The all-party report led by former cabinet minister Alan Milburn, has triggered a nationwide debate on issues of social mobility and whether social class divides can be overcome to provide equal career opportunities to all. Journalists found their profession branded ‘one of the most exclusive middle-class professions’. The industry was urged to provide financial support to interns from less wealthy backgrounds and adopt a best practice code.
Media organisations were accused of recruiting trainee journalists for internships for as long as one year, without payment, as a means of filling staffing gaps instead of providing appropriate training. The unpaid placements automatically filtered out students to only those who could afford the experience, usually middle class ones, or those willing to incur massive debts.
- The National Union of Journalists immediately welcomed the outcomes of the report and heralded the best practice code for internships as ‘a first step in tackling bogus work experience‘. The union has been campaigning for years against exploitation of work experience placements, proposing the payment of a minimum wage to students on training. Speaking in a release issued earlier in the week, the NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear said that the report ‘shows how the use of unpaid internships has undermined the diversity of our profession’. “Too many employers see internships as a way of getting work done for free, without any thought towards their responsibilities to provide would-be journalists with a learning opportunity.”
- In his Guardian blog, Roy Greenslade talked about his humble beginnings as a working-class journalist, alongside others of the same social class at regional newspapers until he was struck by the class divide between the middle-class broadsheets and the working-class tabloids in Fleet Street. Although boundaries are now less obvious between the papers, higher tuition fees at universities meant education was dearer, and less accessible. As journalism became increasingly popular in the 1990s, degree holders were preferred over school-leavers, starting the unfair selection process which favoured the middle class.
A report in 2006 by the Sutton Trust [PDF at this link] showed that more than half of editorial posts at leading national newspapers had been educated at private schools, that is to say, middle class. As middle-class senior editors tend to appoint others like themselves, birds of a different, less privileged feather cannot find a way into the flock.
The Milburn report also pointed out that ‘qualification inflation’ is a barrier towards equal social opportunities. If once an academic degree or an MA were considered desirable for a career in journalism, some people, such as Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford, believe it is not the case any more as theoretical courses often do not provide the practical skills needed in a ‘real’ newsroom.
The Brighton Journalist Works, for instance, offers a 10-week fast-track course leading to a Certificate in Production Journalism for £3,600. Journalist Works MD Paula O’Shea, who set it up in April 2007 in The Argus’ Brighton offices, says the course is intense as it exposes students to as many hours as they would in an academic year on an MA, but graduates had landed jobs at The Argus, Johnston Press, Time Out, local TV stations and B2B magazines.
There is recourse for students who could not afford the fast-track course: “Our course is accredited by the Learning and Skills Council, so students can apply for a career development loan (www.direct.gov.uk) or the Journalism Diversity Fund (www.journalismdiverstityfund.co.uk),” says O’Shea.
A lack of diversity in news media could pose a problem for journalism, says Charlie Beckett, director of the journalism think-tank Polis. “If the news media is not diverse then it will not reflect the wider population,” he says in his blog.
“At a time of crisis in the industry and the wider economy, that is not a good thing economically, let alone politically.”
Here is Beckett, interviewed on Channel 4 News:
- ‘Glass ceiling blocking top jobs’ (BBC)
- Over half of country’s journalists went to private school (Sutton Trust report, 2006)
- ‘Toffs at the top’ (Press Gazette) – summary of the Sutton Trust survey results
- Independent: Response to Paxman’s middle-class white male comments
- Rosie Taylor: ‘Impossible to get a foot in the door without several thousand pounds’
- Guardian: Government launches inquiry into work experience exploitation during recession
- New York University journalism student banned from blogging on class
- Free Speech blog: What the UK government’s cuts mean for British journalism?