BBC North West’s news opt-out for Cumbria in the late 1980’s. What the BBC did wrong.

16th February 2018.

People who live in the northern half of Cumbria, certainly north of a line running from Brough to Workington do have more affinity (to the extent that they have any affinity) with Newcastle/ Gateshead than with Manchester or Liverpool. It is likely that people living well to the west of the M6 have little to do with either of these distant locations which, as I have made clear in two other topics recently, are over two hours away whether driving by car or going on the train.

When the BBC transferred northern Cumbria to the BBC North West Region it did so quite insensitively and against the expressed wishes of the local population. Stuart Hall, who was the anchor news-reader at BBC North West Tonight at the time of northern Cumbria’s switch to BBC North West did do a charm offensive at the time but BBC Look North’s main news-reader Mike Neville was very popular and a well-liked face with the viewers in the North East of England and in northern Cumbria.

When northern Cumbria was switched over to BBC North West, broadcast from Manchester at the time no consideration was given of the fact that the North West of England covers a huge area: For places like Carlisle and Maryport, what happens in Manchester or Liverpool is even less relevant to the local population than what happens on Tyneside.  No effort was made to address this issue until thousands of Cumbrian viewers complained that Cumbria was being ignored and complained about the Manchester/Liverpool/Cheshire domination in the coverage. This is precisely the issue that people living in South Cumbria and North Lancashire have with BBC North West Tonight nowadays.  However, whilst this is really annoying for viewers in North Lancashire it was down-right insulting to viewers in Carlisle and Workington when North West Tonight was first broadcast to them: For folk living in these locations to have 90% of so-called local news from 120 or more miles away was really off-putting for viewers in North and West Cumbria.

The BBC did eventually respond to the complaints by providing an opt-out in BBC North West’s lunchtime bulletins . This was broadcast from BBC Radio Cumbria’s studios in Carlisle and transmitted via the Caldbeck Transmitter south-west of Carlisle. Whilst this undoubtedly pleased some local viewers it was far short of an adequate solution to the problem and the main evening Regional Programme North West Tonight did not have an opt-out for Cumbria. North Cumbrian viewers got the same John Mundy and Stuart Hall (later Cathy Smith) presented news from Manchester covering all of the North West. And that meant there was often local news coverage that did not come anywhere north of Preston.

This led to the protests and the lobbying from viewers in the north of Cumbria for regional news broadcasting to be transferred back to the North East.  Local folk could remember charismatic Mike Neville and wanted him back. This confirms an obvious point, that a number of viewers of regional television go by the character and temperament of the news-presenters. Had the BBC waited until Mike Neville left Look North in Newcastle to return to ITV Tyne Tees and charismatic Gordon Burns took over as news-anchor at BBC North West Tonight in 1996 the experience for North Cumbrian viewers would have been less traumatic.

As it is, the BBC did a number of things wrong with Cumbria. The news opt-out in the BBC North West Region should have also applied for the main evening programme. Moreover the opt-out should have been a stepping stone to a new BBC North West Region broadcasting just to Lancashire, Cumbria and the Isle of Man. This should have happened quite quickly and the new BBC North West Region should have then provided a stipulation that at least 40% of coverage would concern Cumbria with overlap northwards to cover southern Scotland and Northumberland as far east as Newcastle/Gateshead for really serious developments in those areas. This would have addressed some of the concerns viewers around Carlisle Longtown and Wigton might have had at the time. The main gripe that Cumbrian viewers have with the Regional Television Bulletins is that there is little that is local or relevant to them. If this had been addressed at the outset then Cumbrian viewers in the north of the county would have become happier with regional news programming and there would have been successful adjustment to the changes.

Unfortunately, that is not what happened. The BBC in the North West did not address the concerns of most Cumbrian viewers who would watch BBC North West Tonight in the evening because they were at work during the day – there was no Cumbrian opt-out from the Manchester-produced and Manchester, Liverpool and Cheshire-dominated BBC North West Tonight.

Eventually the simmering frustration of viewers in the north of Cumbria boiled over and there was a very strong lobby for northern Cumbria to be returned to the North East-based Look North Region. This happened on Friday 27th September 1991 as the BBC was forced to act.

Viewers in northern Cumbria then had Mike Neville back but they lost the special opt-out that provided Cumbrian news at lunchtime. This prompted a Wigton woman to complain about the regional news from Look North to the local paper, The Cumberland News: “We used to get good local news coverage of Carlisle and the northern Lakes….now the news is 95% North East”. BBC Look North do provide northern Cumbria a bit better coverage than 5% of the total today, but it’s not much better. I sincerely doubt that folk who live in Workington, Whitehaven and Egremont think what BBC Look North provides for them today is better than the Manchester/Liverpool/Cheshire dominated news they got from BBC North West Tonight in 1990, that at least (eventually) provided a Cumbrian news opt-out at lunchtime.

When northern Cumbria was switched back to the North East in 1991 viewers in South Cumbria and North Lancashire suffered a poorer news service as BBC North West Tonight no longer covered the whole Region properly. Viewers in the south of Cumbria were no longer informed on the BBC Regional Bulletins what was happening in the north of their own county.

And an opportunity for the BBC to properly reform regional television in the northern two-thirds of North West England – for the real benefit of all North West viewers of BBC Regional Television – was lost.

Ian Pennell

#Cumbria  #Regional #Television  #CumbrianOptOut  @BBCNWT






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