He is departing with his customary grace, but the decision to leave was taken out of his hands after the BBC announced £25 million of cutbacks in local news earlier this year and 450 job losses (around one in seven of those working in the regions). He calls it a “traumatic” experience.
As part of the cuts, the Look North presenting team was slimmed down to one meaning either Gration, or his younger co-presenter, Amy Garcia, would face the axe.
“My conscience wouldn’t allow me to take the job away from a young lady with family to bring up,” he says. “In that sense, the decision was fairly easy. But my concern is a lot of my colleagues are going in the next few weeks – it’s been quite a serious culling there. They are the ones I feel for.”
Does he feel that his face didn’t fit anymore with the BBC bosses? “Would I have got the job now if I’d started?” he wonders. “Probably not. The push for diversity has changed quite significantly and maybe I wouldn’t have been considered the right person. I don’t feel resentment at that, though. I think there is a sea change not just in the BBC but over virtually every business, and we are all affected by that.”
The cutbacks come at a time of record viewing figures for Look North. During the pandemic, Gration says, they have registered audiences of 900,000 (a third higher than normal). “If the BBC were to look at audience figures between 6.30pm and 7pm, it’s something they cannot really mess with because it’s such an incredible audience they are getting,” he warns.
Gration has covered all of the biggest stories to hit the north in the past four decades, as well as nine Olympic Games in his sideline as a sports reporter. He reported from the miners’ strike (where a photograph of him appeared in a local newspaper serving families at a soup kitchen for which he was lambasted by his BBC bosses), Hillsborough, the Bradford riots and the murder of MP Jo Cox, to name a few.
Covering the miners’ strike in the mid-Eighties was, he says, the first time he truly started to become aware of the north-south divide that has reopened in recent days as the Government seeks to impose tighter restrictions to stem rising cases of coronavirus.
“I wouldn’t say I have a chip on my shoulder about this, but sometimes I did have an uncomfortable feeling that the North had been taken advantage of and characterised because one particular group of people, through no fault of their own, found themselves in this situation,” he says.
Covid-19, he agrees, has exposed deep running fault lines between the north and south and exposed decades of chronic underinvestment. The decision to open up the country this summer was, he says, one based entirely from a London-centric perspective, rather than taking into consideration the reality of the situation in the north.
“Because the north and south didn’t have the same symptoms at the same time, it was almost as if [politicians thought] Covid has gone now because London is OK. I think it took a long time for people to realise just how bad it was around here as well, and how it was affecting people.”
Gration was reporting on the scene of the floods in South Yorkshire last year when Boris Johnson was castigated by residents for forgetting the north while out on the campaign trail. Many of those so-called “Red Wall” voters ultimately switched to the Conservatives on the back of their promises to “level up” the country. Now, Gration urges the Prime Minister to get out of the Westminster bubble and listen to voters who feel they are once more being forgotten.
“Everybody is fearful for their jobs,” he says. “If they came up and spoke to good, honest folk here, they would get it in the neck and realise what was going on.”
Gration himself was badly affected in the first wave of the pandemic. Due to a health condition which he prefers not to disclose, he was required to shield at his York home throughout and taken off air.
“Having worked in such a frenzy all my life, lockdown was very bad for me because it made me realise the BBC could survive without me,” he says. He describes himself as being “forgotten effectively” by his BBC bosses, despite his desperation to still get out and report.
In the summer, he spent five days in St James’s Hospital in Leeds with pneumonia (not Covid-related), but was so eager to get back on air that when he was discharged, he went straight into the television studio that same day.
He warns ministers to think “very carefully” about reintroducing such stringent shielding measures again. “The experience I had in lockdown was not good for me, and if it wasn’t good for me I know it wasn’t good for thousands of people.”
At this moment, Helen walks into the living room, followed by one-year-old Hamilton, who is on the cusp of walking. She and Harry met in London where she was director of news and current affairs at the BBC. After she fell pregnant with their first sons (17-year-old twins, also conceived via IVF), she switched careers and now runs a successful chain of Montessori nurseries.