An article in The Guardian newspaper at the weekend comparing the North East to the American city of Detroit has caused a storm on social media, with criticism featured over the last two days in The Journal. Here author Andy Beckett offers a defence of his article.
Last summer I started thinking about writing a piece on the North East. I had been reading warnings for a couple of years, notably from Nick Forbes of Newcastle City Council, that the region was being particularly harshly treated by the government’s spending cuts.
I was also interested in how the North East was doing economically, given Britain’s fragile recovery and a national economy increasingly and unhealthily dominated by the south-east. Finally, I was interested in how the North East felt politically, now that its MPs were largely Opposition backbenchers, rather than senior Government ministers, as an unusually high proportion had been during the New Labour era.
In August I suggested the article to the Guardian’s Weekend magazine, and it was commissioned. Over the autumn, I spent about a month reading books and official reports about the history of the North East and the state of the region now.
My role at the Guardian since I joined in 1997 has been to write quite heavily researched features, not opinion-driven or controversial pieces, and the approach I’ve tried to follow is to gather as many facts as possible, for as long as possible, before making my mind up about a subject at the last possible moment - when I actually write the piece.
In November and December, I made three trips to the North East. I already knew the region reasonably well, having first visited in 1983 and first reported on it in 1996, but I was surprised and saddened by how many struggling places I saw.
Several of my interviewees, without any prompting from me, compared the situation to Detroit. It was not a comparison that had ever occurred to me before, and I found it disturbing.
As a left-leaning writer for a left-leaning paper, I don’t look on poverty and urban decay, particularly when much of it has been caused by right-wing governments, with any pleasure.
But I also knew from my reading, and from telephone interviews that I had done in London, that parts of the North East were doing much better. I contacted the legendary local entrepreneur Tony Trapp, and the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, specifically so that I could tell some of these good news stories - and see whether they offered solutions to the region’s economic problems.
In late December I wrote the first draft of my piece. Solely for space reasons, it was cut by about a fifth, and both optimistic and pessimistic passages were squeezed out.
During the months afterwards, I updated the edited version to take account of the slightly improving economic news from the North East. It’s a shame that some of the people with strong opinions about my article appear not to have paid much attention to its extensive upbeat material.
But I accept that, overall, my piece is not a happy read. And I accept that people in the North East have more reasons than many Britons to feel aggrieved about how they have been treated by the power centres of the south-east, whether political or economic or journalistic.
What I don’t accept is that journalists from outside the North East have no right to come to the region and report things as they see them, however uncomfortable they may be to read. I hope I can visit the North East again some time, and write a more optimistic piece.
But maybe critics of my last one should consider whether that’s the only kind of journalism they want to read.