Hurray for Sollywood? Musings on the branding of MCUK Salford by Nigel Pivaro
I wonder if I am blessed or cursed by my memory of the Docks in their 60s heyday. The beautiful sleek red and white Manchester liners, their mighty superstructures proud above the dock wall gliding past the terraced streets was a common sight of rare beauty.
The Docks, Manchester Ship Canal, Trafford Park Industrial Estate - the intermodal transport hub par excellence of its day - provided the focus for many thousands who lived amidst its congested, smoky, polluted vibrancy. You smelt it, heard it, sweated it. In a way it owned us, but in return we felt ownership of it.
It was with that knowledge I attended the 'How Do' conference on The Impact of Media City last week and amidst the very polished presentations, films and panels that extolled the virtues of everything Media City, I confess to feeling Jeremiah-like, a lone voice challenging the 'on message' exaltations and announcements of BBC outreach projects, corporate additions to the complex of a Booths supermarket and a Prezzo restaurant.
Hitherto, men and boys from the neighbourhoods of Ordsall, Weaste, Old Trafford, Hulme, Greengate and Pendleton worked as dockers, sailors, tug pilots, engineers, builders, railway men, millers, drivers, shipwrights and more. Women were there too, shipping clerks, textile workers, clerical staff at the dock offices, the factories and mills allied to the Docks.
Further downstream along the maritime corridor from Eccles to Eastham, thousands more worked on or by the Ship Canal in industries that were located there because of it…
Forty years on, and 25 since the docks beyond Mode Wheel at Weaste ceased to be a port of any note, the company that ran and owned the Ship Canal has been bought in a fire sale and we have the office blocks and studio buildings of Sollywood…otherwise known as MediaCityUK (MCUK) with its tenants the BBC and soon to be followed by ITV and the Telegraph Group.
The hope is that MCUK will have an economic ripple effect across the north from Liverpool to Newcastle where 25 per cent of the BBC's license payers are located. Hailed as the most important coming since the establishment of Ford Motor Plant in 1911, I am not so sure. Notwithstanding an exaggerated significance attributed to Fords short term tenure in Trafford Park before moving south to Dagenham.
To put it in context the BBC move at the total cost of £877million in public funds will initially create only around 500 new jobs in the whole region, the rest being 1800 staff previously based in Manchester and London changing location at great expense.
In the short term, barring the 500 new BBC jobs, the only realistic dividend Greater Manchester and the North West Region will receive from the corp will be an increase in house prices mainly in the already affluent areas such as Didsbury, Chorlton, Wilmslow and Ramsbottom. The only areas to benefit in Salford are likely to be Worsley and, of course, the apartment blocks at Salford Quays.
There was much thoughtful talk from Malcolm Allan, a planning consultant, of the need for organic growth if the whole Media City project is to realise its full potential (the BBC, ITV etc is only the first phase 37 acres of a 200 acre development) and become a true media hub that can compete with similar models in Seoul, Dubai, Stockholm, Oslo and Berlin.
The fundamental flaw it seems here is that unlike organic media hubs such as Soho/ Clerkenwell, Tribeca, New York and Mediaspree Berlin, our version is a top down version dominated by one overarching land owning authority who have nether the desire, experience or vision to know organic creative growth if it rose up and bit them.
Peel Holdings are corporate and profit driven to the core and it's no use pretending they are anything else. And in my experience there is nothing creative individuals distrust and abhor more than the exec in a suit with pound signs in his pupils and a cash register in place of his soul.
The way Media City has been configured there is no real scope for the Mam and Dad cafes, restaurants, bars, grocers, shops that attract and sustain a vibrant population to a neighbourhood. The sort of places that make Berlin's Media Spree, Soho and Tribeca so attractive, contributing to their success. MediaCityUK is just not configured to accommodate that kind of low level economic development.
I raised this briefly with Peel's very slick head of communications Paul Newman "Yes of course there will be room for independents we have just signed up Booths." (a family run supermarket chain)
Yes but they are not exactly the corner shop are they? They are a super market chain…
Newman shuffling his notes with the confidence of a detective superintendent about to conclude a difficult case replied: "Yes but they are independent- they are a family run firm."
Oh, that's alright then.
Much was made of the need to create an organic brand for MediaCityUK to attract the next phases of development from beyond the corporate UK media giants of BBC and ITV Coronation Street. This is where historically visual creatives fall down in this country - for too long the industry has been in the hands of rich corporations who controlled the means of production and distribution.
Compare this to the music industry which since at least 1979 has been far more open to new talent with technology and a mindset to encourage production and distribution rather than stifle it.
This has made popular British music with a medium sized home market constant world leaders in their output, and guess what? It is a bottom up development that has been able to sidestep the corporate giants and coalesce with them when it suited.
Now for the first time a combination of cheaper camera equipment and the internet, the same evolution is happening with visual media.
So if you want to see what a real "organic" media city looks like then go no further than Islington Mill in Salford. One old mill oozing creativity from small film makers, scene builders, artists and musicians, a self contained cross fertilizing community.
The only way the BBC will be able to achieve anything of that order is via the various tick boxing publicly funded outreach programmes that BBC Chief Operating Officer, Alice Webb, described to the conference delegates with the help of some sugar frosted films.
Astoundingly there was very little said about the impact that Media City has had on the communities around it, something which the Salford Star has documented tirelessly over the years. We have documented whole areas 'socially cleansed' in readiness for the expected influx of higher income, middle class media types.
For the working class of Salford, The Docks was theirs, the aim surely of replacing the lost jobs from its shameful short sighted under investment should have been for their benefit. Not to play musical chairs with media professionals who already have employment in other cities.
A lone voice at the conference I enquired about these unfortunates of the broken and lost communities of Langworthy, Weaste and Ordsall. What, after all the upheaval and loss, was in it for them?
"Local people are being catered for, they are working in the Holiday Inn, the shops, restaurants, security…" stated Mr. Newman.
And is that what local people can expect is it? Ancillary jobs but not core professional jobs?
"What do want? Would you prefer if it was still a car park" replied Newman.
I countered `Of course I don't want to see it as a car park I have been working in the media for thirty years, I want to see Media City succeed, but I want it to be for the benefit of people in the neighbourhood and my concern is that it is not inclusive.'
Veteran political commentator Jim Hancock rounded on me, snapping like an elderly rottweiler who been woken from his slumber "Haven't you seen the film with all those kids in?"
`Of course I have, so what? The film is a small snapshot, it does not tell the story as we know it' I said.
In fact the intended heartwarming ten minute film showing cherubic ten year olds being shown the ropes in aspirational jobs such as radio reporter, cameraman, director...all but programme controller (got to save some jobs for the Tristans)... made me ill. Nothing the kids did, just the blatant manipulation on the part of the PR tick boxers...
...Especially when you know the reality is the experience of Salfordian would-be media worker, Dawn, who told me... "When I applied to the BBC and got through to the journalist pool I was thrilled but I have not heard anything since except for the odd generic email. I do not know what is happening now.
"I do not think there is much communication, and from my experience the people high up in Media City do not seem very approachable" she added "I have a good 2:1 and have done placements with ITV and a PR agency. There are students who work very hard through adversity to get where they are today. I can only hope that I eventually get an interview with the BBC."
That's not some year five pupil musing into a wistful future ten years on, it is a graduate ready and raring to go now this minute, four months after her initial application.
We shall see how the current job ready generation of graduates fair in the next year and if the BBC/ MCUK offers opportunities to local graduates and media professionals and stops the exodus from the North West.
My instinct is that it will not but we shall meet back at this subject I am sure 18 months from now.
Lastly we talked a little about water and its value to the project, which brings us round 360 degrees to where this report started. The Ship Canal and its largely redundant waters over which the MCUK presides.
I have to declare an interest here. No way would I have considered non maritime development on any part of a navigable waterway as important as the Ship Canal. Because I am of the view that the diminution of The Docks was largely due to a lack of vision and under investment and is strategically short sighted.
It is something that may come back to bite us in years to come in a time of war or crisis, not least the ever increasing road congestion and HGV pollution enlarging the carbon footprint. Three days prior to the conference I interviewed a stevedore on one of the last small ships to berth and discharge its 1000 tonne cargo of corn under the gaze of the MCUK towers.
The stevedore spoke in no uncertain terms what he felt about the media people pushing him and his boat off the canal…"You can build an office block and some studios anywhere there's loads of brownfield sites you can put them, but there is only one way you can get thousands of tonnes of cargo to the heart of a major industrial conurbation in one go" he said "and that's using this waterway."
His logic was simple but unquestionable and while us media types may be around the site for at least the next twenty years I have a sneaking suspicion the boats will be back big time at some stage.
And if Peel and its brand advisers have any sense they will retain that little grain boat chugging up and down once a week with its cargo of corn for the flour mill across from its berth, which in turn supplies the North West's bakeries with flour.
Why? Because that ship gives the water a purpose other than as a gigantic stress reliever for overpaid TV executives.
Without a ship the water is just a large open relief drain, stagnant and sterile. A ship is trade, movement, hope…people will come to the Quays and Media City, see the boats going about their business and understand `Ahh that's why they built MCUK here, it stands to reason because it was a gateway to the rest of the world' not just because the land was cheap and available.
Besides it will be cheaper and more authentic than some future over funded arts project employing street performers to ponce around the Quays with a giant paper mache cut out ship flapping around in the wind in a programme `designed to raise awareness of Salford's maritime heritage'...
See the first part of Nigel Pivaro's report on The Impact of MediaCityUK - MediaCityUK and Democracy - click here
Photo by Andrew Goudie