The business case for making UK media less homogenous

Last month Channel 4 announced it had chosen Leeds as the location of its new second national headquarters, with around a quarter of its London-based staff making the move. Though Leeds had been on the announced shortlist as far back as June, the announcement managed to take media twitchers by surprise, as it was seen as having the longest odds compared to other shortlisted cities like Birmingham and Manchester.

The national channel also announced it will open creative hubs in Bristol and Glasgow, each with around 50 staff, as part of a plan to increase the amount Channel 4 spends on programmes outside London by £250m over the next five years.

Speaking at the time of the announcement, Channel 4’s chief executive said the move would involve more “people from across the UK and supercharge the impact we have in all parts of the country”.

The UK media industry has historically had an overly-narrow focus on the capital, with the professor of communications at Cardiff University pointing out that “London metropolitanism among parts of the creative establishment runs deep”. Reports that The Guardian is considering a return to its Manchester roots have also been greeted with scepticism, even within the paper’s own ranks – former editor, Peter Preston concluding that as far as the UK media goes, London is “where it’s at”’

As a stated-owned public service broadcaster Channel 4 has, as part of its remit, the responsibility to ‘reflect [the] cultural diversity of the UK’ and commission outside of London.

Leeds the way. 

These latest moves, then, are in part driven by a BBC-like need to fulfil its public service remit (with the Tories putting a relocation in their 2017 manifesto) but also because the wider media is increasingly aware that the ‘London bubble’ in which most media organisations live is distorting their view of the audiences they need to survive.

For one thing, research from as wide a range of organisations as the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the Media Insight Project have found that audiences feel less affinity with media companies that don’t represent them, whether in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender etc. This was undoubtedly a factor in the decline of local newspapers as they moved to centralised, and less relevant, content hubs. The problem also exists in the advertising industry, about which Grey’s Sarah Jenkins noted “if you can’t see it, you can’t believe it”. Since affinity is the floor on which subscriptions, memberships and ad models are built, by remaining so homogenous the UK media is leaving money on the table.

In that sense, Leeds actually makes the least sense of all the shortlisted cities: It is less ethnically diverse than both Manchester and Birmingham, and significantly less diverse than London itself (though the media industry in London is still hopelessly homogenous). The decision, then, was in part because of the lack of extant television production in Leeds, which was notably left behind by the withdrawal of ITV’s regional centres in favour of a metropolitan (read London) commissioning centre.

The worry, then, is that Channel 4 is repeating the mistakes the BBC made when it opened its Salford centre, which was supposed to open the organisation up to more people but in reality just attracted many of its existing employees to move up to Manchester. In its defence, it has been pointed out that Leeds offers an opportunity for people who lack the private school background of many senior media executives to attain a place on the career ladder. As Guardian columnist Roy Greenslade said, routes into journalism especially “militate against working class [people]”, and this could be a good way to mitigate that issue.

For those of us in the media industry who believe it needs to become much more representative, it’s disappointing that very little appears to have changed over the past few years when it comes to getting more representation in the media. Amid historic lows in trust and funding crises, better representation is absolutely necessary for UK broadcasters and newspapers to survive.

Efforts like Channel 4’s to live up to its remit and involve more working class people are a good – if muted – start. But much more needs to be done to make the industry more inclusive and vital.