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04 August 2014

Car Compulsory

I'm beginning to think we should make a driving licence an entry requrement for Journalism courses.

It goes without saying that mobility has always been an advantage for newshounds. Bus timetables are not designed around radio's requirements for earlies and lates. Fires and murders often occur in exasperatingly isolated locations not served by Network Rail.

What's different in 2014 is that it's difficult, if not impossible, to get a job, or even to get freelance work to build the portfolio tequired to apply for a job, without a driving licence in your pocket. And now, it seems, the keys to a car as well.

A true freelance journalist should, of course, be equipped to function independently.

Notebook and pen, check.

Own portable recording device - whether that be a Uher, Minidisc, data recorder or iPhone - fair enough.

But just today this ad from Yorkshire Radio in Leeds made explicit what I think has been an unstated assumption across the sector for some time now. Wannabe radio journalists must have not only have a licence, but their own car as well.

The requirement for personal transport can lead to unexpected problems - at least for those who are honest about their profession. Try getting motor insurance as a freelance journalist, for a start. They're classified alongside strippers and bookies' runners in the high risk bands (all three occupations apparently involve a lot of rushing about from one location to another under pressure).

Stations should also be careful what they wish for. Those running a car on a tight budget may turn up to represent the station in vehicles that the station would not want to represent their brand values. There's a reason the late lamented Real Radio required its freelance reporters to use company vehicles when going out on stories - if only to ensure the logo on the TV panning shot at the scene of the latest news conference or photocall.

The question however remains for trainers; should we accept a student onto a course without a licence when we know that his or her chances of getting a job at the end will be seriously compromised without the ability to drive, or (as in the opportunity above) if they lack their own private transport?

The bigger employers - BBC, ITV and Sky - tell us they're keen on encouraging diversity and, to be fair, they've never demanded licences from applicants.

But even with the big operators I suspect, given the choice of two candidates - one with her own car, one with his own Metrocard - diversity may take second place to expediency. And the socially disadvantaged candidate loses out yet again.

All I can do for now is warn prospective trainees that it would be in their interests to get lessons before they start their professional course.

It's heartbreaking when, as is happening right now, I see able journalists repeatedly overlooked or dismissed by potential employers because they don't drive, and maybe don't have the means to pay to learn. To be told they also need their own vehicle, taxed and insured, could push them out of the profession altogether.

Editors wanting diversity need to do some joined-up thinking.

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