A job for the wealthy and connected?

Peter Wilby, in The Guardian, asks: how can journalism truly reflect society when entry to the profession relies on wealth, geography and parents prepared to pay the wages that employers will not?

In 1969, the late Nicholas Tomalin, the star foreign correspondent of his day, observed that national newspapers were “feudal fiefdoms all bound up in intimate friendships and shared values”. To get in and get on, he advised, young people needed to cultivate “pals at court”. And the best allies of all were famous or well-connected parents.

“Journalism, being fashionable, is a privilege profession. In its present state it shows many of the aspects of the aristocracy, and lineal descent is one of them.”

Nearly 40 years – and several thousand newspaper leaders about equal opportunities – later, you might expect things to have improved. In fact, they are far, far worse. In Tomalin’s day, some of the top newspaper positions were still occupied by people who had left school at 16 and worked their way up from reporting flower shows, darts matches and magistrates courts for local newspapers and agencies up and down the country. A few had even started as messengers. Though the rule was widely flouted – particularly on the posher papers – an agreement between the journalists’ union and employers stated that nobody could work on Fleet Street without first serving a three-year apprenticeship in the provinces.

Despite what Tomalin wrote – and despite areas that were almost exclusively upper middle-class, such as most gossip columns – journalism could plausibly claim to be classless and meritocratic, at least by comparison with, say, law, banking or medicine. When I started on the Observer in 1968, my immediate boss was a non-graduate. So were at least two of my fellow reporters.

What has happened to journalism since then is what has happened to every other middle-class occupation: it has become a graduate-entry profession (though many journalists would argue that it isn’t a profession at all, but a trade). Paradoxically, the expansion of university education, supposedly a force for equal opportunity, explains why journalism is more socially exclusive than it was in Tomalin’s time.

In 2002, a survey by the Journalism Training Forum found that 98% of all journalists had a degree or postgraduate degree level qualification. The only journalists who did not have these high level qualifications were older journalists who had been in the profession for a long time.

Nearly half had also taken a postgraduate qualification, usually in journalism, from universities such as Cardiff and City in London. The provincial training schemes, where 16- and 18-year-old school-leavers rubbed shoulders on equal terms with graduates – with the latter often getting rough treatment from hard-bitten editors and sub-editors – had all but collapsed. The MA or postgraduate diploma in journalism was the new apprenticeship, and it became one of the most common routes to a national newspaper job.

Moreover, the 2002 survey showed, more than two-thirds of new entrants to journalism came from homes where the main wage-earner worked in a professional or senior managerial occupation. Fewer than 10% came from any kind of working-class background, and only 3% from semi-skilled or unskilled occupations. Some 96% of the journalists surveyed were white – a figure that looks more damning when you realise that more than 40% of journalists work in multi-ethnic London. More recently, the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, found that of the country’s 100 leading journalists – national newspaper and broadcast editors, columnists and news presenters – more than half had been to fee-charging schools and 45% to Oxford or Cambridge.

The social exclusivity of journalism seems certain to become still more common. “Walk through our corridors,” a lecturer at one university journalism school told me, “and you will hear that homogeneous public school accent.” According to a sample analysis carried out for the Guardian, nearly half the postgraduate students in City University’s journalism school, still one of the main gateways to Fleet Street and the BBC, come from just four universities: Oxford, Bristol, Leeds and Cambridge. All four are among the elite which recruit higher than average numbers of students from middle-class homes and fee-charging schools.

The explanation? Simple economics. Though loans, at zero real interest rates, cover fees and maintenance for the three years of undergraduate study – and students from poor homes are exempt from some or all of the fees – that is not so for postgraduate courses.

The fees alone, though they can be as little as £3,200, will rise to £8,595 at City next academic year for an MA and £6,995 for a postgraduate diploma. Add London living costs, and the prospective journalist probably needs nearly £20,000, on top of any debt accumulated from a first degree, even to get to the starting gate of an occupation where the average starting salary, according to the National Union of Journalists, is only £13,000, which, even after a decade’s experience, may rise only a little above £20,000.

Of course, a lucky few win higher-paid jobs with broadcasters or newspapers. But in effect, the costs of training, once borne by employers, have been transferred to the prospective journalists.

Then, before they can dream of a salary, many will do several months of “work experience”, possibly for a succession of employers. Some of them will make the tea, as wannabes did half-a-century ago, with the difference that they won’t get paid for it.

For entry to national newspapers and the main broadcasting and magazine companies, the result is geographical as well as social and ethnic bias, with those who have families in the south-east enjoying the advantage of free accommodation. With most jobs unadvertised, families living in the right neighbourhoods, socialising in the right circles and working in the right jobs may provide introductions to those “pals at court” that Tomalin thought so important. They may also, as an added bonus, provide the contacts among the rich and powerful that will get you your first story. No wonder people living north of Watford complain that the national press and TV and radio news persistently ignore or misunderstand them.

This is also the case for ethnic minorities. There’s not much doubt that City is one of the best launchpads for a career in journalism. Its 1986-87 cohort alone includes a former deputy editor of the Times, a Times columnist, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent, the Telegraph‘s US editor, the Independent‘s former crime correspondent and the editor of the Northampton Evening Telegraph. The current editors of the Telegraph and the Times attended a few years later.

What Tomalin – who insisted that “the only good teaching institutions in journalism are good newspapers” – would make of it all is anyone’s guess. To the bafflement of outsiders, journalism, like most creative occupations, has no standard entry route and no career structure. It will never have such things because a free society demands that access to the media be unregulated.

Ask journalists how they got their jobs, and nearly every one will have a different story. Tomalin’s was among the best. He was accepted to the Daily Express, he said, not because of his qualifications, his shorthand or even the qualities of determination and persistence that are often prescribed for journalists.

What won the approval of the Express editor, Arthur Christiansen, the son of a Merseyside shipwright who had joined joined his local weekly at 16, was “a weak eye muscle, which made me tilt my head to one side”. Christiansen had just been told by Lord Beaverbrook, the owner, that his papers were too dull and, if he didn’t find a totally fresh new angle, he’d be out. Seeing the lop-sided Tomalin, he shouted “you’re hired!”

Try teaching that on a university course.

To read Wilby’s article in full, click here

More from The Guardian here:
Graduates may be the norm, but a few journalists remain who have learned their trade on the job

The NUJ and some employers are designing courses specifically for mid-careerists

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