Earlier this week, I read yet another article – this time from BBC News – on my hometown of Middlesbrough. It begins with a question: does Middlesbrough deserve its unenviable reputation?
“Middlesbrough, an industrial town on England’s north-east coast, gets a bad press…But, despite the drawbacks, residents – known as “Smoggies” – are determined their home town is somewhere to be proud of.”
As the writer points out, Middlesbrough often appears at the bottom of lists for issues such as unemployment, health and education. Apparently it’s the worst place in the country to grow up if you’re a girl. And there I was thinking I turned out okay…
It is also home to the highest proportion of asylum seekers in the country. And don’t forget the infamous report from those experts on Location, Location, Location, who declared the town the worst place to live in the UK.
It would be pointless to deny that Middlesbrough, like many former industrial towns, has a bad reputation nationally. And yes, parts of it are deserved. Like any big town it has social issues and deprivation, in places.
But the media is responsible for using the same old clichés. Every article about the town features endless photographs of cooling towers or derelict terraces, with depressing statistics that are enough to make you shudder.
And for all the BBC frames their piece as something to counter the usual negative media stereotypes, it does little but reinforce them.
If you believe the article, Middlesbrough is full of unemployed racists, teenage mothers and drug addicts, people reduced to scooping coins out of the fountain because they can’t be arsed to go to work.
Frankly, if you’re going to interview people in any town centre on a week day, who do you expect to find?
Of course there will be a disproportionate amount of unemployed or retired people, or those out of work due to ill health. The people with jobs are busy in their offices, schools and factories, making money to pay their mortgages, contribute to taxes and even (shock!) spend on hard earned luxuries like holidays and giant televisions.
Every word of this article feels like another sly dig at the town and its people, while the writer pretends to genuinely question the prevailing sentiment found in other news pieces of this kind.
True to form, it’s also filled with the same pictures of empty houses and industry that the writer earlier derides.
Where are the photographs of Nunthorpe, Marton and Acklam, the places they note contain “the roomy executive homes”? What about Bedford and Baker Streets, which have undergone regeneration in recent years and are now full of artisanal businesses, trendy cafes and micro pubs – they get a mention in the article too.
But these things don’t support the narrative the media likes to spin around Middlesbrough. Including photographs of them might show another side to the town.
Let me do that for you.
This is Middlesbrough too. There are green spaces, trees, respectable suburban homes. It isn’t just crumbling chemical plants and shabby street houses. Of course, those things exist, but they don’t define this town.
There are so many people here working hard to improve the area and promote it. There are fantastic institutions like Teesside University and Digital City, or mima, the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, or the great team at Love Middlesbrough.
Many people in this town have a fantastic quality of life, thanks to the lower house prices and the proximity to beautiful countryside. There are some brilliant schools that work hard to educate their students and give them every opportunity to succeed in life. Far from being a town that stifles opportunity, Middlesbrough has produced people who have gone on to become teachers, lawyers, doctors, musicians, TV presenters, engineers and professional sportsmen.
And there are just as many regular, hard-working people who support their families and live fulfilled lives, albeit far away from the bright lights of London.
I recently attended a conference at Teesside University on digital communications, where I heard a shocking statistic on employment in the North East: there are too many jobs in the area. That’s right, the digital industries have grown massively in recent years, but employers in the sector find it hard to fill their vacancies because of a skills gap.
So if our schools and universities can address some of these issues, there might be a brighter future for the area’s employment prospects. Middlesbrough is already becoming a town that encourages start-ups and small businesses, if this continues it can only help the area.
But our efforts will only truly succeed if we can change the perception of this town.
This website receives so many visits from people searching Google for terms like ‘is Middlesbrough a dump’ or ‘is it safe to visit Middlesbrough?’
Would you ask if it was safe to visit Newcastle, Manchester or Leeds? Why should Middlesbrough be any different?
And that brings us squarely back to media representation. If we’re always portrayed as a town of drug addicts and benefit scroungers, it’s no wonder people are reluctant to come here.
So instead of trotting out the same tired clichés about parmos and opposition to asylum seekers, maybe journalists could try producing a piece of positive journalism that interviews some of the passionate voices that can be found in this town, that belong to people who are keen to make a difference.
I’m a Smoggie, and yes, I’m determined that my town is somewhere we can be proud to call home.
Image credit: pictures 6, 7, 8 and 9 are featured with permission from the lovely @borolou.