Mostly Right but Badly Wrong.
The Economist got it wrong on the North of England but we all share the blame. A response to this article & this leader.
London journalists writing about the North of England are a bit like Ken Clarke talking about different types of rape; however well-intentioned, their opinions are tarnished by the prejudices of their predecessors. I imagine that this is as frustrating for the journalists in question as it is to me. It is sadly true.
The article made accurate observations and sensible suggestions. The accompanying headline and leader did not. Sure enough, Northerners queued up to be uselessly offended. Meanwhile powerful voices in the London media lept to the defence of their colleagues.
Nothing was debated and nothing was learned in the exchanges that followed. It didn't have to be like this.
The North of England is increasingly vibrant and intellectual. It is decreasingly paralysed by the memory of a now-buried Prime Minister. We can learn from London's newspapers where they are right, and call them out when they are wrong.
Where The Economist was right.
- The North must consolidate.
Led by Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Newcastle, and inspired by Scotland and Wales, the North must combine its many voices. That means pooling power, money and people.
- Transport in the North is a major obstacle to consolidation.
Much of the reason why "the North is big" is that the infrastructure linking it is so poor. Even within cities, agglomeration is stifled by poor transport and congestion.
- Institutions in the North are too weak.
UK-wide institutions under-represent the views of the North of England and the North has lost most of its indigenous institutions. It must rebuild them.
- People matter more than places.
If turning once-independent struggling towns into vibrant parts of succesful cities will improve the lives of the people who live there, we must do it. Past glories do not excuse current misery.
Where The Economist was wrong.
- It ommitted Ramsgate.
The twin towns of Ramsgate and Margate, 68 miles East of London, are about the same size as Burnley but suffer from higher unemployment, lower average wages, and greater geographical isolation. Mentioning them would have removed an easy excuse for many in the North to write off the article as biased.
- It misled on government spending.
Spending per head on culture, and almost everything else, is lower in the North of England than it is in London. The Economist must explain why spending in the North is profligate while greater spending in London is not.
- It gave no examples.
Burnley is closer to Manchester than Gatwick airport is to London yet the train journey between the two is six times less frequent and takes twice as long. Despite decades of campaigning, the £8m needed to reinstate direct services to Manchester remains unspent. Examples would convince readers in the North that their problems were understood rather than just reported.
- It got distracted by London.
Building on the green belt is rightly the fetish of many journalists priced out of London but it is a less important issue in the North.
How to stop the outrage and start making progress.
- The North needs to stop getting offended and start changing.
The Economist made a number of good points, the North should have filled in the gaps and joined the fight. Instead too many of us focused on the negatives and missed an opportunity to change.
- The Economist should ask people who live in Britain to write about Britain.
The Economist should ask itself why it can't cover the rest of Britain in the detail it managed to report on the London Overground. A great place to find the answer would be to try and cover this year's Rugby League World Cup - a celebration of sport's most liberal game - in the detail it deserves.
The two Britons who've most understood modern media best did so away from the old media in London. Pete Cashmore founded mashable in Aberdeen. Mike Little co-founded WordPress in Stockport. The Economist would be trusted more on Britain if part of it was written by people living in the Britain it covers. It's great up here and The Economist should join the party. The North needs to get ready to welcome them when they do.