Journalists on safari: The North is a foreign country, they do things differently there

Does a Northern town exist if John Harris hasn't visited it with a camera crew?

Pictured above, Sky News conducts a vox pop in Doncaster.

I lived in the north for a year-or-so, staying with my parents in the ‘happy valley’ — Bollington — just on the outskirts of Macclesfield, the impressively grey home of Joy Division, which is happy to let Manchester claim them. I don’t presume to have special knowledge of a swathe of the country that houses up to 25% of the UK population — over 15 million people — but I do at least know that media caricatures of coal-dusted misanthrope racists are just that caricatures.

Manchester, for example, with its vibrant gay village, incredible music, art, and startup scenes, defies easy categorisation and the same can be said for Newcastle, Sunderland and Sheffield among many others. But if you read London-based journalists opining on ‘The North’, you’ll discover their insights are often the product of day trips, half-remembered viewings of Boys From The Black Stuff, and sheer flights of fantasy.

Let’s take a little look at a recent example from the former Muttley to Guido Fawkes’ Dick Dastardly, the most famous cuckold not to have his own PornHub channel — that we know of — and Political Editor of The Sun, Harry Cole, responding to the following tweet by the FT’s Jim Pickard:

The invention of the Red Wall — an electoral term for traditionally Labour-held seats that the party needed to hold but which were mostly lost to the Tories in the rout of 2019 — has been a tedious development in ‘The North Thinks…” discourse. I preferred Red Wall went it referred to surprisingly adept animals in armour eating vast banquets, rather than simplistic understandings of how people beyond the Watford Gap, beyond the Wall and the reach of the sleepy Watch running the Lobby, think of politics, politicians and, well, just about anything really.

Yesterday’s papers delivered another classic example of how the London media talk about working class people in particular as Caitlin Moran continued her lifelong mission of cosplaying working class culture long beyond the time when she had any purchase in that world:

I didn’t grow up on a council estate. I grew up on a private estate very close to a council estate and that description has no connection to where several of my friends lived. My dad did grow up on a council estate — one of five children — and his descriptions of his youth have a plain bleakness that is far from the rabelaisian aesthetic beloved of Ms Moran, who has made over-writing into an artform.

Of course, Caitlin Moran is just being light-hearted but her piece has the same poverty tourist tendency that was found in shows like Benefits Street and which underpins exercises like The Guardian’s continued video output where it dispatches John Harris to somewhere in the North to discover just what the primitive inhabitants of those godforsaken places, places that the overwhelmingly privately-educated hacks at the Graun could not imagine living in, even if they themselves were once from the North.

Working class people and working class people in the North, in particular, are as heterodox as any other class demographic, but the media is obsessed with interviewing Wetherspoons patrons and former miners. A young, gay, graphic designer who grew up on a council estate and still doesn’t make regular money or have a stable job, relying instead on freelance work and even the gig economy, would not fit the media vision of the Northern working class and certainly wouldn’t be included in a TV report designed to emphasise the ‘bleakness’ of a former industrial town.

‘The North’ and ‘The North’s concerns’ are useful cudgels to bludgeon politicians with. They are weapons for political journalists to highlight how whichever leader or specific MP they don’t currently like is catering to “North London not the Red Wall towns of the North”. The fact that the North London trope is a dog whistle to antisemites gets very little play. Instead, we’re expected to think the journalists who are so inside the Westminster bubble you could be forgiven for thinking that exposure to the air in Rotherham would kill them are in fact experts on Kremlinology about crumbling former mining communities.

I chose Rotherham as an example specifically because, having said that the paper should look at what people in the town think, I was commissioned by The New European to write a piece about it. I never filed. After going up on the train from Norfolk — another place that is baffling to the London media besides as a place where they have holiday homes — I spent a whole day mooching around the pubs of Rotherham talking to people and making notes.

My conclusion was that the piece I’d write — about people let down by the government in London, the EU project, and politicians in general, would not work for that paper. I arrived in Rotherham as a remainer and I left as one, but the reporting gave me a sense — however limited — of how left-behind many people in Rotherham felt and probably still feel.

I couldn’t in good conscience file a piece that would have felt exploitative, like a safari in some other people’s misery. So I took the hit for the cost of the train ticket and other expenses like copious pints bought to give me the right to chat with men sitting in the pub at 11am. I could ill afford not to claim those expenses back, but having spent my twenties writing things that did not always reflect my views or best instincts, I’m done with filing copy for the sake of it. And, as my mother says, nothing is ever wasted. I’m finally telling a part of the Rotherham story I never published here in my newsletter where I have full control over how it’s framed.

Do you know what The New European should have done when I pitched the Rotherham piece? Let me write my sketch and hire someone from Rotherham to write theirs. In those two perspectives — the outside and the insider — we might have got something that came close to representing at least a kind of truth about a town that has been so often misrepresented by fly-by-night journalist visitors like me. But that wasn’t the idea that got floated and so the feature I wrote and scrapped will never see the light of day. I feel like I made the right choice.