If you’re reading this outside the UK, or don’t follow British politics, Owen Jones may not be a familiar name. He’s a known journalist and columnist for the Guardian, and author. His latest piece: “The British media is a closed shop. These are the facts” has stirred the media’s nest.
Owen set out to detail how British media is elitist with a string of sources, however the opprobrium following the post has itself become the story. A tinderbox has been lit. Well!
He accuses the media of group think. The type of stories you read, the angle they’re written, and who gets to write what, is designed beyond just likely competence. He draws evidence from lobby correspondents — the band of brothers and sisters who decode political references of the day.
I’m in danger of précising his full piece. Read it instead, there are other things on my mind.
Too often a general approach is to treat media as a chocolate box of competencies. Take your pick in whatever you’re good at. Journalism, for instance is presented as merely the art of writing and broadcasting. If that’s what you’re after an editor once told me, go write a book. No, my reasons were to have my voice heard, but journalism is founded on political and social economic conventions.
There is no one model called the media, just as Social Media evades an essence. However, described at a level, media assumes the microcosm of a social group’s intentioned society, stroking their achievements whilst speaking to others about their imperfections.
As a newbie almost thirty years ago doggedly trying to make my way through the BBC, catching breaks with the rebel outfit BBC Reportage, and then Newsnight, journalism, I thought, was about holding a certificate. I had a post graduate degree, a supposedly big deal then, and thus was qualified. What else could be the problem?
I digress, but today the cult of less-risk-taking, instant gratification, celebrity-as-a-profession (see Kanye West’s slavery car crash) makes me consider whether the 80s, difficult as it was, was more accommodating to ideas, compared with today.
Journalism is a social construct. Like the game Monopoly, it’s fashioned with rules and frameworks devised by its makers. Recognisable journalism as practised today had a start point, replete with class struggles and human fallibility and attributes. Who you like, who you could be friends with, what’s important to you down the public house, and how you avoid other groups of people, is part of its meta DNA. Finley Peter Dunne’s line, “The business of a newspaper (journalism) is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, appears far loftier.
As I have written here the history of how the ruling classes were convinced by politicians to launch a series of tabloid newspapers to shut down working class papers in the 18th century, personifies this aged struggle.
The rapid press expansion that followed produced: the Daily Mail (1896), Daily Express (1900), People(1881) and Daily Mirror (1903). The tone of the papers appeared to have the interests of the working class to heart. Dissenting voices in the radical press were either absorbed by other publications or collapsed. To make a profit, mass circulation was the answer.
These organs of journalism were news by name, but arms of the government’s wishes of the day — an extended ideological press release, which zoned in on working class patriotism to royalty and cheaply reworked over-the-garden hedge gossip.
Owen writes in his piece.
The issue is not just class. A study in 2016 suggested that 94% of journalists are white and 55% are men. While 5% of Britons are Muslims and 3% are black, just 0.4% of journalists are Muslim and 0.2% are black. Women are paid considerably less, and men dominate senior roles.
Revealing the media’s make up isn’t new or radical. If you’re a BAME, working class, or reeling in it but your face doesn’t fit, and you’re looking to make it, you might have enough rejection narratives to fill all Mahler’s Symphonies, with a loop specifically on №9. You likely have powerful testimonies in ways the privileged could barely comprehend. Trouble is who’s listening, and when they are what can be done about it. Advocacy ala Simon Albury and Simone Pennant from the TV Collective; campaigning, re: Sir Lenny Henry and perhaps legislation..?
You persevere nonetheless, whether it’s that plucky British spirit or your own ingrained ambitions. I interviewed a high flyer from the Telegraph’s intern programme. She convinced me she’d be the Telegraph’s first Muslim Editor in the future. In your mind you will be the first to dent the class ceiling; if it hasn’t happened it’s waiting to be broken.
The synergy between elites and journalism has long roots. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in the 17th century were socialites/politicians who saw how their wealth of knowledge within the arts, civil society and decorum could have value for their class. The Spectator was born. Behind its veil, journalism doesn’t quite cut it within the realms of a technical rational profession reading philosopher Donald Schön. Journalism is more a rationale of the powerful, important or procuring the dominance of their versions of events and stories, not far off from Chomsky’s interpretation of democracy.
When the media machinery is privately owned, what compunction might execs have to open their doors to those perceived not to be one of them? Public institutions or private ones believing they possess impeccable moral, equitable social standards, well that’s a different matter. Hence the BBC may claim to be inclusive steered by conscientious management, but as the women’s pay scale has revealed, as well as the paucity of BAMEs and working class, all is far from well. The issue has an affect into universities which often provide media with its workforce.
How’s it going to change? Sir Lenny Henry’s idea to ring-fenced cash to support media ethnic diversity? Labour’s ‘inclusion rider’ to ensure diversity in the film industry? Conservative policies, a root and branch strategy from public institutions?
The Net, was the bogey that had the potential to shuffle the decks. It yielded new players, yet the presumed impending demise of mainstream was exaggerated. In the 1990s I was part of the first wave of distuptors crossing into broadcasting to challenge broadcasters’ dominance. Thirty youth, strangely now, backed by Associated Newspapers introduced videojournalism to the UK. To say mainstream broadcasters hated us at first is putting it mildly, as we were seen to threaten livelihoods. Conversely, for newspaper executives, TV on the cheap was another power string to their bow. We, it turned out were pieces on a chess table, but with our own lot to gain.
Channel One, became an irritant, until it was begrudgingly accepted. The journalists replicated a cast from Ready Player One. — multi-cultural, women, minorities, different religions and sexual orientation was a core part of the mix.
We ignored, for a while, what the papers said to create our own stories. The station proved watchable, but ultimately was financially squeezed to closure. Running a broadcast outfit takes deep pockets. I have often thought of what it would be like to produce a nationally crowd-sourced newspaper with views independent of group think, so it too could be featured on the BBC et al about what the papers say. That was the sort of break out thinking from Channel One.
The net would build upon disruption. But mainstream media is nothing but resilient, adaptable and evolving, though there are limits to this. In 2005, when working with the Press Association, we set about training the UK’s regional press in videojournalism, this was about survival, less innovation. In the end, it was unsustainable. Competition from web journalism’s business model collapse advertising as Google and Facebook hoovered up advertising cash. All of this leaves at the moment little optimism for new indies, and thus, a radical change to the British Media’s tapestry. But there are other variables to consider.
Whilst the distortion effect wrought from online information masquerading as news appears to be driving news feeders back to mainstream sources, changing demographics, maturity in next gen news e.g. AI and above all a new and different approaches ( mixing academic enterprise and advocacy) is what could just be catalyst to open Britain’s Media’s shop.
Dr David Dunkley Gyimah leads the disLAB at the University of Westminster, and is a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the University of British Columbia. He’s a former artist in residence at the Southbank centre and Network news producer for Channel 4 News and BBC. His PhD from University College Dublin examines historical, social and technological impact from news and the video journalism industry, and the outcome for viewers.