The BBC and British journalism's never-ending class crisis
Future News 120
Outlining what it billed as “five strategic priorities” for itself, the BBC has unveiled its Annual Plan for the 2022/23 period. The media giant, with £2.5bn ($3.28bn) to spend on content per year thanks to £3.7bn from licence fee payers, has made commitments to transform its digital offering, accelerate commercial growth and to deliver reform of the BBC. Specifically, it will seek to get “closer to audiences across the UK” under new(ish) Director-General Tim Davie.
To achieve this the BBC had to make what should be a surprising omission (it’s not) – that more than 75% of its current workforce are from well-off backgrounds. How do we know this? Well, the broadcaster promised to introduce a new target for 25% of its staff to come from low socio-economic backgrounds by 2027.
It is unclear how the BBC measured this demographic, but it has concentrated on other areas of diversity in the past, namely ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Inbetween April 2020 and March 2021, for example, 55% of off-screen talent were women, while 54.8% of on-screen employees were female. There were only 7% of disabled workers at the BBC behind-the-scenes during the same period and 12% of all on-screen talent defined themselves as lesbian, bay or bisexual.
Now socio-economic diversity has been added to the mix at a time when the BBC is still yet to announce one of its best paid and most visible roles, BBC Political Editor, a position which has been held by privately educated journalists for the past three decades (Robin Oakley, Andrew Marr, Nick Robinson and Laura Kuenssberg).
The BBC is definitely not the only media organisation doing badly when it comes to class. The last available data from the UK Government backed Social Mobility Commission (from 2016) reported that 51% of all journalists in Britain were privately educated, while just 7% of people in the UK are privately educated.
Social mobility charity The Sutton Trust also found that just under 80% of all “leading editors” taken from across 22 national newspapers, periodicals and press agencies had either attended a private/independent or grammar school. There are unavoidable and structural changes that make social mobility harder today than in yesteryears.
The late Sir Harry Evans, a former editor of The Sunday Times, is often rolled-out as a case study for the past. Evans was able to rise through the ranks of local and regional journalism in the north of England to eventually head down south and set the news agenda for the whole country by deciding what the British middle-classes read alongside their breakfast on a weekend.
That vast network of regional and local outlets no longer exists and nation newspapers, magazines and other broadcasters and magazines have increasingly favoured a more Japanese-style system of recruitment – by selecting potential journalists straight out of university.
This approach sees journalism more as a profession rather than a trade, and knowledge of the classics, modern history and other humanities courses are effectively valued more than worn down leather. There is, of course, a place for fresh-faced graduates, especially when it comes to more technical areas of the media, including data journalism and/or financial and economic reporting. Degrees in relevant fields here would prove to be extremely handy.
But even before they reach the job application stage, the professionalisation of journalism presents another barrier – the internship stage. Since most media roles in the UK are in London, the further you are away from the capital the harder it can become. It is therefore welcome that the BBC and Channel 4 are both relocating significant parts of their operations outside of the Big Smoke, while other organisations like The Huffington Post have toyed with the idea.
That is just one of the geographical hurdles for the working-classes aspiring to join the media sector. There is arguably a more pervasive barrier in what sociologists have dubbed the ‘hidden ladder’, meaning the middle and upper classes naturally have access to insider information which they and their loved ones can take advantage of.
A good example would be when a job or internship is never publicly advertised and is instead announced through word-of-mouth. This is how journalistic dynasties are formed.
The 192-year-old Spectator, chaired by grammar school boy Andrew Neil, takes a very modern approach to countering this phenomenon. The outlet has run a CV-blind internship scheme for years, with the magazine once recruiting a then 48-year-old mum-of-three through the initiative. Other media organisations have taken positive steps forward by embracing apprenticeships, returning journalism to its trade roots.
Despite all of this, and as proven by the BBC’s own refreshingly honest data, class still continues to rule British journalism, whilst a privately educated reporter turned commentator rules over the rest of the country.