The problem with journalism? It’s still too posh

Most British workplaces are cottoning on to the importance of socioeconomic diversity in their ranks. Why isn’t the media?

June 25, 2022
Today around 80 per cent of journalists can now be classified as having professional and managerial class origins. Image: Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo
Today around 80 per cent of journalists can now be classified as having professional and managerial class origins. Image: Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo

It is fitting that No 10’s rose garden resembles an ancient Oxbridge college quad. Over the years the manicured L-shaped lawn, enclosed by high brick walls next to Horse Guards Parade, has offered occasional glimpses of our detached Westminster elites. Most recently as the location of illegal lockdown parties and otherworldly Dominic Cummings conferences.

But the occasion that lingers strongest in my memory is from an already distant era of politics. The launch of David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s coalition government in May 2010 was a defining political event. Commentators made much of the natural bonhomie between the two leaders, standing side-by-side at podiums erected in the garden, as they promised a new era of consensual politics. They were indeed two peas from the same privileged pod, cultivated in the country’s most prestigious private schools and elite universities: the prime minister from Eton and Oxford, the deputy prime minister from Westminster and Cambridge.

The more troubling sight however, came when the camera lens momentarily turned to the ranks of broadcast and print journalists lined up to quiz Clegg and Cameron. Not only were they mostly male and pale, but also uniformly posh. The vast majority had come from the same privileged backgrounds as the political leaders they were meant to be interrogating. 

That cosy Westminster gathering confirmed what statistics I had compiled for the Sutton Trust told me previously in 2006: leading news journalists were disproportionately, and increasingly, from private school and Oxbridge backgrounds. Over half (54 per cent) of journalists were educated in private schools, despite only accounting for 7 per cent of schools overall. This proportion was five percentage points higher than it had been 20 years previously. The list of journalists and editors educated in the country’s most prestigious schools included many household names, from Ian Hislop to Peter Hitchens, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Kirsty Wark and Jeremy Vine.

In my report, I put this socially skewed composition down to a perfect storm of factors: low pay and insecurity at junior levels; the high costs of living in London where most journalists were based; the increasing costs of postgraduate courses; a bias towards those with family or personal connections amid a largely informal but highly competitive recruitment process; and finally, the stronger skills and attributes exhibited at an earlier age by those from private schools. Every journalist I interviewed at the time predicted that the profession would become even more privileged in the future.

The doomed Clegg and Cameron double act unravelled before Brexit polarised the country and the pandemic exacerbated the inequalities that already defined our society. But the reporters I spoke to were spot-on with their predictions: the same factors persist and, if anything, the class divide in journalism and politics has gotten worse. Our current prime minister is once again of Etonian and Oxonian stock. And today’s reporters are even more likely to come from privileged backgrounds. According to the National Council for the Training of Journalists, in 2022 around 80 per cent of journalists can now be classified as having professional and managerial class origins—a record high, up from 72 per cent in 2016.

Why should this matter? The BBC’s former veteran interrogator, John Humphrys, put it well when I spoke to him for the Sutton Trust report. He argued the media should reflect the population it serves: “I just feel instinctively that if say 30, 40, 50, 60 per cent of journalists at the BBC were public school, it wouldn’t be right.”

As the country’s first professor of social mobility, I’ve become increasingly convinced that this lack of socioeconomic diversity is a fundamental flaw that threatens the profession’s effectiveness and credibility. It isn’t healthy when everyone in a newsroom comes from the same small slice of society: it means news organisations are fishing in a narrow talent pool, missing out on the perspectives of people from different backgrounds. Journalists may be very familiar with each other, but far less so with the day-to-day challenges faced by ordinary people. As a result, they will be more likely to suffer from the groupthink and myopia that undermine all homogenous ruling classes.

Just when we need objective and representative journalism there are worrying signs that the middle-class-dominated media is missing the stories that matter most. Journalists were slow to pick up on the growing resentment across the country towards metropolitan elites ahead of the Brexit vote in 2015. Since then, expert commentators have found themselves unable to predict the results of elections, in part driven by the widening social divides that go unnoticed.

I winced during the coverage of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, which highlighted the glaring disparity between the ordinary people whose precarious lives had been ruined and the politicians and journalists who descended for a fleeting moment to cover the story. (Not a single newspaper or news site had covered the previous warnings of residents over fire safety.) As Dorothy Byrne, former editor-at-large at Channel Four has noted, the global pandemic meanwhile only became mainstream news when it impacted on Lombardy, which just happens to be a favourite middle-class holiday destination. The government’s daily press briefings painfully revealed that posh humanities graduates are not always the best inquisitors of scientific advisers.

The lack of appetite to tackle social class diversity in journalism contrasts with many other industries who are upping their game on social mobility.

I now advise many multinationals on how they can better recruit and promote talent from all backgrounds. I’ve seen law firms, once bastions of privilege, introduce new ways of widening their talent pool, recruiting school leavers and apprenticeships and not just graduates from Oxbridge and Russell Group universities. Work experience is targeted at working-class youngsters, rather than the sons and daughters of senior partners, while unpaid internships have been banned.

Unexciting accounting firms, like KPMG, have set targets for the proportion of working-class staff in senior positions, and publish socioeconomic pay gaps. Major government departments—including the Ministry of Justice and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport—have relocated offices to attract people from outside the capital. Senior execs are taking a serious look at social class diversity on their boards.

By contrast, when diversity drives do appear in the media sector they tend to ignore socioeconomic background altogether. Take for example the BBC’s rules to ensure women and ethnic minorities are represented among its guests and interviewees. Thankfully, the BBC’s media output is becoming less white and male. Yet, for all we know, it might still be mostly middle class. The BBC could and should explore a parallel scheme to ensure social class diversity among guests and interviewees.

I would like to think that the media will finally get its act together on this fundamental issue, but I won’t be holding my breath. I suspect that No 10’s rose garden will remain a middle-class enclave for years to come. And we will all be poorer for that.