The City Leader: Margaret Eaton
Margaret Eaton was the Leader of Bradford Council between 2000 and 2006. As the city’s political head at the time of the 2001 disturbances, Baroness Eaton found herself thrust into the international spotlight when the world’s media turned its attention to Bradford
How do you think the media, in general, perceives Bradford?
Unfortunately very negatively, although you do get the odd journalist who knows Bradford well and has some insight, but it’s quite rare to find that. When we had the dreadful riot in 2001, one of the local government trade press titles sent a journalist up who didn’t know the difference between Bradford, Burnley and Bolton… she had a completely false set of facts that were going to be a front page story in a very wide circulating magazine. It’s the north… it’s poverty, disaster, racism, somewhere belonging with a B… it didn’t matter. It was just a stereotypical place to her.
Given the seriousness of some of the incidents that have happened in Bradford, could we be accused of being a ‘thin skinned’ about some of the negative coverage?
Possibly, but if you look at our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, you can see that this is somewhere where people from all over the world have always been proud of and got on very well. Bradford has always had that cosmopolitan, buzzy feel, but also has very traditional trades that made it very wealthy. So it has a lot of important history that people still have in their hardware, if you like, and when people come along and only find negatives, it grates terribly when you know that there’s much more to be said about Bradford.
How do you think Bradford has been historically perceived outside the media narrative?
When I went to college down south, I recall the Principal saying to me, ‘You people from Bradford, you are all full of grit’, and you know it was meant as a great compliment. I think that’s probably true. Bradfordians are full of grit. They know the challenges, but they’re determined to sit down and put things right.
Do you feel like that perception has shifted somewhat over the last few decades?
I think obviously when you lose a major industry, like textiles, there’s a significant depressing feel, as we’ve seen with other major cities. I also go back to what I was saying about how we’ve always welcomed groups of people from all over. But I think when the perception is it’s only one large community that has more or less moved in, there’s this false impression that certain areas have been ‘taken over’, and that’s just not the case.
Who is responsible, at a national level, for distorting the facts about those community dynamics in Bradford?
I don’t think any one individual or organisation is doing that, so it’s hard to pinpoint, I suppose if you look at us, we’ve alway been able to do interesting things because we were not monocultural or duo-cultural, we’re from all over. If the perception that people wrongly get is that the traditional Bradfordian is the white man with a flat cap and the whippet, and everybody else is from Pakistan, that’s so false, but it’s what I think actually peddled quite often.
You’ve been at the heart of some of Bradford’s most infamous episodes. How did you deal with your high profile role during these times?
One of the things I’ll never forget is driving into town the Sunday morning after the 2001 riots, I came in along the route, and I was in tears all the way. Knowing how hard everybody was working across all communities on the Capital of Culture bid, it was about getting people to feel they had a communal belonging, and that then would be about giving the world a better impression of us… so knowing all that, and then driving into an absolute disaster zone, it was just heartbreaking.
What was the level of global interest like?
Full on. I had somebody email me from Bahrain and many other far away places. It was not a comfortable time or easy to deal with so much press. I tended to block the things that were uncomfortable or that I knew wouldn’t help. So if I started reading something that was, you know, writing us off, or calling it a racist riot, I would think, ‘Right, park that, it’s so wrong, so negative, so unhealthy, I need to ignore it and look at what the right thing to do is’.
Will the prevalence of social media help or hinder Bradford as it ties to sort fact from fiction?
Well I admit to being a Luddite, I don’t use Twitter or Facebook! It’s deliberate, because I would hate to think that we can inadvertently say things that distress people and do the rounds. I’m not happy with the way it has, in some cases, encouraged people to assign prejudices, whatever they may be. Whenever I read anything negative about Bradford in the national media, it provokes me very strongly. I am very fortunate in my current role.I now have opportunities help confront those negatives. I’m involved in a charity which is about getting people to live well together. It’s a very speedy process where people have ideas about what they can do to bring communities together and apply for a grant.
What could Bradford’s community leaders do to promote positive media images about the city?
I think that’s a tough one. I always understood that there were certain requirements for a journalist about being able to prove things and ensure accuracy about a story. I don’t know whether we are still in that territory. It seems to about what sells news rather than what’s right.