1. Social
July 2, 2018

The moors are literally on fire – so why does London still look the other way?

By Jonn Elledge

Here are a few of the things that, at time of writing, the BBC News website believes to be more important stories than a week-long wildfire burning in the outskirts of one of England’s biggest cities: some football; some tennis; the death of the woman who choreographed the musical Cats; the breakdown of the relationship between Cheryl Cole and Liam Payne. Although I’m told the story had more prominence yesterday, there is nothing I can see on the front page of BBC News, either on the app or online, to communicate the fact that a large chunk of land near Manchester is currently on fire.

The fire on Saddleworth Moor, outside Oldham, began on Sunday 24 June, and was declared a major incident two days later. Six days after that, it’s still burning. More than 100 people have been evacuated from their homes; four schools have been closed due to the smoke.

On Thursday a second fire started to the north of Manchester, and on Friday a third. Now there are only two fires again – not because one has been extinguished, but because two have merged into one big fire. At any rate, a major incident on the edge of one of England’s major cities is into its sixth day and it’s not on the front of the BBC website.

I don’t mean to pick on the BBC here – the corporation has enough problems. But it’s as good a way as any to get a sense of what London views as important, and it’s pretty clear that the moors fires don’t make the cut.

Less clear is why that might be. The number of people evacuated is small – but the number otherwise affected is orders of magnitude bigger and, anyway, this country is not in the habit of evacuating people due to wildfires. That we have started seems like quite a big deal to me. And while it’s true that nobody has, so far, died, the same can be said of Cheryl Cole’s romantic history, and she’s still getting the space.  

The standard explanation for this is that the British media is London-centric, but I’m not convinced that’s enough. For one thing, it’s not so much explaining the problem as coming up with a different word for it. For another – while this is hard to quantify – it definitely feels as if, when large chunks of California were hit by wildfires last autumn, the British media wasn’t quite so disinterested. Those were quite a bit bigger, and caused greater loss of life, but nonetheless: California is a very long way from London.

So I don’t think London-centrism is the whole explanation here: I think it might be symptom, as much as cause.

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The centre vs the periphery

In the US, they have a term: “flyover states”. It’s a patronising way of talking about the bits of the US that lie between the east and west coasts – or, more specifically, between the north east megalopolis and California. The clear implication is that things that happen in those places – New York and Washington, L.A. and San Francisco – matters. The things that happen in between? Not so much. 

This is a shitty way to talk about more than half a major country, obviously – but it’s also not entirely wrong. Each of those cities I just listed is a major centre for at least one form of power; Des Moines, Iowa, whatever its qualities, isn’t. So, if you want to know what’s going on in the world, it makes sense to pay more attention to what’s happening in San Francisco or L.A. than you to do to Des Moines. Culturally, if not geographically, California is central; Iowa is peripheral.

The problem with all this is that it’s self-perpetuating. Because people want to know what’s happening in California, there’s a whole infrastructure dedicated to telling them: at the most basic level, when major news breaks on the west coast, it’s more likely that cameras will be pointed at it, and more likely people beyond the region will notice. As I write, there are two of the most serious category of wildfires underway in the US. It is far more probable you’ve heard about the one outside San Francisco than the one outside Denver. 

London-centrism is, I think, another form of this phenomenon. It’s not quite true that the British media only cares about stuff that happens in London – but it’s certainly true we tend to pay more attention to places where rich and powerful people are likely to be, and underplay stuff in places where they aren’t; and while central Manchester may have nosed its way into the first category, the outskirts of its conurbation definitely haven’t. A wildfire burning on the outskirts of Oxford would, I’d guess, be getting a lot more attention than Saddleworth. Oxford is central; Saddleworth is peripheral.

No, I don’t know how to fix this

Winter Hill, near Bolton: this too is now a major incident. Image: Getty.

All this is messed up, in several different ways. One is that it guides political, as much as media, attention: the government can ignore the Northern rail crisis and even threaten to cancel electrification, again, because it knows the chattering classes are all looking the other way.

Another is that it means we miss things. Both Donald Trump and Brexit were phenomena that seemed to come out of a clear blue sky – because, I think, they sprang in large part from bits of the world the media had grown used to ignoring. The last two years of attempts to reframe previously peripheral places as “the real world”, and ensure that every racist former steel-worker in the English-speaking world gets his own chat show, is, I think, a guilty over-reaction to the fact we messed it up the first time round. 

I’ve long advocated devolution as the solution to this country’s London-centrism – but across the Atlantic, power in the US is pretty widely dispersed, and the US media still manages to ignore most of the US. So perhaps the solution is simpler. Perhaps it’s just that stories have to impact us directly before we’ll start paying attention. We’re ignoring the fire now – but you can be damn sure we’ll sit up and notice when the smoke gets to Milton Keynes.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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