Looming deadlines at Vision Sports Publishing haven’t left much time to keep this blog ticking over, but I wanted to surface briefly to comment on the debate about journalism and social class that has blown up after the publication of Unleashing Aspiration, the government-commissioned report into social mobility.
It has prompted detailed and interesting debate, with contributions from Charlie Beckett, Roy Greenslade and Dominic Ponsford all raising important points. I wanted to chip in with a few comments, as it’s a subject close to my heart. Inevitably, in any discussion about class, definition is important. Much of the comment seems to accept that the media is dominated by middle-class people, and while that’s almost certainly true it’s also true that being a journalist is one of the things which is taken to define a person as middle class.
It’s something I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with. My dad was a postman; my mum worked in a shop and I grew up in a council house. So far, so working class. I worked for a few years after I left school, then went to college, the first member of my family to do so. I studied Social Science, got a degree, and went into journalism. Apparently I became middle class as soon as I went to college, and cemented my ‘status’ by becoming a journalist. And yet I still had the same values I was brought up with.
I still think of myself as working class, while recognising that I’m probably seen as middle class by most people. At root, I tend to take an economic view of class anyway, while most discussions of class start from a definition based upon habit, activity, job status and the like. But I do recognise that ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ are also used as shorthand. I do it myself when I say I think of myself as working class, and when I express a distaste for some elements of what I see as ‘middle class culture’.
Without getting into vast generalisations, there is a tendency to insularity, smugness and a certain lack of warmth in some elements of middle class culture that I’ve never liked, while the openness, generosity, honesty and warmth of some elements of traditional working class culture are things I’ve always valued. That’s not to demonise or glorify any set of people – you’ll find god and bad in every group of people, as my old nan rightly observed – but rather to challenge the idea that anyone who succeeds automatically becomes middle class.
I’ve long suspected that those who insist all journalists are middle class by definition are the people who insist that journalism is a profession, when in fact it’s a trade. And journalists such as Brian Reade, to take one example and a favourite of mine, come across as far more genuinely working class than some of the self-appointed ‘man of the people’ columnists to be found elsewhere tend to be.
If we accept that the very act of being a journalist makes a person middle class, then it is logically impossible to bring more working class people into the trade – because once they’re in, they become middle class. So I think that we need to recognise that there are in fact more working class people in the trade than is sometimes acknowledged.
We also need to recognise, and I know this is a point I keep making, that journalism isn’t just about news and newspapers. It certainly seems to be true that the upper echelons of our newspapers and broadcasting organisations tend to be dominated by people from similar backgrounds and colleges – it would be foolish to deny the influence of networks and the old school tie. But look further afield and you’ll find a greater diversity of backgrounds. Working mostly in the magazine sector for 20 years, I worked with and for mostly female bosses from working class backgrounds.
So the picture is not quite the one that has been painted, but what is true is that journalism is becoming more elitist. That’s partly, as some of the writers above have pointed out, because of the growth of journalism education and the belief that a degree is needed as a basic pre-requisite for success. I’ll return to this subject in more detail in another post, but it’s true that the chances of a raw talent from a working class background has less opportunity to learn the trade while doing the job than they used to. I wonder if some of my very good former bosses would get their chance in today’s media.
Finally, there is an obvious point to be made; a point which some of those commenting on various blogs have made but which hasn’t really been picked up. And that is that the government which commissioned the study into social mobility, and which now bemoans the fact that professions and trades are dominated by an elite of graduates from well-off backgrounds, is the government that introduced student loans – the very measure which prevents those from the poorest backgrounds from getting a degree. When I went to college I had to take a cut in income after working for two years, but I still had the benefit of a full grant. Without it, I could not have afforded to go to college, would not have got into journalism, and my life would now be very different.
There are a number of things which can and should be done to tackle the problems Unleashing Aspiration identifies. But there’s one very effective measure that can be taken straightaway if the government is serious about what it wants us to believe it is saying. Get rid of student loans.