Mick Temple, Professor of Journalism and Politics
It’s over. We can all breathe a huge sigh of collective relief. The Stoke Central by-election and its importance to British and European politics, meant that the world’s media attention was for a few whirlwind weeks focussed on Stoke-on-Trent.
It was certainly an exciting time for commentators like me, and it should have been wonderful for us all. It offered a chance to showcase our city and display its many strengths, especially with the bid for UK City of Culture gathering momentum.
Instead, I’m left with a nasty taste which no amount of good ale will wash away.
Of the media, only our very local press and radio emerge with any credit from this campaign. The Sentinel, with its refusal to take sides (for example, correctly resisting efforts to exclude the BNP from its pre-election hustings debate) and its determination to display a nuanced picture of Stoke and its electorate, showed a commitment to serving the public which deserves praise.
The national and international media came with an agenda, one that Paul Nuttall appeared determined to play up to. We were the ‘Brexit capital of Britain’ – not actually true, but what does that matter in this age of, let’s use the new phrase that is already a cliché, ‘post-truth politics’.
And therefore, in the eyes of the ill-informed media pack, the people of Stoke are mostly an uneducated, ignorant, racist and bigoted bunch of white working class ‘chavs’.
Let me state this. Voting for Brexit is not synonomous with being a xenophobic, ill-educated bigot. Sadly, that view is felt by even some of the well-educated people I associate with, who really should know better.
There were many well-founded rational reasons for voting leave. By the way, I need to say here that on balance, I preferred to remain in the EU, but slandering those who thought otherwise is to insult the majority of our nation.
Anyway, that aside, the picture that was presented of a great city was wilfully negative. Every derelict building, crumbling kiln, boarded-up shop, overweight person and gloomy cliché was pulled out of the bag.
The vox pops made the broadcasters’ bias clear. For every reasonable and informed opinion offered, a dozen unprepossessing punters, many not even aware there was an election happening, filled our TV screens with the overwhelming impression that they represented the ‘true Stoke’.
From German TV to the BBC, to a pretty vile video piece by the Guardian’s John Harris – which he later apologised for (too late John) – a picture of a city I barely recognised was presented to the world.
The media were clearly hoping for a UKIP win, in order that two stories could be pursued – the death of Jeremy Corbyn and the triumph of UKIP in its ‘capital city’.
I was asked by one national media station to ‘stand by’ for a radio interview for Friday afternoon Drivetime, ‘depending on circumstances’. I replied, ‘you mean if UKIP win, you’ll want me, otherwise not’? Cue nervous laughter. No surprise that the interview was ‘stood down’ on Friday morning …
Whatever the merits or otherwise of UKIP, it’s no secret that most of Stoke’s institutions were grateful that UKIP lost, fearing further damage to the city’s reputation.
And most of the watching media felt let down that their picture of Stoke-on-Trent was confounded by the strong performance of the Conservatives and Labour’s win.
Our trust in the media is at an all-time low and for many Stokies that trust was not strengthened by the spin and misrepresentations presented in this by-election.