A recent survey in the UK’s Times Higher Education* showed that the number of journalists who were educated at swanky private schools is increasing. A staggering 56 per cent of journalists in the survey were educated privately.
When you look at the UK population as a whole, you find that only about seven per cent of the population went to private school. It means that the UK’s richer population is being over-represented in the media, especially at the national level.
I am not shocked by this news, but I am disappointed. Newspaper readership is slipping, especially amongst the younger population, and it’s important for newspapers to keep abreast of what’s meaningful to the unprivileged majority. And if writers and editors are not in touch with the unprivileged majority, than they’re not likely to publish things that appeal to them.
I don’t think the reason more journalists are coming from privileged backgrounds, is, as a columnist in yesterday’s Guardian suggested, due to more privileged people ceasing to see journalism as a working class pursuit. (Annoyingly, I can’t remember the name of the columnist, but she wrote the “On the press” column in the Media supplement. My copy of yesterday’s Guardian is at home in the recycling box).
It is more a result of the entry-level positions being so poorly paid and mostly based in London — one of the most expensive places to live in the world.
It is also the result of national newspaper editors preferring to hire young journalists if their work has been published in national papers. Most young journalists are able to get stories published in nationals only if they’re able to afford to do several unpaid internships at national newspapers. In England, young journalists can do work experience for a week at, for example, The Independent, The Times or The Guardian. But if you don’t have the money to live, eat and travel in London, then you probably won’t be able to go for it.
When I first moved to the UK, I was looking for work in journalism, and I considered trying to get a week’s work experience in London. But the thought of spending hundreds of pounds on travel and expenses put me off. I had no income whatsoever and I needed a job as soon as possible. (The Canadian government’s aggravating student loan lenders would not temporarily stop demanding payments, despite my lack of employment).
I’m not suggesting that people who come from private schools do not deserve to be in newspaper offices. These privately educated individuals have the confidence, know-how and ability to chase down good stories.
However, there is a danger that they’ll ignore some stories that mean a lot to the people living in the lower echelons of society.
Just as an example, how many stories are written about how difficult it is for teachers in the South East without high-earning partners to get on the property ladder? Given how widespread the problem is, relatively few. And while the media does a thorough job of covering stories about released prisoners who commit crimes and illegal immigrants, there are very few stories about prisoner rehabilitation, and the desperation in immigrant communities that causes some of them to enter into a life of crime. This is perhaps because most journalists don’t live next-door to people in these situations. Increasingly, they’re more likely to live next door to lawyers, architects, politicians and high-profile actors.
It is time more newspaper editors took a gamble and hired less experienced, less privileged — perhaps even more timid — recruits. Given the chance, these individuals will chase down the stories that every other paper is missing.
*The study was carried out by the Sutton TrustSHARE