A different kettle of fish in Salford? BBC MediaCityUK row rumbles on as scandals and complaining staff continue

By Todd Fitzgerald

As the BBC’s move to Salford Quays remains embroiled in controversy, MM asks whether prejudice is rife among those formerly established in London?

For many BBC staff, the migration north to MediaCityUK may have been a welcome relocation, but for others, it was a deal breaker.

The broadcaster has invited scandal in the press, with opinion mixed as to whether genuine prejudice exists among stars, and the extent to which the media has manufactured a row.

A leaked memo revealed that staff were offered security ‘escorts’ to take them to their cars – no more than 200 yards away; with Rhian Roberts, head of development for 5 Live and Sports Extra, branding the site a ‘different kettle of fish’ to their former Shepard’s Bush home.

Later the same week, Radio 5 live’s Rachel Burden made a sarcastic jibe about Salford, while co-presenting the channel’s early morning show. Interviewing world champion cyclist Laura Trott, who had left her medals in her car, Burden quipped: “You left them in your car? Around here?”

A spokesman for BBC North, said of Burden’s comment: “During a light-hearted moment at the end of the interview, an off-the-cuff remark was made. No offence was intended and we’re sorry if anyone was upset.”

Not strong enough? Then how about the thoughts of motor mouth Jeremy Clarkson?

Last summer, the presenter said he would rather quit his job at Top Gear than relocate to Salford. In his Sunday newspaper column, he branded the city as ‘a small suburb with a Starbucks and a canal with ducks on it’; and said that if the show were run from Salford, local employees would handicap its progress.

He said: “Every year we’d end up making a Christmas special from the Dog and Duck.”

From sarcastic digs, to over the top insults, Salfordians have been left embarrassed by comments, and for most, the joke isn’t funny anymore.

Salford councillor and Conservative group leader, Karen Garrido, blasts what she insists is prejudice towards the city, and the north.

She said: “I would rather be on Salford Quays than in Shepherd’s Bush. They never wanted to come here in the first place these people, we just have to accept that – they do have a problem with Salford.

“You’re here now. Get on with it, learn to live with it.”

So do security concerns of BBC bosses represent a misguided paranoia, or a naïve concern in a new city?

According to a recent request under the Freedom of Information Act made to GMP, there have been a number of crimes against BBC staff in the last year, including a producer being chased by four youths trying to steal bikes from staff and a worker being shot with an air rifle.

Thefts include laptops, iPads and mobile phones; and less than a month ago, masked men stormed a security van outside the BBC building.

However, Salford is no more dangerous than the organisation’s former W12 postcode  that’s according to the latest police statistics.

Figures show that the crime rate in W12 is ‘high’, at 34.44 per 1,000 people; while M50, MediaCityUK’s postcode, has a rate of only 13.64 – only ‘above average’. Prejudice it seems then, is altogether unsubstantiated.

The BBC has seen its new home increasingly become a bone of contention, with many stars refusing to commit to the move, preferring to commute or resign altogether. Some have taken this as an indication of underlying prejudice towards the city.

The corporation’s North director, Peter Salmon, courted controversy when he announced he would be renting a flat close to the site, at the expense of the licence fee payer.

He insisted that as a temporary measure, it was a means to an end in preventing the disruption of his children’s education.

Sian Williams also hosted her last BBC Breakfast show recently, after refusing to uproot her family in the move to Salford.

Chris Hollins, the programme’s sports presenter, claimed that the move was politically motivated and similarly refused to relocate.

He said: “What is most disappointing is that I don’t think it’s an economic decision or an editorial decision; it’s merely a political decision.”

It’s not difficult to see why some have been quick to highlight what they perceive as southern prejudice, especially considering the reality of crime statistics.

As yet, however, there have been few defending the BBC in the press.

It’s all too easy to accept recent revelations simply at face value, and it is fair to say that the organisation has been offered no substantial right of reply.

Speaking to Quays News, Ken Lee, human resources director of BBC North, aims to set the record straight, insisting there simply isn’t a row to be had, and that comments have been gravely misinterpreted.

He said: “I think the ’kettle of fish’ quote is a really good instance of how one sound bite can grab the headlines and be open to massive misinterpretation.

“I’ve spoken to Rhian Roberts, and what she was referring to was the fact that in our London complex, the staff car parks were within a secure perimeter fence, whereas our layout here is a lot more open.

“She meant that the layout was a ‘different kettle of fish’.

“The quote was then interpreted as a reference to Salford as a whole being massively different than West London. That was a shame, considering we’ve made such a significant investment to be closer to our northern audience.

“For an email to staff reminding them of personal safety measures to suddenly turn into this furore, is actually damaging to us and the city itself – perhaps other media organisations should consider that.”

He also maintains that for those who chose not to uproot, the decision was not taken likely, nor was it rooted in any degree of prejudice towards the north.

He said: “When London staff couldn’t viably move up north, it was reported in the press as if they were throwing their arms up saying ‘I couldn’t possibly move there’.

“The point that is so often missed is that if people weren’t willing to make the move, it was most likely that they would no longer work for the BBC.

“To make such a significant career decision based on some sort of prejudice towards the north would just not have happened.

“Those people’s decisions went far deeper than a north-south divide – it was too important for snobbery to be a factor.

“When we announced the move to Salford, every single northern stereotype was taken for a walk in the press, and we accepted that as inevitable.

“We’ve spent a long time trying to give our staff a really balanced view of the north as a place to live and work, and they have nothing but good things to say.”

John Merry, former leader of Salford council, is also keen to play down the row, insisting that there is no issue of prejudice towards the city.

He said: “This is just scaremongering. It is not unusual for complexes like MediaCityUK to have high levels of security, whether they’re in Salford, London or any other city.

“I think the reports of any kind of prejudice have been exaggerated. I’ve spoken to many BBC staff, and for them, in terms of having greater access to facilities and a better quality of life – they’re more than happy in Salford.”

He insists that some publications have sought to sensationalise the issue, in an effort to curry local favour.

He said: “It is obviously the case that the MEN have tried to be seen as sticking up for Salford; but I do think they’ve tried to manufacture a row about it.

“One careless phrase in an email might make an interesting story, but the vast majority of staff at the BBC are happy and there is really no debate to be had. The same memo, sent out in Shepard’s Bush wouldn’t have even been noticed.”

The topic was high on the agenda at the recent Salford mayoral hustings, with candidates overwhelmingly defending Salford’s suitability as a home for the organisation and condemning the ‘patronising and untrue’ comments, to quote Liberal Democrat candidate, Norman Owen.

But it would be former MP for Eccles, Ian Stewart, now Salford’s mayor, who would take to task the media for the alleged creation of a non-existent debate.

Speaking after the event, he said: “That email was put out 12 months ago when the BBC first moved here. To manufacture a comparison between Salford and London, as if it were now, is wrong.

“It was a naïve comment, made in the opening few weeks of the move. There was no malice behind it.

“It’s rich of the media to sensationalise that.”

Similarly, Michael Tabner, who runs the independent MediaCityUK blog, says some media outlets have been guilty of exploiting the age old cliché of a north-south rivalry, in an effort to pull in readers.

He said: “The press knows how to stir the pot and is successfully tapping into some anti-BBC sentiment. It is hardly surprising that they see the story as a kind of microcosm for the north-south divide.

“It plays to people’s stereotypical views of southerners versus northerners, and allows people to question the expense and reasoning behind the MediaCityUK move at a time of economic austerity.”

It’s clear then, that opinion is mixed. For some, throw away comments and misinterpreted internal emails do not constitute prejudice towards the city.

But as long as comments like Burden’s are made on a national platform, there will always be those who feel a condescending laugh is being had at Salford’s expense.

The BBC maintains it is committed to its northern expansion, insisting the move has been nothing but positive.

As for security concerns, it must be noted that MediaCityUK is a public space. It’s not surprising that the BBC would try to make their staff feel safe. Did they go about it in completely the wrong way? You be the judge.

Whether the media have looked to promote an anti-BBC bandwagon remains up for debate.

Either way, one thing is certain – the corporation belongs to us all, and will remain rooted in Salford for a long time to come.

A different kettle of fish? You bet it is. And it’s swimming with opportunity.

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