A strong and representative media is vital to a functioning democracy, as journalists hold power to account. It should therefore be as concerning that 54% of journalists went to private school as it is that just over a third of all MPs did[i]. Having a large proportion of the press from the most privileged backgrounds is surely problematic, as it leaves the political elites held to account only by their contemporaries. Without a diverse and inclusive press, democracy becomes a merry-go-round of power, class, and wealth. 

Journalism is one of the most competitive industries to break into. In a new film I explore the barriers faced by aspiring journalists from working class backgrounds, to unpick why the British media is so unrepresentative.




 

To break into journalism, you need the right networks. Journalism remains a highly informal industry, and as the saying goes “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Networks are vital to gaining invaluable work experience, in order to get your foot in the door. Aspiring journalists from working class neighbourhoods are therefore often significantly disadvantaged, as these crucial networks are rarely part of their social sphere. As Guardian journalist Simon Hattenstone told me: “It’s very public school, the writers and certainly the columnists tend to have gone to very posh universities like Oxford or Cambridge.”

“For loads of people they simply come here [The Guardian] because they know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody.” Simon Hattenstone, The Guardian

As well as requiring networks, to access work experience an aspiring journalist often needs to be able work unpaid and in London. Placements usually only cover travel expenses, meaning they are inaccessible to the majority of people living outside the South East. Longer unpaid internships are also prevalent in the industry. With the cost of living in London for an unpaid intern estimated by the Sutton Trust to be £926 per month (excluding transport costs), in most cases it is only the wealthiest and the most privileged in society who have the financial means to accept these unpaid opportunities.[ii] 

The decline in regional journalism makes opportunities for those outside of the South East even harder to find. Regional journalism once provided a clear path for school leavers to gain training within the field, allowing a young working class journalist the opportunity to build up a portfolio before applying for jobs at the national newspapers.

“Many people came through local routes, you did your time on local newspapers. I think that training was very good largely, knocking on doors talking to people, real people.” Lee Elliot Major, CEO, The Sutton Trust

With regional daily newspapers losing print sales at an average rate of 12.5 percent in 2016, opportunities for school leavers to develop a career through their local press are scarce.[iii] As journalism has become more graduate-oriented, it has in turn become more middle class.

As well as strengthening a vital check on the power of our politicians, creating a more diverse media would surely be beneficial for the industry itself, providing the public with a greater range of voices that resonate more widely.

A number of media outlets have already taken some steps to make journalism more accessible. Schemes exist specifically for BAME and disabled candidates to create diversity in the newsroom, and it would be great to see more, similar schemes for working class people. The New Statesman does this, offering work experience to individuals from lower income families and underrepresented groups. Professions like law have tackled their inequality problem by introducing mentoring schemes for underrepresented groups.[iv] Journalism could look to do the same.

These would be relatively easy wins. Fundamental changes need to be made to address the class disparity in journalism, otherwise we risk the press becoming a merry-go-round of class, power and privilege. This would be to the detriment of the industry and the people who aspire to work in it, and to a society and democracy that thrives on an open, honest and representative media.

 

[i] “Almost a third of MPs went to private school.” BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-32692789. “Most leading journalists went to private schools, says study.” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2006/jun/15/pressandpublishing.publicschools

[ii] “Unpaid Internships ‘favour the rich’.” The Sutton Trust, https://www.suttontrust.com/newsarchive/unpaid-internships-favour-the-rich/

[iii] “UK regional dailies lose print sales by average of 12.5 per cent: Wigan Post and the National are biggest fallers.” The Press Gazette, http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/uk-regional-dailies-lose-print-sales-by-average-of-12-5-per-cent-wigan-post-and-the-national-are-biggest-fallers/

[iv] https://www.rarerecruitment.co.uk/foundations/law/programme.html