West Cumbria declines to license sensationalism

By Jill Segger
June 6, 2010

The horror that was visited on West Cumbria on 2 June 2010 has been met with considerable dignity and emotional continence by the people of those shocked communities.

I have to declare an interest here – it is my native place though I left a long time ago and like many in the Cumbrian diaspora, have watched the unfolding events with a mixture of distress and admiration.

The media in this country is specifically London-centric and generally south-eastern in orientation. West Cumbria, its culture, topography and history was little known before the floods which caused so much devastation and dislocation last November. This is not 'broken Britain', despite its poverty and lack of many amenities other parts of the country take for granted, nor does it inhabit the world of metropolitan thinking, attitudes and responses. This has become very plain over the four days since Derrick Bird set out from Rowrah with his guns.

Despite its close proximity to the Lake District National Park and the existence of many “bonny l'aal spots” West Cumbria bears the scars of post-industrial decline, exacerbated by geographic isolation. The pits and the steel works are gone; the area is bounded on the west by the Irish Sea and by the Lake District massif to the east and although there is much good work being done by local government and development agencies, it is difficult to imagine that widespread prosperity is coming any time soon.

It has suited the media to portray the frame of the killings as a rural idyll. Some of the places where Bird so unaccountably ended innocent lives are indeed attractive. Others are less so. I have only seen one report – by Euan Ferguson in the Observer – which has acknowledged that Rowrah is rather a grim little settlement.

But the media have been unable to misrepresent the stoic decency of the people of all these towns and villages. Visited by terror and confusion, they have declined to emote for the cameras and they have forborne from indignant criticism of their hard pressed and tiny police force who were faced with pursuit of a dangerous man moving rapidly through a maze of small, often steep and difficult roads where mobile phone signals are intermittent and unreliable.

Despite intrusive questioning which has at times sailed uncomfortably near an apparent intent to provoke conflict and violence of expression, the restraint and reticence of the local population has not played to the desire to create dramatic television. There has been no self absorbed playing to the gallery and no complicity in the less attractive aspects of the media agenda. And as a consequence, there have been no “monster of Rowrah” or “face of evil” headlines - a powerful reminder that the less thoughtful end of the media can only do what we are willing to license.

People whose history is bound up with coal-mining, steel making and seafaring have learned of hardship and suffering over many generations. They know how to draw together and support each other. They remind us of an essential decency and a deep charity which has nothing to do with the more superficial attributes of our culture. The human values displayed this week in West Cumbria will be remembered for their authenticity and independence of what is fashionable or expedient.

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