Not everyone hands over power with good grace, so it was encouraging to hear the long-time political editor and news presenter Adam Boulton, stepping down this month after 32 years at Sky News. Television, he told The Times, was very sensitive to diversity. “We all think we got there on merit. I like to think we did, but nonetheless, on balance, a disproportionate number of people like me got there on merit, if you see what I mean.”
We do. Perhaps white, middle-class, Oxbridge-educated men are genetically programmed to excel at journalism; perhaps they’ve benefited from a system that has pushed them up.
The broadcast world has certainly promoted diversity, though it seems better at placing people of colour in the public eye as presenters than finding them powerful roles behind the scenes. Newspapers also understand that it is time to encourage a wider range of journalists. Too many beneficiaries of parental financial support are simply strangers to the sort of communities on which they report.
For many years, media companies recruited from a broad social spectrum. The job requirements were captured by the Sunday Times journalist Nick Tomalin in that sentence reporters love to quote: “The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability.”
Quick learners climbed, whether they started as graduates or copy boys (there being not much interest in copy girls at the time). Privileged graduates were earmarked as future leader writers, bright youngsters with an O-level in English came in with an invaluable knowledge of their districts. That social diversity fed into radio and television, which tended to recruit from print. Over recent generations that has changed, first as newspaper groups realised that they could have their pick of graduates and imagined that a degree would make them smarter, then as higher education expanded. School leavers with A-levels who might have gone for journalism began to look to university instead. An industry that takes pride in being a trade recruited as if it were a profession.
We saw the result in a survey on employment by the National Council for the Training of Journalists published earlier this year. It reported that some 89 per cent of those in journalism had a degree or its equivalent, compared with 48 per cent in the UK workforce. Three quarters of journalists had a parent in one of the three highest occupational groups, compared with 45 per cent for all UK workers. Around 12 per cent had a parent in a skilled trade, compared with 22 per cent for all workers. Ninety-two per cent of journalists came from white ethnic groups, compared with 88 per cent across all working groups.
The industry is seeking to address the imbalance, not least through apprenticeship schemes that bring back school-leavers. In an initiative led by regional newspaper group Newsquest, employers, including the BBC, seek figures with energy and drive, eager to include those from backgrounds where journalism might never have seemed an option. In the words of the BBC, which demands only GCSE maths and English from school-leavers: “The top things for us are natural inquisitiveness, storytelling ability, originality and creativity.” Elsewhere, prompted by initial donations from NLA Media Access, the publisher-owned rights group, companies are giving to the Journalism Diversity Fund, a bursary scheme designed to support those who would otherwise find it hard to pay for training courses. Initial embarrassment at interviewing to ascertain need has given way to satisfaction at attracting candidates who would not otherwise have been able to afford journalism.
It is wise to focus on diversity rather than on ethnic minorities. How do you reconcile the backgrounds of a privately educated Nigerian and an applicant of Caribbean heritage from a council estate? What does the third generation Indian from a professional family have in common with the recently arrived Bangladeshi? The categorisation BAME – black, Asian and minority ethnic – has been unhelpful in seeking to make a single group out of people who may otherwise share only the characteristic of not being white.
It will take time for the faces in journalism to change, but recruiters have been impressed by the talent they have already uncovered. Middleclass young people will still get many, but not all of the good jobs. And they might just have to work a little harder to do so.