By Simon Donohue
I’ve been covering the media scene in Greater Manchester since the late 90s, initially as Media Business correspondent at the Manchester Evening News (15 years charting incredible changes), then more recently in a PR and comms capacity.
Initially, the story for broadcast media was one of managed decline and I locked swords on more than one occasion with senior figures at ITV and Granada as they lobbied hard against public service quotas that guaranteed local programming and news output.
My major concern as a journalist was the threat to jobs, but I was also passionate about protecting the incredible legacy of Sir Sidney Bernstein’s great Granada franchise, which arguably did more to put Manchester and North West creativity on the map than anything before or since.
In hindsight, I grudgingly accept that harsh economic realities were a factor. Making television is expensive and local programming drains production budgets but isn’t popular with advertisers (of course there is an argument that quality local programming does attract advertising revenue).
And let’s not forget that the cuts weren’t limited to the private sector. With dwindling priorities for local programming, it made perfect sense for the BBC and Granada to pool their technical resources at 360Media, another venture which led to an overall reduction in regional production headcount.
I give great credit to initiatives like the Nations and Regions Media Conference for starting to turn the tide. It brought to life the concerns of campaigners like the late and great Ray Fitzwalter (author of The Dream That Died, which tackles the decline of Granada), and combined them with the ambitions of people like the similarly late and great Steve Hewlett, who felt it only fair and proper that commissioning power and production be fairly distributed so as to more accurately reflect the geography and demographic of the people paying the licence fee.
Around a decade or so ago came my personal realisation that the message had finally hit the mark. I was given an off the record briefing by a very senior BBC official of the day, enabling me to write a very well informed think piece about the future for the media landscape in Greater Manchester.
It included the incredible (at the time) suggestion that the Coronation Street set might be bulldozed as part of a plan that would see the BBC and ITV colocate in the city on a new site.
Soon after, a competition was launched to find a new home for an expanded BBC base hosting local and national departments. MediaCityUK became what my BBC insider had “predicted”, with thousands of BBC jobs alongside ITV, a new home for Coronation Street, and a world-class production base at Dock10.
Which brings us to the battle for Channel 4’s national headquarters.
It was an absolute privilege to have played a small part in Greater Manchester’s bid to bring Channel 4’s New HQ to the region, co-writing the bid which secured the region a place on the shortlist of cities which made it through to the final stage of the competition.
I helped to produce a technical bid document which opened my eyes to just how far we’ve come in the Creative, Digital and Technology sector, as well as how lucky we are to live in a region with so much access to talent and infrastructure. As we know, it’s also an amazing place to live.
We now know that Greater Manchester lost out to Leeds, Bristol and Glasgow, the latter two cities rewarded with the opportunity to host creative hubs, and Leeds winning the main prize.
Of course, there is disappointment in Greater Manchester. But the the fact that Greater Manchester already has so much media production must surely have been a deciding factor.
But mainly, this is a victory for the north, not at the expense of Birmingham, which was said to be a front runner from the start, but in recognition of what is right and proper if media opportunities and representation are to truly reflect society.
This will undoubtedly bring benefits for Leeds but I’d wager that there are indie producers who would still opt for Manchester given the choice, or maybe somewhere between Leeds and Manchester.
At least they no longer have to consider only a location within the M25. It’s now that transport infrastructure is necessary and important.
As much as this is a story about media, it’s also a story about connectivity. With the right infrastructure in place, Leeds might be only 30 minutes or so from Manchester, and no more than a couple of hours from anywhere else in the north.
We’ve got the talent and bringing them close enough to collaborate will make it increasingly easy for the north to compete with the traditional monopoly in the south.
Don’t get me wrong, It would have been fantastic for Manchester to gain another national media outlet’s HQ. But make no mistake, Leeds’ victory is still a win for Manchester and the north.