The Local Journalist: Richard Horsman
As the former news editor of Bradford’s main radio station (then Pennine Radio, now Pulse 1), Richard Horsman was often the first on scene during several high-profile incidents in the city from the 1990s onwards.
What is your relationship with Bradford and the media?
I was news editor of Pulse Radio from 1995 to 2002. Before that, I was a producer and journalist. I actually started in Bradford as a student in 1979 but stayed right the way through to 2002. I’m a Leeds lad, but my professional working life has been almost always in Bradford.
How has the media landscape in Bradford changed during the time you’ve worked here?
Locally, I think probably the biggest single change has been the diminution of the Telegraph & Argus newspaper. It used to be absolutely dominant. I mean, when I started my career against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper case and all these other huge crime stories, there were significantly more people producing [journalism] content. We had seven news reporters just at Pennine [Radio], and those numbers are just incomprehensible in this day and age.
What impact does that local media decline have on how a city communicates its news?
In terms of the number of people on the ground, actually covering what I will call ‘bread and butter’ reporting, the Telegraph & Argus is a shadow of its former self. They do a damn good job, and they still throw resources at the big stories. But I don’t think there is as much concentration on things like council meetings and court reporting. Some of those functions have recently been taken on by the new Local Democracy Reporters, and that might see a bit of a resurgence, but there is perhaps more of an emphasis now on getting an angle on a national story or filling the website with a lot of stuff which in my day we would regard as a puff piece.
Is this just a Bradford issue or illustrative of a wider global trend?
It’s endemic in the news industry. Every region in the country has suffered the same way. The London media are dominant, London sets the tone for the coverage of the regions, and Bradford is very often the victim.
Can you expand on what you mean by a ‘puff piece’?
A puff piece is when you are spoon fed a new release which has got content which is superficially attractive. It’s when there is no story other than that what has been created via an organisation seeking publicity. We’re also now talking about the negative lists, things like the ‘ten worst places to live in England’, that are specifically designed to generate social media outrage. It’s the kind of stuff I’d like to think that proper journalists are gatekeepers to exclude. The last thing you want to be doing in a local area is making people feel bad about their city. You don’t disguise actual bad news. you discuss frankly and forthrightly the issues of the day and you hold power to account.
Is this trend for PR-led news having an adverse effect on places like Bradford?
The idea of Bradford being the dumbest or dirtiest city in the country or whatever has no validity when you’re looking at a tiny sample size.It’s self selecting and it’s done purely in order to generate social media outrage and I think there is there is a whole industry now which is designed to get people angry. We are in a world now where the gatekeepers have been trampled, it’s no longer a question whether I decide what goes on the news in Bradford. The news is around us, it’s on Twitter, it’s on Facebook, it’s on Instagram.
What are some of the major Bradford stories of national significance that you’ve dealt with?
It’s the ones that everyone will recognise. I became a reporter around the time of the Bradford City fire disaster. That had a profound impact and put Bradford at the centre of a national agenda, I wouldn’t say in a negative way. I think there was very balanced reporting at the time. I think there was a lot of sympathy and there were issues around crowd safety that were addressed as a result. The big stories which did have negative impact were the two lots of riots in in 1995 and in 2001. In ‘95, I was one of the first reporters on the scene.
What can you tell us about the national media reaction to the disorder in the mid 1990s?
It became interesting to the national media at the point when it was clear that was actually a confrontation between police and youths going on. It was a legitimate story that there was a large disturbance with the police in one of Britain’s major cities, and it was justifiably the national lead at the time. But the way it all started, as seen through the eyes of a local reporter, was actually much less of a confrontational story than perhaps people would otherwise realise.
What sort of interactions have you had with people from the national media coming to Bradford to cover various stories?
I remember being on the Pennine news desk in the 1980s and getting a phone call from a Channel 4 news crew who were literally cruising the streets of Bradford and a reporter said to me, ‘Mate, we’re looking for some urban dereliction, we’ve been driving for half an hour and we can’t find any…’ I was a bit taken aback by this! ‘I said, ‘What are you looking for rats and kids rolling tarmac in the street?’ The reporter said, ‘Yeah, that kind of thing!’ He was so open about it! They had come to Bradford to get pictures of urban dereliction.
Why do you think the national media sees Bradford as such a rich territory for those kinds of stereotypes?
It comes about because journalists use a form of shorthand all the time in order to cope with big and complex stories. Bradford has unfortunately got itself on the wrong side of the equation, if you like. So if a journalist is looking for a negative image as part of a contrast piece, they will use Bradford as shorthand for deprivation, poverty, conflict, the list goes on…
How do you deal with people perpetuating negative stereotypes?
I think most people within Bradford know what it’s like. A lot of the strangeness or otherness that affects the national discourse when talking about things like race relations doesn’t apply here because we just get on with it. But we need to be seen. We need to be heard. I’m hopeful that with Channel 4 coming to the region, that it could become normal to show the kind of positive aspects of Bradford within national news.