Diversity in the mass media has become one of the biggest talking points of recent years. As a society, we rely on the media to present information, news and opinion on a huge variety of topics – from politics to sport. Although a surge in the use of Internet sites and blogging means that almost anyone can contribute their views, the fact remains that Journalism is dominated by a certain demographic: White, middle-class people (often men), who went to private schools and top universities.
The industry wields a great deal of influence. So, with that in mind, it stands to reason the British public want to see a diverse range of views on offer. In 2016, The Sutton Trust found that 51% of Journalists were privately educated, despite the fact that just 7% of the population went to private schools. For me, this is worrying but not surprising, given that the most powerful positions in society are disproportionately occupied by people given a head-start after attending private schools. 71% of Barristers and 74% of top Judges were privately educated, also. Why should the power to influence rest in the hands of an elite few?
Of course, the more privileged in society are just as entitled to representation as any other group, but their views and experiences should not be represented as the ‘norm’. Because largely, they are not. By refusing to diversify the pool of Journalists working in mainstream media, it is far too easy to create an homogeneous echo chamber of thought, whereby any dissenting or non-conforming view is completely ignored. This can be weaponised to influence public opinion in favour of the interests of the powerful few, at the expense of the ‘many’.
Making the mass media more diverse would not only make the industry fairer, but it would also increase the quality of Journalism. Expecting someone who has only ever lived in a comfortably suburban 5 bedroom house in Surrey, to be able to write an in-depth piece about life on a council estate, probably isn’t going to end well. In fact, it might lead to unfamiliar topics being ignored altogether. The same goes for topics that make the more privileged uncomfortable, such as critiquing power imbalances or just the topic of class as a whole. It must be said that there are certain experiences that the dominant group in Journalism are shielded from, because of their life of relative privilege.
It is encouraging that individuals like Caitlin Moran, who hails from a council estate in Wolverhampton, have broken through. But let’s be honest – the odds were stacked against her at a far greater height than they would have been if her parents were wealthy and had connections in the industry already, or if she’d attended private school with the editor of the The Times.
Not only does the lack of diversity affect quality, representation and the way that media resonates with the public, it also highlights the huge lack of social mobility in Britain. In 2012, the National Council for the Training of Journalists found that just 3% of new Journalists came from parents who worked in “unskilled professions”, whilst 65% came from familial backgrounds where at least one parent was working in a “professional, managerial or director position”. Lack of financial security can be one of the biggest barriers when young working class Journalists embark upon a career. Whilst their middle class peers can often have the safety net of parents that will bail them out or assist them financially, working class individuals probably don’t benefit from this. Given that research shows 92% of Journalism Internships are unpaid, those who don’t come from more affluent backgrounds are disadvantaged in this way too.
Owen Jones recently highlighted the complete dominance of the industry by the middle classes, and received a large amount of criticism for doing so. Many of his critics denied that there was any dominance in the first place, or desperately pointed out that they went to a comprehensive school to try and prove him wrong, as if that makes them working class by default (it doesn’t). Rather than pulling the ladder up after themselves, people in any industry should be reaching down and helping their working class counterparts achieve too. I find it somewhat nauseating to see formerly working class people, who have become successful, bleat on about how everyone can do the same if they just work hard enough, all the while completely ignoring the disadvantages at play because of class.
When Oxbridge-educated Journalists from affluent backgrounds write in the Guardian about the lack of working class voices in the media, whilst I appreciate their intentions may be good, their words are dripping with irony. They are speaking about working class issues, but at the same time taking column space from an actual working class Journalist. If it concerns them so much, why aren’t they allowing the working classes to speak for themselves, instead of having a patronising person who has probably never stepped foot onto a council estate talk for them? Declaring yourself a champion of the working classes doesn’t automatically make you one – you actually have to make an effort, rather than just virtue signal.
It really is quite simple. To ignore the burgeoning issue of middle class dominance in Journalism is to make a statement that we’re okay with the same group of people exerting their influence over us and holding all the power. Things are beginning to change in politics, but they aren’t changing quickly enough within the media. Mainstream media is beginning to lose it’s appeal to some within society, and given that many of us don’t feel it resonates with our views and experiences, is it surprising?