local”, or  “Immediate Local”: The outer limit of this is half an hour’s travel time or 25 miles away (whichever is the greater distance). Places within this travel time for a particular community encompass those which folk travel to, go to work, visit close friends in on an almost- daily basis. It is within areas that can be considered “Immediate Local” that a large proportion of Regional and Local Television News must come from if it is to really serve the communities it is broadcast to. A smaller amount of news should come from places a bit further away in all directions (i.e. to the north, south, east and west), since major happenings in those places would still have significance for viewers in a community.

Thus, news that is “Immediate Local” to Carlisle and the surrounding hinterland of North Cumbria will cover the City of Carlisle, rural North Cumbria up to the Scottish Borders and westwards towards Maryport. It will also include places up to 25 miles away (or 30 minutes’ travel time- whichever is a greater distance) from towns and communities across North Cumbria and including Carlisle. So south-east Dumfriesshire, across the Border into Scotland and covering towns like Langholm, Lockerbie, Annan and as far as Dumfries would be “Immediate Local”. To the east, this definition takes in the South Tyne Valley of Northumberland as far east as Hexham and including Alston Moor in the North Pennines and (for the benefit of viewers on Alston Moor should include upper Weardale, upper Teesdale (Co. Durham) and Allendale in Northumberland). Westwards, this definition of “Immediate Local” extends to Workington, Whitehaven, Cockermouth, and surrounding areas. Southwards this extends to the Northern and Central Lake District, the Eden Valley and down the M6 to as far as Kendal and Sedbergh.  All those areas are “Immediate Local” to Carlisle and the surrounding communities of North Cumbria. In an ideal world, fully 80% of the Regional and Local news should come from within this area, but even if it is just 30% there is enough coverage that is about communities and places that people visit for such a Regional news service to provide a good local news service. 

Further afield, and this provides the “Regional” element for Regional News, there should be news about more serious happenings in places over 30 minutes away and up to an hour away by car or by train- to the north, south, east and west: Ideally this should take up no more than 20% of the ideal Local and Regional news- service. For Carlisle and North Cumbria such a zone for Regional coverage would extend northwards across southern Scotland up to Glasgow and Edinburgh (but excluding the Stranraer area, Ayrshire coast and the north-east of the Scottish Borders which are all well over an hour away from any part of North Cumbria). To the east, this zone would take in the North Tyne valley and the main Tyne valley east as far as (and including) Newcastle and Gateshead and (for the benefit of Alston Moor and Gilsland viewers) will extend to Consett in County Durham, cover the Wear Valley as far east as Durham, the Tees as far as Darlington, Scotch Corner and also the north-west Yorkshire Dales (in short, those parts of North East England west of the A1 (M)).

To the south this outer “Regional” zone covers south-west Cumbria around Millom, those parts of South Cumbria south of Kendal and central/ northern Lancashire. Further afield, reports about Manchester and Liverpool Airports are relevant (if significant) because folk from North Cumbria sometimes have to use these airports when they go on holiday (particularly if there are no flights from Newcastle Airport to the destinations folk wish to fly to) and, in the same way, reports about Glasgow Airport are relevant. Occasionally, major developments with regards the regional specialist hospitals in Manchester and Liverpool are also relevant since critically ill patients from North Cumbria sometimes have to go there if none of the Newcastle hospitals can provide the appropriate life-saving treatment or if (in winter) severe wintry weather over the Pennines makes Newcastle less quickly accessible than the Manchester/ Liverpool specialist hospitals.

The input of some news-coverage about Manchester, Liverpool or, indeed, Glasgow airports and hospitals provides viewers with an appropriate sense of Regional Identity, that even though North Cumbria is closer to Newcastle than Manchester or Liverpool- and even though there will be (as appropriate) reports about significant happenings in Newcastle or western Northumberland, that Cumbria is not in North East England but in the English North West. That said, Manchester and Liverpool are both well over 100 miles away from North Cumbria, and much of North Cumbria is over 100 miles from Glasgow or Edinburgh- thus coverage from these places should be infrequent (and restricted to matters that pertain to the lives of North Cumbrians- i.e., airports, specialist regional hospitals, etc).

All of the outer Regional zone encompasses places that folk in North Cumbria might visit on a nice day in the summer, travel to visit friends and family members up to an hour away by car (or by train) for the day, commute to well- paid jobs, etc. These are not the places folk might travel to on a daily or weekly basis but are likely to travel to a few times in a year but return on the same day. At a regional level- news from more than an hour’s travel time away is only relevant if it impacts upon North Cumbrians in significant numbers, i.e., concerning International Airports, major regional hospitals- and though relevant can be restricted to about once a week in Regional bulletins.

BBC LOOK NORTH (NORTH EAST AND CUMBRIA)  

And so, we can now look at the Regional Television News- services that viewers in North Cumbria can readily get: The BBC North East and Cumbria transmission region receives the Look North programme covering the entire transmission area- plus some overlap coverage of South Cumbria and southern North Yorkshire. In short, it covers a huge geographical area and there are typically one to two news-items about Cumbria (out of about ten in total) in the 27-minute programme from 6.30 pm on weeknights on BBC1. The remaining eight or nine news- items concern North East England and North Yorkshire (of which about two concern Newcastle/ Gateshead and parts of North East England west of the A1 (M)). This is probably okay for the extreme east of North Cumbria (i.e., Alston Moor and Gilsland) but certainly not for the extreme North of Cumbria (Look North does not cover anything on the Scottish side of the Border), for Carlisle, Penrith or anywhere west of the M6.

Thus BBC Regional Television most certainly does not satisfy the criteria of providing a good local and Regional News service: BBC Look North is very much about the North East of England, about which 85% of the news- coverage is. For locations west of Carlisle, towns such as Silloth, Maryport and Aspatria some 85% of coverage is about places well over an hour away by train or by car. North Cumbrians also don’t get any news- coverage from just north of the Scottish Border – and what happens in Langholm or Annan is much more likely to be relevant to viewers in Carlisle or Longtown than what happens in South Shields or Washington (Tyne and Wear). Viewers want to know about happenings within 25 miles away on their local news, not what is happening well over 70 miles away! BBC Look North does cover some rural issues but also a lot about the issues facing the urban North East of England- i.e. loss of heavy industry, city homelessness and crime- it is not very Cumbria appropriate.

LOOKAROUND (ITV1 BORDER)

ITV1 Border (English version) provides a much more localised Regional News service for North Cumbria through its flagship Regional news bulletin Lookaround, usually aired at 6.pm on week-nights. The transmission area covers most of Cumbria (including some parts of South Cumbria), Dumfries and Galloway in south-west Scotland and the Scottish Borders: Although the news-programmers are based in Gateshead (a legacy of the ill-fated merger between the ITV Tyne Tees and ITV Border transmission regions), bespoke Regional programming produces news- coverage covering the ITV Border transmission area- plus northernmost Northumberland and all of South Cumbria. Some of the politics programmes also cover North East England as well as Cumbria and southern Scotland, but for the most part ITV1 Border provides North Cumbria with very good local news-coverage.

Some 40% of news-coverage is within 30 miles of Carlisle and a further 40% is within an hour’s travel time by car or by train from the city (this takes in much of Dumfries and Galloway, the western end of the Scottish Borders and most of South and West Cumbria). For north-west Cumbria, around Maryport and Aspatria 40% of the coverage on ITV1 Border’s week-nightly news-programme Lookaround is Immediate Local, that is within 30 minutes’ travel time or 25 miles (whichever is the greater distance). In addition, some 50 to 60% of news- coverage is about Cumbria in these bulletins. Occasionally, where relevant, there will also be coverage about Newcastle Airport, the Covid- 19 Nightingale Hospital in Gateshead, a major crash on the M6 in Lancashire- or unemployment rates for all of North West England which augments Regional identity and provides North Cumbrians with news about happenings outside ITV1 Border’s transmission area where the programmers consider such news is relevant to their viewers.

ITV1 Border, with its flagship Lookaround programme serves North Cumbria very well and (for viewers in southern Scotland) there is bespoke Scottish political and other programming through programmes such as Border Life and Representing Border: The ideal news-coverage for North Cumbria would be 80% coverage within an area extending from Dumfries in the north and south to Kendal, westwards to St Bees Head and east to Upper Teesdale and westernmost Northumberland: A 20% covering major happenings across the rest of Dumfries and Galloway, the western Scottish Borders western Northumberland, Durham and northern North Yorkshire as far east as the A1 and southwards across South Cumbria and Lancashire. ITV1 Border (England) actually provides about 60% coverage within the Immediate Local zone.

A further 20% is within the outer (regional) zone up to an hour’s travel time away from North Cumbria. About 20% of the news- coverage, that news about the Berwick-upon-Tweed area in North Northumberland, the north-eastern end of the Scottish Borders and far west Stranraer and southern Ayrshire in south-west Scotland are the only news-items that are not local to North Cumbrian viewers- being about happenings well over an hour’s drive away. ITV1 Border’s flagship news- programme usually misses out some serious happenings from places just within an hour’s travel time to the south and east of Carlisle and Penrith, namely western Northumberland as far as east Newcastle, Weardale and Teesdale in County Durham- and Lancashire, most of which is within an hour of Penrith by train. From just north of Carlisle, towns like Motherwell and Lanark in south-west Scotland are within an hour’s drive up the M74 but are they are just beyond the area that ITV Border covers in news-output.

However, all things considered ITV1 Border provides North Cumbrians with an excellent Regional and local News service with Lookaround: Most of the coverage concerns local affairs, the programme addresses local issues, and it provides  coverage of happenings further north and south. Occasionally there will be a wider Regional perspective about North West England as a whole or, if it is relevant to Cumbrians, the M6 in Lancashire being shut. Political programming is also pan North East/ Cumbria/ Southern Scotland.

The real concern about ITV1 Border is not perhaps that it does not provide overlap coverage to some areas of interest (and still local to them) for some folk watching the Regional bulletins: Viewers in North Cumbria can switch over to BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) if they want more news about North East England and viewers in South Cumbria can watch BBC North West Tonight to find out about Lancashire and Manchester, both of which follow ITV1 Border’s Lookaround.

No, the real concern is the not impossible scenario whereby ITV bosses decide that the ITV1 Border transmission Region should be permanently mothballed and amalgamated with an adjacent ITV Region following financial difficulties: This has already happened in 2008-9 when ITV Border was amalgamated with the ITV Tyne Tees Region leading to a big loss of localised news- coverage across Cumbria and southern Scotland. Following an outcry with MPs representing Parliamentary Constituencies in the ITV Border Region complaining to OFCOM, ITV was pressurised into effectively de-coupling the former ITV Border Region from ITV Tyne Tees in 2013. North Cumbrians got their local news- programme back and were not forced to choose between two mainly- North East Regional News bulletins! But with falling advertising revenues (especially falling the great Coronavirus Recession of 2020), ITV bosses could plead with OFCOM to let them mothball/ amalgamate some of their smaller transmission regions by population. Cumbrians need to be alert to this happening and plead with OFCOM not to let ITV cost- cutters take away their excellent local Regional News programme.

ITV1 Border (England) provides viewers in Carlisle and the surrounding area with an excellent Local and Regional News- service: The news- coverage is relevant, appropriate and sympathetic regarding local issues; ITV Management in their economy- drives will be advised to leave the ITV Border Region well-and-truly alone!                                                 

Published by northwestisnorthwest

I live near Alston in north -east Cumbria (and yes, it is in North West England). I have friends who live in the middle part of North West England - near Lancaster (which is where I went to University and used to live until 14 years ago). A big problem is that the Regional Television Bulletins for the North West covers the southern third of the Region about 90%,(plus a part of Derbyshire which is NOT the North West of England), covers the middle third of North West England poorly and covers the northern third of North West England not at all! People living in the westernmost part of North West England (around St. Bees Head) have local BBC news on their televisions which is 90% about North East England!!

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