On the intersection of class and journalism

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a prime minister in possession of great power must be in want of a spin doctor. ‘Politics’ is seldom seen without its trusty right-hand, ‘the media’. Another fact: in recent years, the proportion of journalists from working-class backgrounds has steadily declined, with the NCTJ finding in 2022 that 80% of people in British newsrooms come from top social classes. When all the storytellers come from one background, most stories are inevitably cast aside. This should be a matter of public concern, as a lack of representation in media undermines its  ability to effectively perform its sole purpose: reporting the truth.

Since Brexit and its seismic aftershocks, the media has increasingly come under scrutiny from itself. This is entirely deserved. Emily Maitlis’ lecture decrying the sinister impacts of “Both-sidesism” was a breath of fresh air, and marked some recognition that the BBC, good as it is, has strayed from the impartial and fair reporting it was so long a beacon for. The BBC is much like the NHS in this sense: an excellent public service, world-leading for the majority of its existence, losing much of its reputation due to mismanagement.

Laura Keunssberg’s tenure as political editor the BBC is particularly cited as an example of how far political reporting has been allowed to stray from its original intention. The Byline Times was scathing in its review of what went wrong: it is an important reminder that journalism is not as simple as passing information along, and equally that it is not a game of egos; atmosphere and ethos are important in ensuring that a news desk is reporting fairly, accurately and holding political figures to account. It is this atmosphere that has been allowed to erode, and in its erosion the ethos faded. It is hard not to believe this is a deliberate sabotage to further private interests. In light of this, we should maintain hope that it can be restored to its former status in the right hands, and the public should not give up on this service.

the media has increasingly come under scrutiny from itself. This is entirely deserved.

Issues with representation, however, must be addressed if we are to have any hope of a broadcasting service that serves the people. To fulfil this purpose, it must give due attention to important issues, scrutinise leadership and promote unity, not division.

What we have seen lately is quite different: the national media as a mouthpiece for the government (something more often associated with authoritarian regimes). We are seeing a subversion of the natural order of things, where it is not the government that learns from the people what issues matter, but rather a government that decides for the people what issues should matter to them. This is profoundly wrong and could perhaps be combated if the government (and media) looked a little more like the population they are supposed to serve. It would take some gall to tell a child of refugees that the most pressing issue is to “stop the boats”, but it feels slightly more comfortable when it’s a slogan repeated to the so-called ‘media class’, who dutifully regurgitate it to a public they must hold in dry contempt, to believe that they cannot determine their own media agenda.

Journalism is becoming more unequal, not less, and with it the government is able to get away with worse and worse abuses of our constitution, of our laws, and of their own positions. In 2020, 75% of journalists had a parent in a high social class, compared to 45% of the overall workforce. In 2021, this figure jumped to 80%. This regentrification of the industry is akin to what is seen across wider media. With consistent cuts to the arts and humanities, many state school students feel they have nowhere to turn but quantitative subjects, and once again ‘culture’ at large has become the playground of the rich.

This has resulted in a media sector who are unable to empathise with the experiences, joys, and concerns of the vast majority of the population. This trend runs in parallel to the decline of local news outlets, (with around 30 local newspapers closing each year) resulting in a ruling class and representation that would struggle to be more out of touch. And where the media walks, the government is sure to be nearby, as the two take many cues from each other.

The argument makes itself: more local journalists, stuck into public concerns, spotlighting issues that matter to people on the ground, will instil more trust from the public in the government, as they would feel they are being listened to and represented. It is absolutely essential to the political health of the country that working-class issues are reported on with the same dignity and attention given to other problems, and perhaps journalism as a whole would be better if there were a move away from playing on people’s fears, and more towards communicating them to those who can instigate meaningful change. An effective media would do far more for the efficacy of whichever party is in power than 3-word slogans that do little beyond obscuring the important detail of the policies they are selling.  

This class disparity in our media is itself played out on an Oxford level. Perhaps this is unsurprising, but private and grammar-educated students are overrepresented in leadership positions in student journalism at Oxford1. Upon our appointments as Editors-In-Chief, Charlie Bowden and I were told this was the first time in 5 years that both Editors-in-Chief were state educated. This demonstrates that the inaccessibility of journalism begins before people have even had a chance to step into the job market. Even student journalism, which is regarded as one of the most accessible ways to get involved, falls short.

The reduction in working class representation in the media parallels a decline in social mobility across the UK in recent years. I could very well argue that social mobility itself is a problematic concept — but that is an issue for another article. The Sutton Trust, which produces annual reports, cited the loss of education due to the Covid-19 pandemic as one of the possible explanations for the decline, when until 2020 Britain as a whole had been steadily improving.

Even student journalism, which is regarded as one of the most accessible ways to get involved, falls short.

Another report, this time by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that social mobility in the UK has hit a 50-year low. The impacts of parental income and geography have never been more closely correlated with life outcomes. This contrasts starkly with the narrative the government’s own reports are attempting to propel, with Katherine Birbalsingh leading the most recent ‘State of the Nation’ report2. Almost every chapter begins with words to the effect of ‘Things are not as bad as they seem’. Does the government, perhaps, have something to prove?

If a working-class person does, against the odds, manage to land a secure career in journalism, their experience will be almost invariably different to those of their more privileged peers. Some of this is due to assumptions from colleagues and others are facts of a working-class background, regardless of their eventual career.

Guardian Northern Correspondent and Reuters Institute fellow Robyn Vinter wrote in response to the NCTJ’s 2022 findings that ‘we simply do not represent the people we serve…I have heard some genuinely horrendous stories from other working-class journalists and I have suffered classism myself, more times than I can count.’ Vinter makes clear that newsroom environments are unwelcoming to working class voices, even though ‘for news reporters it’s often exactly our working-class-ness that allows people to trust us.’ This paradox is at the heart of the class crisis in journalism — and it has allowed classism in the UK to flourish with wild abandon. There are simply too few working-class advocates allowed into journalism spaces for them to meaningfully influence the narrative on class in Britain.

Welsh journalist Diffwys Criafol, in their article for Inclusive Journalism Cymru, explains how class attitudes prevent a true diversity and honesty in journalism, stating: ‘Poor and working class people are not rare, but you would think that they were unfortunate creatures from a fairy tale if you looked around at the almost exclusively middle class demographic that creates culture and discourse in Wales.’ This is an issue: by treating poverty as an exception, rather than a common experience, elite journalists who think this way are able to shape the national narrative. And their peers, equally privileged, are ill placed to check the veracity of this narrative.

for news reporters it’s often exactly our working class-ness that allows people to trust us.

It is not difficult to see why this perception exists in a society as stratified as our own, where the richest will seldom interact with, let alone understand the experiences of their more disadvantaged counterparts. The solution is frustratingly simple, however: make space for people to tell their own stories.

Other ramifications are realised in pay. There exists a class pay gap, and much like the gender pay gap, regressive attitudes are at play in maintaining the presence of an underclass. Professionals in all sectors experience an effective pay penalty of 17% on average per year if they come from a working class background, something that compounds upon other pay gaps involving gender and ethnicity.

It appears that social mobility in the UK is declining quite rapidly. The gentrification of the media class, however, occurred over longer timescales, in part due to the changing makeup of a ‘typical’ journalist. Journalists nowadays are far more likely to have a degree in journalism prior to starting, and also more likely to already have experience in a newsroom – something that is hard to come by without connections in the industry.

On top of this, journalism is associated with freelance writing which prices out people without financial backing. It is this element of risk which makes the media and arts at large inaccessible as viable career choices. When social mobility is already so low, these factors will only plunge an industry already in crisis into even deeper water.  It comes as no surprise, then, that trust in the media is also at a low, and that people are increasingly turning to alternative sources, most notably social media, for their news and analysis.

In the digital age, it has become increasingly difficult to combat the growth of misinformation campaigns, and in such times the presence of well-researched, reputable and critical reporting is paramount to a functioning society. Misinformation has moved from fringe conspiratorial corners of the internet to infect any issue of the day, from Covid-19 mitigation measures to a longstanding ‘debate’ on the scientific consensus that the Earth’s climate is changing for the worse.

Suella Braverman herself has contributed to misinformation and in doing so encouraged race hate, having been found by the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to have made misleading claims about a correlation between ethnicity and participation in grooming gangs in an article for the Daily Mail. It is unconscionable that elected officials, members of the Cabinet no less, are able to commit lies so profound in media outlets and face zero repercussions. Would this have happened fifteen years ago?

the UK media is on a trajectory to becoming more fractured, partisan and post-truth than it ever has been.

Movements regarding these points of contention have stalled measures to combat the large issues, and in doing so contributed to the loss of human life. It is from this perspective that we can consider it dangerous to lend unqualified contrarians equal credence in a national discussion, as this itself leads to the spread of misinformation. ‘Both-sidesism’ as Maitlis dubbed it, has serious consequences. After all, where better to put a conspiracy theorist, or a bigot, than the national, well-reputed news service?

The interplay between journalism, politics and the social makeup of both these sectors is tricky to unpick. What is manifestly clear is that the UK media is on a trajectory to becoming more fractured, partisan and post-truth than it ever has been, and it is manifestly clear that the increasing homogeneity of journalists in a country that is otherwise increasingly diverse has no small part to play in it.

  1. Based on my own research with information available on LinkedIn. ↩︎
  2. Curiously, Ms Birbalsingh has since stepped down from her role. ↩︎

Image Credit: International newspapers at a suburban newsagent’s shop by David Hawgood, licensed under CC BY 2.0, Cropped from original.

Image Description: International newspapers on a newspaper stand outside a newsagent’s.