North East England is North East England- and BBC Look North and ITV Tyne Tees must cover Northumberland more.

This new Website will be dedicated to the cause of viewers of Regional Television in the north of North East England – i.e. in Northumberland. This Website will have articles focussed on the forgotten northern corners of North East England. This is the first one devoted to pointing out the deficiencies of Regional news coverage for people living in rural Northumberland- by which I do not mean Blyth and Cramlington (about ten to fifteen miles up the coast from Tynemouth)- which are really a northwards extension of Tyneside.

Rural Northumberland extends from 15 miles north and west of Newcastle- upon- Tyne right up to the Scottish Border and (in the west and southwest) to the boundaries with Cumbria and County Durham. Northumberland is a large county which extends seventy miles (as the crow flies) from the Durham Border near Blanchland (ten miles south of Hexham) in the south to the Scottish border at its northernmost point on the Coast four miles north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and 50 miles from the North Sea Coast to its westernmost boundary with Cumbria. Rural Northumberland is home to 200,000 people, almost one tenth of the population of North East England and, with a surface area over 4,000 square kilometres is almost half the surface area of North East England (not including North Yorkshire) with an area of almost 8,600 square kilometres. However, this vast rural area- taking in picturesque towns and villages like Allendale, Corbridge, Rothbury, Otterburn, Stocksfield, Widdrington, Amble, Alwinton, Wooler, Seahouses, Bamburgh and- right on the Scottish border Cornhill on Tweed – scarcely gets any real news-coverage on BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) or on ITV Tyne Tees.

If one lives in the village of Byrness (northwest of Otterburn) or in the village of Belford, 15 miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed a flick through the Twitter feeds of both BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) or ITV Tyne Tees (or a search through the news- stories of ITV Tyne Tees on their website) the sparsity of news about Northumberland (and within 50 miles or an hour’s drive) of either of these locations both illuminating and alarming. For instance, a scan through ITV Tyne Tees news stories on Twitter for the week ending 28th June 2020 shows that out of almost fifty entries only two referred to news specifically regarding Northumberland (about the county as a whole not specifically the more rural north and west of the county).

Folk living in and around Berwick-upon-Tweed used to get ITV Border (the Scottish version transmitted from Selkirk in the Scottish Borders), but recently the area was transferred to ITV Tyne Tees. At least ITV Border covered Berwick and North Northumberland- and provided plenty of coverage of events on the Scottish side of the border- which has more relevance to folk living in the North of Northumberland than (perhaps) news about Sunderland, Middlesbrough or County Durham. Of course, ITV Border, which mainly covers Cumbria and southern Scotland may not have provided much in the way of Northumberland coverage. However the low population of the ITV Border transmission area (less than one million people altogether) meant that northern Northumberland- together with the north-east end of the Scottish Borders local to Berwick-upon-Tweed and its environs- received much more coverage than it receives now under BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) or ITV Tyne Tees.

The issues pertaining to Regional news-coverage for rural north-west and northern Northumberland- in that they get little coverage of their local areas and none about significant events just over the Border into Scotland (which might still impact on their lives), but 90% coverage about events over an hours’ drive to the south- is so similar to what folk living in North Lancashire and South Cumbria face! Viewers in more northerly parts of North West England that receive BBC North West and ITV Granada output with their Regional News (supposedly for all the North West) have 85% coverage about Manchester, Liverpool and Cheshire!

Of course, ITV Tyne Tees and BBC North East/ Cumbria have just over three million potential viewers compared to BBC North West and ITV Granada with just over seven million potential viewers in their transmission areas. It must be said, through that the BBC North East/ Cumbria transmission area- which takes in much of Cumbria and North Yorkshire as well as North East England covers a significantly larger geographical area than do the BBC North West and ITV Granada transmission areas (even though both include the Isle of Man). ITV Tyne Tees’ transmission area extends from York in the south right up to Berwick upon Tweed and is also a huge geographical area. This will greatly impact on the ability of programme producers to provide effective news-coverage for everyone.

That said, as with programme- producers for BBC North West Tonight and ITV Granada- the programme producers for BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) and ITV Tyne Tees can make some changes to improve coverage of their northern rural hinterlands. The first is a commitment that one in ten news items in the main North East news bulletins should cover significant events in an overlap zone up to an hours’ drive beyond the transmission boundary. To some extent BBC North East/ Cumbria does this by reporting on happenings in South Cumbria and southern North Yorkshire for the benefit of viewers in Cumbria and North Yorkshire respectively. However, locations up to an hours drive (or train journey) south of York take in West and South Yorkshire and also Hull, locations up to an hours drive south of Penrith (Cumbria) will not only include all the South Lakes, but also Lancaster and Preston (i.e. Lancashire). And for locations in the BBC North East/ Cumbria transmission area and in the northernmost parts of the transmission zone, a train from Carlisle can reach Glasgow in one hour, Beattock Summit, in the Scottish Southern Uplands is within an hours’ drive of Carlisle. Edinburgh is less than an hour away from Berwick-upon-Tweed by train and places like Kelso, Peebles, Dunbar, St. Abbs Head and Galashiels are within an hours’ drive of Berwick- upon-Tweed and indeed much of northern Northumberland.

For ideal overlap zones, such that it ensures that people at the northern and southern extremes of the Region get to hear about events beyond the transmission boundaries- but still significant to them- whilst not diluting the BBC North East/ Cumbria brand half of the one in ten overlap news items should cover southern North Yorkshire and South Cumbria, whilst the remainder (that is one in twenty- or 5%- of all news items) should cover an area including West and South Yorkshire, the Hull and Beverley areas, North Lancashire and all of southern Scotland up to (and including) the Forth Clyde Valley area. Judging from the current news- coverage provided by BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria), they probably cover South Cumbria a bit too much but they should shift some of that to cover southern Scotland, for the benefit of their northernmost viewers. Viewers of BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) who live near York or Malton should get coverage of the odd major situation in Leeds, Bradford, Pontefract or Hull.

However, the rural Northumberland area is undersold. A commitment to provide a minimum of one in ten of the total news items being about northern or western Northumberland on BBC Look North (and ITV Tyne Tees) would go a long way towards making sure viewers in this vast rural hinterland of North East England feel half- adequately represented. So, one out of the ten news items should cover the overlap zones beyond the transmission areas- and some of this must include southern Scotland; another one in ten news items (at a minimum) should cover North/ West Northumberland.

But this is not the ultimate ideal by far. As I have already covered in this website, all of Cumbria, Lancashire and the Isle of Man (but not including Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire) should have their own BBC North West Region, complete with opt-outs for the Isle of Man and Cumbria (see here: https://northwestisnorthwest.org/2020/06/20/the-ideal-for-regional-television-in-the-north-west-and-north-east-of-england/ ). Were this to happen, BBC Look North would only have to cover the small parts of northeast Cumbria that would not receive output via the Winter Hill and Caldbeck transmitters- and where viewers would be vehemently opposed to getting news about Lancashire rather than the North East in any way, shape or form! This includes Alston Moor and the areas around Brampton and Longtown and (with post-code mapping, possible in 2020) and some relay transmitters in place, they could receive their BBC (digital) output from the Pontop Pike transmitter, which is near Consett (County Durham)- the main transmitter for North East England.

The upshot of Cumbria, Lancashire and the Isle of Man with their own BBC North West Region is that for BBC Look North (North East/ Cumbria) it could just become BBC Look North (North East) with coverage focused on the North East, North Yorkshire and the tiny bit of northeast Cumbria still receiving their output. Coverage of all the rest of Cumbria could be put in the one in twenty news items that were overlap coverage of South Cumbria and southern North Yorkshire in the less- than- ideal solution described above, though the Barrow in Furness coverage could be safely omitted. The rest of the overlap coverage (one in twenty news items) could then safely exclude North Lancashire and (if all regional news- transmission south of Northallerton could be switched to the Leeds- based version of Look North through postcode mapping, etc) South Yorkshire and Hull could be excluded too. Then more of the 5% of overlap coverage not of Cumbria or southern North Yorkshire could focus more on southern Scotland to help provide better all- round news coverage for northern Northumberland and those parts of far northeast Cumbria still receiving BBC North East output.

With almost all of Cumbria part of a new BBC North West Region (focused on the northern three-quarters of the geographical North West) a revamped BBC Look North (North East) will not have to cover Cumbria to anything like the extent it does now. This then frees up more resources (and, crucially air-time) for it to commit to providing two in ten news items about Northumberland- in addition to (almost) one-in-twenty news items being about southern Scotland. This will make BBC Look North feel much more local and relevant to people living in a whole host of rural Northumberland communities- some of which I have mentioned near the beginning of this article- the issues and problems facing which are so different to those in the big cities like Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland.

Such a change to Regional News would be a happy occasion for many who live elsewhere in North East England. News- coverage about West and South Cumbria (and seeing Cumbria on the weather-map a large protrusion sticking out left and down from the North East) possibly offends the sensibilities of Geordies and Mackems who probably do not appreciate news from locations that they consider to be in North West England and completely irrelevant to their lives. This is doubly true for the good folk of northern Northumberland for whom places like Whitehaven and Millom- in West Cumbria- are three hours’ drive and over 140 miles away! Indeed North East England is North East England, as indeed the North West is the North West – and Regional Television output does need to reflect the regional affiliation of viewers and reflect their Regional Identity better!

A small part of north-east Cumbria benefits from having NorthEast based TV.

This article was originally written on 26th March 2018, but has been amended for today.

Dear Readers

There is a small part of north-east Cumbria close to the border with Northumberland and County. Durham which is not really in the NorthWest of England since their local rivers drain eastwards into the River Tyne or the River Tees:  Either that these locations are close to the major catchment-divide between North East and North West and cities and towns in North East England are within an hours’ drive and (in a number of cases) within 20 miles away.  The towns and villages of north-east Cumbria to which this set of circumstances applies- where rivers drain eastwards rather than west- include Nenthead, Alston, Garrigill, Midgeholme, Tindale, Coalfell along with a few farms several miles to the east of Brough close to the County Durham border.  In addition there are a number of communities within 20 miles’ drive of towns such as Middleton-in-Teesdale, Stanhope, Haltwhistle and Hexham (all in the NorthEast)- this would be considered really local to places such as Brough, Brampton, Warwick Bridge, Wetheral, Gilsland and Castle Carrock.  Together this makes up a sizeable number of locations, with a total population exceeding 20,000 people for whom events in Haltwhistle, Hexham or Middleton in Teesdale would be much more local than events in Keswick, Maryport or Cockermouth in West Cumbria (let alone Preston or Lancaster).

It is conceivable, therefore, that folk living in Alston, Brough or Brampton would not derive much benefit from being in a special Cumbria-only sub-region because they would lose coverage of locations across the border into Northumberland or County Durham that they would go to for shopping, visiting friends, going to auction marts (please bear in mind that many people living in these rural parts of north-east Cumbria will be farmers) or going to a pub-lunch. Furthermore, owing to the geographical situation it is in, the area Nenthead and Alston in the Cumbrian Pennines receive television programming from the Pontop Pike transmitter near Gateshead and not from the Caldbeck transmitter- so as things stand they could not receive NorthWest Regional Programming even if northern Cumbria was switched to receive a new NorthWest Television service dedicated just to Lancashire, Cumbria and the Isle of Man (not that folk living on Alston Moor would ask for it either)!

These areas of north-east Cumbria are the only areas that actually benefit from being in a North-East based Television Region; provided of course the regional news ensures rural areas of County Durham, the Tyne Valley and northern Cumbria were covered well. It is of benefit to these areas if they remain in the BBC (NorthEast/ Cumbria) Region, but that benefit is not very tangible if the Regional news-programming mainly focuses on the urban areas of Tyneside, Teesside and Wearside.  The regional programming has similarities to that of the North-West programming in that the urban areas are covered extensively along with Sport (which folk in towns and cities like) and little room is made for coverage of their rural hinterlands.  Northern Northumberland gets little coverage and viewers there do not get to find out about sitiations just a few miles over the Scottish Border, because of the cut-off in programming at the northern edge of the transmission area; this cuts through communities like Coldstream, Cornhill-on-Tweed and the areas around Berwick-upon-Tweed. Viewers in South Cumbria have similar issues with BBC North-West Tonight and ITV Granada Reports when they give little coverage of the area and no coverage of events further north into Cumbria!

Communities in the north-east of Cumbria, to the east of Carlisle, are within an hours’ drive of Newcastle and also Gateshead Metro Centre- to which folk can easily get on the train. People in north-east Cumbria go there for major shops, travel to hospital there and go that way en route to the airport (either to pick family and friends up/ take them to the airport- or to go on holiday themselves). People living in the above-mentioned communities of north-east Cumbria will also have family-members and friends living in Newcastle, western County Durham or in Gateshead who live within an hours’ drive.  It follows that folk in these areas have an interest in what goes on in those areas, probably more than what goes on in South or West Cumbria.

If it is deemed that northern Cumbria would benefit from opt-out programming of northern Cumbria in a new BBC North-West Region, this is not something likely to be of benefit to those in the very north-east of the county; infact it is something likely to anger them.  The relay-transmitters should then be tweaked to ensure these parts of north-east Cumbria continue to receive North-East Television output:  The onus then is on BBC Look North (North-East/ Cumbria) to provide more coverage of the more rural northern and western parts of their transmission area, with overlap into those parts of Cumbria no longer receiving their programming and northwards into the Scottish Borders.

As one travels westwards across northern Cumbria there is a transition in how regional output from (and largely about) the North-East of England is received by the local communities:  East of Carlisle, folk have an interest in what goes on in the North-East and will tend to watch BBC Look North, but west of the city there is comparatively little interest in any news-coverage that does not concern Cumbria. Viewers in Carlisle and Penrith- and points west watch ITV Border with its flagship evening news programme Lookaround; the English version of which covers Cumbria very well but (with the exception of the odd story about Berwick on Tweed or the western Tyne Valley around Haltwhistle in Northumberland) does not cover the North-East except for the joint Tyne-Tees-Border news in the mornings and at at weekends.  Most viewers of regional news west of Carlisle find coverage about the North-East of England something to be tolerated rather than appreciated.  By the time you reach Whitehaven, Egremont and south as far as Shap the fact that the BBC Regional news-service comes from (and is 85% about) North-East England will be positively infuriating.

However, this does not mean any part of northern Cumbria would want to be transferred to the BBC North-West Region as is; it was tried between October 1986 and September 1991 and it caused uproar.  Viewers in northern Cumbria are even less interested in 90% Manchester, Liverpool and Cheshire than 85% North-East being at the exclusion of their area.  The correct solution is for a new BBC North West Region covering just Lancashire, Cumbria and the Isle of Man, with two opt-outs for the Isle of Man and also for northern Cumbria within the main bulletins.  It is also possible that northern Cumbria could get opt-out programming from BBC North-East, although western Cumbria and immediately south of Penrith certainly identifies more as North-West and this would need to be reflected in opt-out programming with some (about 10%) overlap coverage southwards over Lancashire and northwards over the Scottish Borders.

However northern Cumbria receives new programming, some relay-transmitters need tweaking so that parts of north-east Cumbria interested in getting North-East news can continue to do so.

Ian Pennell