It is often said that the British media industry is pale, male and stale; but it’s probably fairer to call it pale, male and posh. The problem with this, apart from the lack of a satisfying rhyme, is that it can be hard to tell whether someone grew up poor and disadvantaged.
In the absence of obvious signs, the British class system allows for an infinite ways of guessing – from someone’s accent to the understanding that Quentins and Camillas don’t tend to grow up on council estates, while Kevins and Sharons rarely learn to ski as a child.
But these signs are subjective: Harry Evans, the working-class former Sunday Times editor, was nicknamed “poshie” at school because his train-driver dad owned a car. Evans is now a knighted 89-year-old, yet still we haven’t moved on.
Private schooling is still the handiest guide to wealth given the fact that, in the country as a whole, only 7% of the population choose to spend an average £17,000 to educate their child, rather than use free state schools.
The Sutton Trust, which seeks to improve social mobility, found that 51% of the country’s leading journalists were educated privately, and 80% of its top editors went to either private or grammar schools.
Privately educated pupils are also more likely to go to Oxbridge, which makes more offers to one school – Eton – than all of those on free school meals, according to research by David Lammy MP.
There is more. Former social-mobility tsar Alan Milburn’s State of the Nation report found that 11% of journalists were from working-class backgrounds, compared to 60% of the population. A report by City University in 2016 found that the British journalism industry is 94% white and 86% university-educated. Just 0.4% of British journalists are Muslim.
The declining economic fortunes of the industry mean that cheap and even free labour, in the form of unpaid internships, are increasingly common, while expensive postgraduate degrees appear the best way in for many. Given this, the barriers to those who need to earn money to launch a career look set to get even worse.
Some will argue that this lack of income diversity doesn’t matter: only the best rise to the top, as though ratlike cunning and a passion for deadlines are taught alongside manners at public schools.
This is about an industry meant to hold a light up to the rest of society rather than feel part of a club. As Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow highlighted last year, the failure of the media to report safety concerns over Grenfell Tower ahead of time, suggest that being part of a comfortable elite does no one any favours.
Which is not the same as saying that journalists only write about what they know – down that alley lie women writing only about “women’s issues” and reporters of colour writing about race – but, among other things, diversity allows for safety in numbers. It took me 25 years to go back and report on where I come from – a council house in London’s East End – because after a Cambridge education I liked being able to fit in.
Grenfell Tower, Brexit, growing up as a racial minority: other journalists have talked about the time it takes to write about the things that touch where and how they grew up.
My colleague Owen Jones got into a social media spat recently when he made similar points. The problem is, what to do about it. Some newspaper groups, along with the Broadcast Journalism Training Council and National Council for the Training of Journalists, are trying to help: they’ve launched various diversity schemes, some of which fund training courses.
But such philanthropy is unlikely to be enough. The government-appointed Cairncross commission, looking into the state of journalism in the UK, should examine the impact of digital change on diversity and not just the industry’s finances.
It really shouldn’t matter where, or how, somebody grew up – Jon Snow is just one example of a brilliant journalist who grew up in a privileged household. But the media industry needs to look outside the white male able-bodied elite to others who want to speak truth to power. Without that, it could so easily become an industry just speaking to itself.
Too slow to set things right
Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, said Tolstoy, long before the newspapers were able to report on court proceedings in the UK and print blurry pictures of young blonde girls being led away by foster carers wearing veils.
One such picture, published on day one of four front pages in The Times about a “Christian” girl placed with Muslim carers last summer, caused an uproar. Details of the case, such as the child’s cross and favourite bacon-laden spaghetti carbonara being taken away, were pounced on by the far right.
Trevor Phillips, the former equality tsar who really should know better, also wrote in the Sun that this was “akin to child abuse”, while the Mail gathered several MPs to call for an inquiry into such culturally inappropriate foster care.
By the end of that week, the case judge was so worried about the impact of the media coverage that she allowed for the anonymised case details to be published. In it we read of the alcohol and cocaine tests needed for child AB’s mother, and of an absent father. We also read of the girl’s own mixed-race heritage. The woman she would eventually go to live with – her grandmother – was a non-practising Muslim who needed to have court documents translated into her native tongue, and expressed a desire to take the girl to live back in her home country, outside the UK. Yet this prompted a victory declaration in the Times that the “Judge rules child must leave Muslim foster home”.
It was this which led, eight months later, to the Independent Press Standards Organisation declaring last week that The Times had got it wrong and ordering a correction somewhere in its first six pages. The Times itself decided to put the correction on its front page, recognising perhaps that “due prominence” would not apply anywhere else.
Andrew Norfolk, who wrote the Times articles, has made a name for himself by going against the received wisdom held by the media bubble. Working from his home in Leeds, Norfolk’s carefully researched investigation into the grooming of vulnerable young girls in Rotherham won awards and gained him a reputation for telling the truth, no matter how awkward.
Yet the truth in this case, while complicated and messy, was distorted and emphasised in a way to cause damage and harm.
All journalists make mistakes, but did it really need to take the regulator all this time to work out details of a case made available on 30 August last year?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010