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Why the London media is struggling to catch up with mayors

Why the London media is struggling to catch up with mayors

🕔08.Apr 2012

Apart from that train wreck of a debate, a mayoral issue of much wider significance to the non-London population emerged from Newsnight this week.

The status of independent mayoral candidates, and particularly how they are represented on the mainstream media could prove a tricky issue for a London-centric media that defines its coverage purely in party political terms.

Independent London candidate Siobhan Benita complained – with not a little justification – that the system was rigged against her because the networks don’t understand how mayoral elections are entirely different beasts to general and normal local elections.

She and other minor league candidates were sidelined while the Labour, Tory, Lib-Dem and Green candidates battled it out in the live TV debate.

She told The Guardian:

“I feel like I am banging my head against a brick wall of institutions that are adverse to change, slow to adapt and scared to embrace difference,”

She’s getting the same treatment from the other main broadcasters, and OFCOM is no help either, says The Guardian:

 The Ofcom guidelines state: “Due weight must be given to the coverage of major parties during the election period. Broadcasters must also consider giving appropriate coverage to other parties and independent candidates with significant views and perspectives.”

That’s all very well if the assumption is that local elections obediently follow the party political lines laid down at Westminster.

Or, as Jonathan Freedland, put it yesterday:

The cognoscenti have long disparaged local government, disdaining it as at best a mere stepping stone to Westminster, rather than a democratic space in its own right. That attitude will be on show again next month, when local election results are read simply as a glorified opinion poll on the state of the parties in Westminster.

But if there’s one thing we know already about mayoral races, it’s that they often refuse to fall in to line with that assumption. As Chris Game has pointed out on this blog before, mayoral elections have a habit of overturning even entrenched party voting habits, as electorates concentrate on the individual and their message, rather than the party line.

So what can we expect of the broadcasters and rest of the national media in the run-up to May and beyond?

They’re at least beginning to show an interest in political life outside of London, especially with Liam Byrne’s entry into Birmingham’s mayoral contest, but this only illustrates their dependence on ‘big hitter’ names. The subtleties of local politics and how voters behave remains beyond their grasp – witness their abject failure to foresee Bradford’s by election result last month.

The national media will attempt to catch up, and will in many cases outshine some local media coverage, but they will struggle to get to grips with the new political realities ushered in by the Coalition’s Localism agenda.

As Freedland pointed out:

The mayor will be in charge of a £2bn budget, with executive clout few cabinet ministers can match. He or she will be responsible for everything from social services to schools, local planning to street lighting, with a big say over fire services and transport. The new mayor will have greater power over Birmingham than Boris and Ken have ever wielded in London.

But will that be enough to put Birmingham’s mayoral candidates – independents and all – in the Newsnight studio for a full on Brummie mayor debate?

I’ll abseil down the Rotunda if it is.

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