I know it’s heresy for anyone north of Birmingham to say anything negative about the BBC’s decision to move large chunks of the organisation to Salford, but the more it get mentions, the more I find myself asking the same thing again and again: Are they moving bits just for the sake of it?
If you type ‘Why is the BBC moving to Salford’ into Google it’s actually quite hard to find something with a definitive answer. The perceived wisdom, which stems from statements made by BBC director general Mark Thompson in 2007, is that the move will help the corporation ‘better reflect the whole country’ and ‘move our centre of gravity away from London.’
Of course, the BBC is at times hopelessly London-centric. When it snows in the North East, so the legend of regional newspaper newsrooms goes, you might get a fleeting mention of it on the 10pm news. Should a flake fall in White City, it’s a different story. That said, many newsrooms take a disproportionate interest in their immediate vicinity.
But in attempting to be less London-centric, I keep finding myself thinking that there’s a real danger that certain programmes switching to Salford may suffer as a result. Not because the new northern staff filling the vacancies created by those not moving north are any less capable – but because the country itself is London-centric.
Take, for example, Richard Bacon’s excellent daily afternoon show on Five Live. I drive a lot in my job, so I hear his show a lot, and it’s one of the few radio programmes I’ll listen to on the TV ahead of a news channel. His show’s great strength is the way he interacts with his guests, many of who are ‘on the circuit’ to promote something. It’s not uncommon for a guest on his show to also be doing Loose Women (so to speak) or another TV talk show.
But with Bacon up in Salford, will he still have access to those guests? Of course, they could just pop into a studio in London and talk to him ‘down the line’ but as any journalist will tell you, it’s rare to get as much out of what is effectively a phone interview as you would doing something face to face.
Ironically, Richard and Judy – who famously moved their This Morning show from the Albert Dock in Liverpool to London to ensure they got more celebrities on the show – made this point while being interviewed by Bacon on Monday. Madeley believes BBC Breakfast, also moving to Salford, will suffer more than Bacon because ‘given the choice, people will do Daybreak in London rather than travel to Salford. You can always do your interviews down the line.’ Finnigan, trying to find a bright note for Bacon, said ‘it was even worse for us, we were in Liverpool, and British Midland stopped the flights from London to Speke Airport (now John Lennon Airport).’
Slight insult on Liverpool to one side, one of the most entertaining aspects of the interview with Richard and Judy was the five minute chat they had with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, Bacon’s previous guests on his show. Vic and Bob recounted their first meeting with Richard and Judy, and all four agreed the interview went badly – because Vic and Bob had felt sick after the charter flight up to Liverpool. Hence an impromptu discussion about Salford and so on. In short, the sort of interaction which makes Bacon’s show so great, and which, to me, seems a lot less likely if you can’t get the guests in the studio.
I suppose the same applies to BBC Breakfast. Chris Hollins, the sports presenter, argues that it’s less likely the prime minister will grace the Breakfast sofa in Salford, which is utter rubbish. The PM will travel to make his point. Celebrities – the daily bread and butter of the show – maybe won’t. And what about the cross-network specialist reporters who crop up on Breakfast? Again, interaction via a two-way video link often feels a lot more formal, and therefore a lot less Breakfast, than a chat on the sofa.
I’m not arguing against the BBC trying to be less London-centric. I’m not arguing against the relocation to Salford – although I do find it a little bizarre to claim you can better represent the whole country by opening a second huge base, rather than spreading things out across the UK. But the BBC alone can’t make the country less London-centric. And I fear that in its determination to make Salford work, there’s a very real danger that certain programmes will suffer. And doesn’t that rather defeat the point?