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South of the border, Britain’s media is missing the devolution story

By: SA Mathieson
Published: Tuesday, February 10, 2015 - 09:14 GMT Jump to Comments

With the possible exception of the BBC, much of the UK’s national media does a poor job of reporting on devolution and politics in England’s regions, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Stop when you recognise this part of Britain: a long narrow area with two, world famous, central cities but mostly rural to the south and north. Once reliant on heavy industry, it was damaged by its decline but parts have recovered by moving to services.

Many of its people suffer from poor health, and it relies heavily on public services. It is embroiled in arguments with Westminster over how much devolution it should gain.

Final clues: its economy is 121% the size of the Scottish one, its population is a third bigger – and it gets a fraction of the media attention Scotland commands. Welcome to North west England.

If you are interested in devolution, the North west is a fine area to watch. Greater Manchester was the first city region to get substantial devolution from Westminster, the councils of Liverpool City Region continue to squabble over whether their combined authority should have a metro mayor, and Lancashire County Council, Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen are considering whether to form Greater Lancashire (or arguably reform Lancashire).

In a recent interview, Manchester City Council’s leader Sir Richard Leese criticised the UK government’s devolution bill for Scotland, making what sounded like the astonishing claim that it gave Scotland less real devolution than the likes of Greater Manchester.

He was thinking, however, about Glasgow and Edinburgh, its sister city regions to the North west’s. “Scottish cities have exactly the same needs as their English counterparts and real devolution would give Glasgow and Edinburgh the opportunity to develop their own packages along the same lines as the Greater Manchester deal,” he said.

The publication that ran this interview referred to Manchester’s leader as “Sir Leese”; US magazine Newsweek can be forgiven for neglecting the finer points of Britain’s honorific titles. What is less forgivable is the way the UK’s national media covers devolution and other politics in England outside London, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Last week, the government announced a conveniently-timed £1bn top-up to its Growth Deals with England’s local enterprise partnerships. Significant amounts of this went north – Liverpool City Region gained an extra £31.6m – but David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg went west to promote it.

The prime minister visited Cornwall and Plymouth, the chancellor Hampshire and the deputy PM Swindon and Bristol.

One may note that the south of England outside London largely votes Conservative and Liberal Democrat, and that the election is less than 100 days away. (Council News Monitor’s new weekly email did just that; you can sign up here.) But many national publications failed to notice anything had happened, never mind take a view on it.

As often, the BBC was an honourable exception – it mapped last week’s ministerial visits to promote Growth Deals, revealing a distinctly blue and orange pattern. Through its local radio stations and television programmes the broadcaster retains a network of newsrooms, which now produce some of the best online coverage of the English regions, Wales and Northern Ireland, and it has moved a significant chunk of its national journalism to Greater Manchester.

But the BBC's publicly-funded status requires it to stay broadly neutral, and outside big cities – whose newspapers continue to cover politics pretty well despite declining resources – it often lacks competition.

Scotland’s decision not to leave the UK was last year’s biggest political story. But Scotland is home to just one-twelfth of the UK’s people. Wales has significant devolved powers, Northern Ireland is about to get 11 new councils and England’s councils outside London are working out how to link up as combined authorities.

If Britain’s national media took a closer look at its home nation, the tens of millions of potential readers and viewers who live there might just appreciate it.

SA Mathieson edits Council News Monitor and is a director of Public Service Intelligence Limited, a company that generates, organises and presents data, information and news on public sector organisations offering targeted services to elected representatives, state sector employees and suppliers to the public sector.

English cities 'enjoy more real devolution than Scotland' (Newsweek)

Council News Monitor Weekly: government tries locally-targeted marketing  (Sign up free here)

Council News Monitor: Cameron and Clegg go west to talk growth (The Information Daily)

Ministers and marginals (BBC News)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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