The Scoop

London has chosen its mayor, but why can’t it choose its own media?

Darryl Chamberlain | Thursday 17 May, 2012 10:57

The most frustrating thing about the mayoral election result wasn’t the result. It wasn’t the waiting, either. It was the coverage.

There can’t be many places in the world where an election in which the winner gets one million personal votes, and gets to play with a multi-billion pound budget, has to jostle with news of far away provincial polls. It certainly wouldn’t happen in New York, where TV channel NY1 tracks mayor Michael Bloomberg’s every move.

But that was what happened in London. With no dedicated TV channel of our own, we were forced to rely on Sky and the BBC for updates from City Hall, who interspersed it with reheated soundbites from elections elsewhere, sports updates, newspaper reviews and a whole Ten O’Clock News.

Worse still, the BBC dimmed its own local TV stars – political editor Tim Donovan and presenter Riz Lateef – and shoehorned national big gun Jon Sopel in front of the camera. Sopel’s a great journalist where it comes to Westminster politics – but a tourist at City Hall, and it showed.

If you wanted to know your own local results, you were out of luck.

The decline of local media’s been well documented elsewhere, but it’s been felt hard in London, where some boroughs don’t even have a paid-for weekly newspaper. It affected an election where policies and sensible debate hardly got a look-in for all the personality clashes and mudslinging.

It hasn’t always been this way. Once, the Thames TV skyline and LWT’s river-inspired ribbons left you in no doubt you were watching ITV in London, with both stations producing hours of local journalism, discussion and entertainment. Meanwhile Capital Radio was just that – radio for the capital.

But now both of those have been swallowed up into bland nationwide brands, with local news an afterthought. The BBC picked up some of the slack by creating BBC London News a decade ago, but it’s woefully underfunded compared to its counterparts in Wales and Scotland, who cover far fewer people with far bigger budgets and much more airtime. In addition, local TV news in London has always rated lower as fewer people are at home by 6pm to tune in.

Worse still, the BBC’s snobbery about “local news” meant when BBC London had a genuine scoop – about Boris Johnson’s links with News International, and the resulting on-camera outburst – the national bulletins stayed well clear of it, denying the story the audience it deserved.

So London never really saw its election through its own eyes – instead, it got a narrow Westminster village vision of the toff versus the tax-avoider, a black and white view of an election of varying hues.

Would Ken’s energy co-op have been a goer? Can Boris be as good as his word on creating apprenticeships? Would Brian Paddick have been a great police reformer ? All questions that should have been asked, but weren’t.

There may be much more media around us than 20 or 30 years ago, but opportunities to hear or read serious discussion about our city have declined. We don’t even have a serious daily newspaper covering London issues any more, after the Evening Standard spent a second election slavishly backing Boris.

In a sharply-divided city, such uncritical support for either candidate means kissing goodbye to your credibility – but backing the winner probably gets owner Evgeny Lebedev into a few more parties.

Worse still for the Standard, it largely ignored the growing story of cyclists’ safety, presumably because it was a weak issue for Boris.

Instead, it was championed by The Times after a journalist at the national title was seriously hurt riding to work. This was a story the Standard should have owned – instead, it was The Times who organised a hustings on the issue and pushed forward the debate, leaving the tired old Standard looking irrelevant once again.

Can the web ever fill the gap? Londonist’s fact-checking stories scored hits, while Mayorwatch, Snipe and newcomer The Big Smoke also ran election stories. But we’re all small fish in a pond dominated by some big names.

The Guardian is best placed to fill the gap, but seems reluctant to create a “London” section to give a home to its excellent London writer Dave Hill and the various comment and analysis pieces. Instead its capital coverage spills out across the site, annoying northerners and diluting its impact. The Telegraph could do the same, while the BBC’s London web coverage badly needs the love and investment its counterparts in Wales and Scotland get.

With Ken digging up the garden and Boris presumably off to hunt a bigger prize, the next mayoral election will bring a new, lesser-known cast of characters to the London stage. The era of the celebrity mayor may well be over – making it much more vital that London develops its own media to cover it. Are we up to the challenge?

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