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Friday 29 March 2013

Why we need working-class hacks

Journalism isn't an outpost of Eton and Oxbridge

Copy boy grows up in Glasgow's inky world of teleprinters and Linotypes, moves south to take his place in the vanguard of a technological revolution and rises to become editor of the most famous paper in the world. Oh yes, and on the way, he joins the Royal Marines and becomes a champion boxer.
What a film! The credits roll with our hero rolling up his sleeves to read the galley proofs, alone in a vast room lit only by a brass banker's lamp with a green glass shade. 
Except that this isn't a movie; it's real life, and the story doesn't end there. Our editor is sacked after five years and moves to another great newspaper group, swapping one overpowering proprietor for another. By the age of 57 he has edited five newspapers and moved into the managing director's corner office. A decade later he is firmly part of the Establishment, a millionaire equally at ease at Royal Ascot and point-to-point; with a wee dram or a bottle of Dom Perignon.
It couldn't happen today.

Charlie Wilson is one of the great characters of late 20th and early 21st century journalism - a man with a silver tongue in a foul mouth. But if he were starting his career today, he'd be lucky to get through the door.
Our trade has taken to calling itself a profession and as such, it has room only for graduates - and graduates with a bit of money behind them. We have turned into a world inhabited by the white middle classes. Is this a good thing?
Today's twentysomething Wilson would have gone to university and almost certainly have  been enterprising enough to finance himself, but then what? Would his news instincts have been honed or diluted? Would his doggedness be enough to win a slot on a decent paper from which to launch his career? Probably. But I wouldn't bet on the chances of others of his generation who were just a step behind him.

More than 85 per cent of  journalists under 40 have a university degree, and many have a postgraduate qualification as well. When they emerge with a mortar board and £15,000 of debt, they can expect to work for nothing for months, according to a survey published last week by the NCTJ. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 65 per cent of new entrants have a parent who is a professional, a manager or a director. How else could they afford to join our happy band? Only 3 per cent come from a family of shop-floor or other unskilled workers. As Alan Milburn's report on social mobility last year remarked: 'Journalism has shifted to a greater degree of social exclusivity than any other profession.'

Social exclusivity is not what we need in a journalist; we need the rough diamonds and the smooth talkers, the chancers and the charmers - and from all ethnic groups. We cannot populate our newsrooms entirely with people from a cosseted world where everyone has good hair and calls their parents Mummy and Daddy. They must go down a bundle at the dockyard or outside the sink school with rocketing fifth-form pregnancy rates.
We used to be a trade of great diversity and mixed talents, but we're in danger of becoming homogeneous. It is to be applauded that national newspapers now offer graduate training schemes and they are effective in creating journalistic high-flyers,  but demand for places is such that papers can be very picky. For the past twenty years or so, graduate berths at The Times, for example, have gone overwhelmingly to those who studied at Oxbridge. 
So we have Eton and Oxford in Downing Street, Eton and Oxford at City Hall, Eton and Cambridge in Lambeth Palace, and now Eton (in the case of Boris and a handful of others) and Oxbridge in the fourth estate. It's all a bit too cosy for my taste.
Don't get me wrong: young journalists fresh from Oxbridge are delightful, confident, assertive, free-thinking, obviously talented and a real asset; but we should beware of shutting the door on natural talent that hasn't had the benefit of nurture. The survey report points out that the growing demand for a postgraduate qualification is reinforcing the elitism, since financial assistance for such courses is not widely available. Couple that with the trend for unpaid internships and the surprisingly low average pay, and it's easy to see how a journalistic career is being pulled out of reach of the ordinary working class. Milburn says that efforts to address this have been fragmented and lacking in vigour: 'Journalism, with a few honourable exceptions, does not seem to be taking the issue of fair access seriously.'
It is also alarming that there are proportionately far fewer non-white journalists than in the general population; 95 per cent of our workforce is white.

We do not live in the Victorian age of paternalism. It is perhaps to be expected that employers, especially those with shareholders to answer to, will seek to get more work from fewer people where possible. This has become more urgent in the recent years of recession, which came just as the internet age was turning the thumbscrews on the newspaper industry. Advertising was falling, raw material prices rising, and on top of all that, publishers found that they had to offer their products not just in print and on the web, but in tablet, android and mobile forms as well. Multi-tasking was the order of the day because there was no money to hire extra staff. Indeed, staff had to be cut and wage costs had to be driven down.

Most of us will be familiar with the executive's sympathetic face that somehow manages to kill the joy of promotion. 'We'd love to pay you more, but we're all under budget constraints at the moment...but when the belt is loosened, you'll be the first in the queue..' But the belt never is loosened. The older, more highly paid reporters, feature writers, subs, picture staff and middle-benchers are gently levered out of the door, to be replaced by eager underlings willing to work for tens of thousands less.

The NCTJ survey found that the average (median) salary of a journalist in Britain last year was £27,500, compared with £26,664 for employees across all occupations. This was a 22% increase on the average in 2002, compared with a 26% rise for workers as a whole. Taking the rate of inflation over that period, everyone lost in real terms.
It is important to point out that these findings do not  tally with last year's official UK reward statistics, which put journalism at 99th in a league table of 400 occupations, with an average salary of £35,213. The discrepancy probably arises from the different samples - the national survey is based on pay-as-you-earn tax receipts, the NCTJ figures from a self-selected group of 1,067 workers who filled in an online questionnaire.

My instinct is to put my faith in the 'official' statistics, largely on the basis that people who answer questionnaires tend to be those with a point to make. The respondents to the journalism survey were, however, reassuringly diverse, both in age and in their fields of work: 30% were local paper reporters and writers, 10% from the nationals, 18% from magazines, 15% were in broadcasting, 8% worked online and the remainder worked in books, PR and other peripheral areas. The presence of such a good sprinkling of Fleet Street workers might have been expected to raise the average salary figures, but it seems not.
Just under half of the respondents earned between £25,000 and £40,000, 21% were paid between £40,000 and £75,000, with only 3% earning more. At the other end of the scale, 22% earned less than £25,000, and 3% less than £5,000. 
Those with more experience commanded the greater salaries, as you'd expect. So where is the attraction to the brightest but less well-off graduates, those without access to a bank of mum and dad? Especially when you take the dreaded internships into account. The NCTJ found that 95% of those who had started work in the past three years had previously been an intern or undertaken some work experience. This usually lasted between three and twelve weeks, but for some it went on for a year, and it was almost universally unpaid - with the vast majority not even having their expenses covered. 
Pitch that against the £29,000 being offered to graduates by the country's  top 100 employers this year, and the £45,000 for freshers in the legal, financial and energy industries and we seem like poor relations. 
Our industry has pushed the self-destruct button so carelessly and so often that there will be little public sympathy for journalists complaining that they are overworked or underpaid, but we are moving towards the point where we are. We have seen the redundancies across the national and regional press, how 'local' newspapers are being edited from 50 miles away, while town centre offices are run by a trainee and a cat. 
Most of Fleet Street has combined its weekday and Sunday operations, so that everyone has to be available at all hours, every day of the week. Remember those days when night workers - mostly subs - had the concession of a four-day week because of the unsocial hours? Long gone. We're all in the same boat now, every news organisation must function 24 hours a day, requiring extra flexibility and extra skills from its dwindling news staff, whose pay is being forced down with every 'exit programme'.
Is this what our Oxbridge high-flyers signed up for?  Of course not. They tend to go bounding off to features or leaders or the comment pages, or to radio and television, and to the greater things for which they were born. As teenagers they were marked out as the opinion formers of the future and that is their destiny - some even become cabinet ministers or the mayor of London.

And so we have developed a two-tier journalistic society. The Morlocks on minimal pay churn out material for print, web, tablet so fast they have no time to check a fact or polish a caption. These are not just subs, but news editors, reporters, photographers, picture desk staff.
Then there are the Eloi, the picture byline classes who have access to people of influence and the freedom and expense accounts to take them to lunch. They have time to think before they write, so they can choose every word with precision, and still be away in time for the opera (or soap opera). 
The super-elite of this bunch, the best of whom are not Oxbridge educated and - horrors! - may even not have been to university, can earn ten times as much as the Morlocks downstairs. This is justified because these are the star names that bring in the readers; you can always get another general reporter or downtable sub, but if Matthew D'Ancona, Jeremy Clarkson, Polly Toynbee, Charlie Brooker, Matthew Parris or Caitlin Moran jump ship, readers may do too.
What is being forgotten is that readers may also say goodbye to a paper blighted by misspellings, factual errors and bad grammar - or maybe such concerns are not regarded as sufficiently important to ease the load or raise the status of those charged with producing the news pages.
It's worth remembering that it was the unattractive Morlocks toiling in the dark, not the beautiful  Eloi dancing in the sun, who had survival sussed.

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.

1 comment:

  1. There are some journalist/writers who can make a 1,000-word description of a house brick something to look forward to. Others have the contacts, criminal tendencies and rat-like cunning to bring the whole house crashing down on political spivs, banking shysters and and misbehaving sporting 'heroes'. The rest – the media-studies brigade, the shucksters who sell journalism 'degrees', Polly Toynbee – really ought to be doing something else.