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What a Journalist Isn't

I'm sick and tired of the abuse journalists are getting at the moment. They don't deserve it, at least real journalists don't - ...

29 August 2018

We're Not All Posh

You've heard the expression "repeat until true".

Especially so in the age of memes, falsehoods can be repeated over and over until at least a substantial proportion of the audience believe them to be facts.

"Carrots help you see in the dark" originates in Second World War propaganda designed to shield the development of radar, whilst simultaneously boosting the mythic status of the RAF and helpfully creating demand for surplus veg.

"Walt Disney's cryogenically frozen waiting for science to cure cancer" is another. He isn't.

Neither is "Channel Four looking for a new national headquarters". The meek way regional journos have swallowed the spin on that channel's petulant refusal to give up its London base is shameful.

But the lie I really want to nail is the suggestion that all journos are posh. We're not. And the meme created round the suggestion we are is actually harmful for all of us who've devoted a career to helping diverse candidates into the profession. Here's why.

First, some disclosure. Get a brew, this will take a minute or two.

Yes, I'm a grammar school boy, in that I was one of the supposed lucky ones under a selective system in the seventies. That resulted in five years of hell for me in a school that was fuelled mainly by testosterone and the worship of sporting prowess. Only in the sixth form did I finally emerge from that nightmare, so no, I'm not a fan, actually.

I got three so-so A levels (B, B and D as you're asking) and a random S level in Economics.

I went on to get a very ordinary Ordinary degree, with no honours (the equivalent today would be a 2:2), in Communication, Arts and Media at what was then an Institute of Higher Education.

No glittering spires, no rubbing shoulders with, or shagging, future prime ministers, no Bullingdon Club; although the experience did admittedly introduce me to the late 70s elitist delight of sweet Liebfraumilch.

I did however have a burning desire to get into radio. The origins of that are a story for another day, but by combining my second year studies with 0500-0900 traffic and travel shifts at Pennine Radio, for which I received £10 a week and my travel expenses, I got a foothold in a career that's sustained me for nearly four decades.

I stuck it out with the degree, despite hating the psychobabble social science claptrap I was forced to regurgitate, as it would have broken my parents' hearts if I'd abandoned it.

Dad was a motor mechanic, mum was a clerical worker and I was the first in the family, from a Leeds council house, to go into higher education. However, it was clear the day my tutors agreed it was "probably the right decision" for me not to continue for a fourth honours year that me and academia were not a good fit.

As my subsequent writings repeatedly demonstrate.

They did have some nice studios to play with though, and the long placements and holidays were absolutely vital to breaking into the industry.

So far, so mundane. I'm braced for the usual "council house - luxury!" and coal-in-the-bath ribbing.

The above is to make very clear that I'm not, by any definition, posh.

I'm privileged in as much as I had enormously supportive parents, and lived at a time when there was a grant system in place to nurture students from my kind of background, but there was no silver spoon.

I'm more privileged in that I've enjoyed just about every day at work for almost forty years.

I've tried to help others from what we euphemistically call "non-standard backgrounds" into news, and I'm a big advocate for greater diversity in newsrooms. My track record demonstrates I've had decent success in helping such candidates along.

Mine was the training newsroom derided as "too small, and too Northern" by one grandee when deciding whether to include it in her scholarship scheme. I take that as a badge of honour.

That's why I'm totally pigged off with the renewed onslaught this week, led by keyboard warrior Owen Jones, attacking the alleged elitism in journalism.

The story hinges, crucially, on stats from the Sutton Trust who find that an obscene proportion of those they subjectively define as "top journalists" went to public school.

That definition of "top journalist" boils down to those holding a senior position on a London based national publication, so the "top" category ignores completely the majority of UK journalists who are based outside the capital, reporting for regional and local outlets.

The Sutton Trust and their cheerleaders are absolutely right to point out the issue, and to demand action to address it. But in the narrowness of their definition, honed for its shocking impact, they do a scandalous disservice to those of us working for greater diversity in journalism here and now, on a day to day basis, outside the dinner party bubble.

I'm imagining a young Richard .. or an Amina .. in Leeds today reading this stuff.

They're deciding whether to accept the place they've been offered on an industry accredited (BJTC or NCTJ) journalism course where they'll get industry approved training and some academic study. Maybe they're the first in their family to have an offer, landing on the doormat of their council flat.

Taking it up will require accepting 40-odd thousand pounds of student debt (thanks, Nick)  and a three year commitment with no certainty of a job at the end of it. But there's a feeling inside ...

Then I read again I have no chance. Just look. It's all over social media. All journalists are posh. Everyone says so. Perhaps I abandon that dream, and do accountancy instead.

The facts are these. In regional news, over forty years, I've known very few posh folk. A few have passed through newsrooms, using them as stepping stones to something else, but the huge majority of local and regional journalists are fiercely dedicated to what they do within the communities they serve.

They are united by an outlook of apolitical cynicism, a love of storytelling and an instinct to spot the quote at fifty paces. They enjoy highlighting injustices and the absurd, and especially challenging authority. They do all this for very little money over stupid hours in places the "elite" only set foot in at election times, or to write opinion pieces about depravation.

They are egalitarian, in that the better story will always take precedence, they'll fight like cat and dog until a decision is made on priorities. Then they'll put everything into hitting deadline or keeping the needles wobbling. Short of the military you'll seldom find such camaraderie, just with a wider vocabulary.

Don't be deterred. Journalism is bigger than the bubble. Go for it.

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